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.

Quotable

At the end of three days, moving southward, you come upon Anastasia, a city with concentric canals watering it and kites flying over it. I should now list the wares that can profitably be bought here: agate, onyx, chrysoprase, and other varieties of chalcedony; I should praise the flesh of the golden pheasant cooked here over fires of seasoned cherry wood and sprinkled with much sweet marjoram; and tell of the women I have seen bathing in the pool of a garden and who sometimes – it is said – invite the stranger to disrobe with them and chase them in the water. But with all this, I would not be telling you the city’s true essence; for while the description of Anastasia awakens desires one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you. The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content. Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave. — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

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