Thursday, June 02, 2005

Dear Mr. Bellow

I admired your novel, Herzog, very much, but I'm not sure I understand it. One thing that puzzles me is the narrative voice. For the most part, we are presented with seamless transitions from omniscient narrator to free indirect discourse: familiar enough. But there are occasional and disorienting leaps into first-person confessional, a direct address to the reader than invites comparison with Herzog's letters to people living and dead. It's almost as if Herzog is the narrator throughout, struggling to conceive himself in the third person, but unable to maintain the pretence. Is that a crazy view?

It fits with my sense of Herzog's project within the novel, one of self-detachment or self-observation through intellect: becoming an object to himself. Or solving the puzzle of life through pure thought. Perhaps I shouldn't quote them to you, since you wrote them, but here are two passages I like very much:

He noted with distate his own trick of appealing for sympathy. A personality had its own ways. A mind might observe them without approval. Herzog did not care for his own personality, and at the moment there was apparently nothing he could do about its impulses.

See, Moses? We don't know one another. Even that Gersbach, call him any name you like, charlatan, psychopath, with his hot phony eyes and his clumsy cheeks, with the folds. He was unknowable. And I myself, the same. But hard ruthless action taken against a man is the assertion by evildoers that he is fully knowable. They put me down, ergo they claimed final knowledge of Herzog. They knew me.

The second of these is a moment of unclassifiable self-address, and a repudiation of the novel, which gives the brilliant illusion that we, too, know Herzog – and must be his enemies because of it.

What I did not follow was the ending of the book. Moses stops writing letters, tamps the flow of fake communication.
At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.
My question is: how are we supposed to feel about this?


Anonymous Nishi said...

Hi Kieran,

I just tried reading Herzog for the second time, and only made it to about page 80 before giving up in exasperation. Maybe you could help me by telling me how you think a reader ought to approach this novel, given that it is so unconventional in so many ways.

It might help if I told you what I found so frustrating. I felt that Herzog, and all the people he meets who are 'intellectuals', talk a lot of rubbish. Instead of engaging in systematic thinking about the difficult questions that they raise, which I admit would be boring to read about in a novel, they engage in rather shallow (although deep-sounding) and obscure verbal banter (and lots of name-dropping, which I always find irritating)). Maybe the real problem was that I often found it very difficult to follow the train of thought that Herzog was running through, because the links between one thought and the next weren't apparent to me. If so, this may be a defect in me, the reader, rather than in the novel.

In any case, I didn't get the impression that this was meant to be some sort of parody. Rather, my impression was that Bellow wanted us to admire the intellects of these people, especially Herzog, even if we disliked many aspects of their personalities. This impression that the author wanted to us to admire Herzog's intellect was confirmed by reading both James Wood and Philip Roth's commentaries of the book.

8:21 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I didn't share your negative reaction to Herzog's reflections. I thought they were meant to be sincere but self-deceived. (The whole book is about self-knowledge.)

I agree with you that "parody" is not the right word, but Herzog is certainly a comic figure. His thoughts are funny in part because they are the attempts of a certain kind of pretentious intellectual to deal with his emotional life. Even if you are right (as I think you are) that we are meant to admire Herzog's intellect, I am not sure we are meant to admire – at least, not without great qualification – the use to which he puts it.

This might be part of an answer to the question with which I end my post. On one reading, Herzog's achievement is precisely to stop attempting to understand himself through the kind of conversations (real and imagined) that irritate you.

I would find it hard, though, to defend my enjoyment of the novel by your standards, since I am entertained by bullshit pseudo-intellectualism – so long as it is kept in its proper place.

8:38 AM  

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