Reading Bellow in Hanoi

by aengelson | April 28th, 2010

Saul Bellow's 1964 novel, Herzog.

Now that I’m writing  fiction, I’ve been trying to catch up on some serious deficiencies in my reading knowledge. I hadn’t read Saul Bellow before, so I picked up his 1964 novel Herzog.

It’s a well-crafted book. Certainly, it’s dated, and the portraits of the middle-aged professor’s ex-wives are no more than crude sketches of difficult or weak women. But the overall effect is quite moving. The novel progresses forward in time only a little–not much happens. The title character, Moses Herzog, is a somewhat naive English professor from Chicago who breaks away from his second wife, drifts aimlessly for a bit, reaches out to his young daughter, and then returns, after a series of absurd mishaps, to an abandoned summer house in Massachusetts. Though nothing much happens, the character of Moses comes to life in flashbacks and scores of un-mailed letters he  furiously write to anyone he can think of. Some are living and some not: adversarial colleagues, former president Eisenhower, a former friend who ran off with his second wife, his shrink, his lawyer, and Friederich Nietzsche among them.

Herzog is one of those wise fools–those who delight in the world of the mind, but are lost and flailing in the world of the body. He comes at a time–the early 1960s–when human roles were radically changing–women were gaining  more power, material stability was much easier to find than during the Depression (in which both Herzog and Bellow grew up) and psychology began to pervade how we think about our lives. Herzog is at some levels a romantic (in the older philosophical sense)–someone who still half-believes in the idea of “unrequited love” instead of the more modern description: “hysterical obsession.” He loves his daughter fiercely, but marvels at how her mother can be such a figure of loathing to himself. He’s a man caught between ages–both in his own life and in the world around him.

The Fool, from the Rider-Waite tarot deck.

It’s this concept of the wise fool that most fascinates me. Is all our knowledge, at some point, fairly useless in the conduct of our lives in the real world? I don’t necessarily think so, but a lot of it is. We accumulate knowledge–trivia, random facts, and even more weighty things like philosophy and poetry–but does it really help us in the end? Herzog’s studies of literature don’t provide him a whole lot of wisdom. He’ not completely crazy–unlike the deranged academic in Nabokov’s mock-epic Pale Fire. But he’s definitely reached a breaking point in mid-life.

Often, we’re like the Fool in the tarot deck, head in the clouds, about to unwittingly step off the cliff, with the dog of necessity nipping at our heels.

I couldn’t help thinking that if Herzog lived in the internet age, his fall would have come much more quickly–he’d have clicked “send” on those rambling e-mails–some we’d call “flames” in the current terminology. Or he’d have posted something he’d later regret on his Facebook or Twitter page. All the while struggling to keep his mouth shut–impossible of course, for this verbose, high-minded, passionate anachronism. In short, a human being.

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.


A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips, where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.
She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot hither and thither. The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; hither and thither, hither and thither; and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.
–Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.
He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling. On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.
Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!
He halted suddenly and heard his heart in the silence. How far had he walked? What hour was it?
— James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


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