Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Herzog by Saul Bellow

This one was an interesting journey. I’ve read some Bellow before, and seemed to have kind of a mixed reaction to him. Henderson the Rain King was memorable, but neither Dangling Man or The Adventures of Augie March were. Looking back on Herzog, I think it’s going to wind up in the same category as Catch-22. I wasn’t sure I was enjoying it while I was reading it, but now that it’s done I sure am glad I read it. And I sure dog-eared enough of the pages. It started with stumbling across passages like this one:

Not everyone threatened with a crackup can manage to go to Europe for relief. Most people have to keep on working; they report daily, they still ride the subway. Or else they drink, they go to the movies and sit there suffering.

And this one:

He saw twenty paces away the white soft face and independent look of a woman in a shining black straw hat which held her head in depth and eyes that even in the signal-dotted obscurity reached him with a force she could never be aware of. Those eyes might be blue, perhaps green, even gray—he would never know. But they were bitch eyes, that was certain. They expressed a sort of female arrogance which had an immediate sexual power over him; he experienced it again that very moment—a round face, the clear gaze of pale bitch eyes, a pair of proud legs.

And I think to myself, this guy has been inside my head. These are thoughts I’ve had myself, and here they are printed in this forty-year old book. So I keep reading, suddenly interested in this guy Herzog, this guy whose thoughts are revealed in scribbled letters to people, living and dead. What does Herzog think of Nietzsche’s theories of God and man? We don’t have to ask because Herzog writes Nietzsche a letter explaining his thoughts in great detail. And what about the way his ex-wife played him for a patsy, or the way his psychiatrist seemed to be in on the deal. Same answers there, letters to both of them that never get sent.

But we mustn’t forget how quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of the intellectuals. The canned sauerkraut of Spengler’s “Prussian Socialism,” the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness.

This in a letter to one of his fellow professors, and the following in a letter to the Monsignor who had helped shepherd his ex-wife towards Catholicism:

One way or another the no doubt mad idea entered my mind that my own actions had historic importance, and this (fantasy?) made it appear that people who harmed me were interfering with an important experiment.

It’s an interesting device, putting the narrative very close to Herzog’s inner voice, so close that the slips from the narrator’s third person to Herzog’s first person are sometimes jarring, sometimes unnoticed. It was also interesting to see Herzog’s backstory unfold through a series of interactions and letters with other characters in the story—his new love interest, the woman he cheated on his first wife with, the man and best friend with whom his second wife cheated on him. In fact, the book is mostly backstory, character development and philosophical rambling until about two-thirds through when the plot actually begins.

And shortly after the plot does begin, Herzog finds himself a spectator in a courtroom where the following trial is going on.

A young couple, a woman and the man she had been living with in a slum hotel, uptown, were being tried for the murder of her son, a child of three. She had had the boy by another man who deserted her, said the lawyer in his presentation. Herzog observed how gray and elderly all these lawyers were, people of another generation and a different circle of life—tolerant, comfortable people. The defendants could be identified by their looks and clothing. The man wore a stained and frayed zipper jacket and she, a redheaded woman, with a wide ruddy face, had on a brown print house dress. Both sat stolid, to all appearances unmoved by the testimony, he with his low sideburns and blond mustache, she with blunt freckled cheekbones and long, hidden eyes.

I’m going to quote this passage at length, because I find it fascinating on multiple levels, and also because I think it has a lot to say about what Herzog the novel is all about. This section is mentioned kind of in passing in some of the critical reviews of the novel that I’ve read, which probably means that I’m off base, but I think it is significant.

She came from Trenton, born lame. Her father was a garage mechanic. She had a fourth-grade education, I.Q. 94. An older brother was the favorite; she was neglected. Unattractive, sullen, clumsy, wearing an orthopedic boot, she became delinquent at an early age. Her record was before the court, the lawyer went on, even, mild and pleasant. An angry uncontrollable girl, from first grade. There were affidavits from teachers. There were also medical and psychiatric records, and a neurological report to which the lawyer particularly wished to call the court’s attention. This showed his client had been diagnosed by encephalogram as having a brain lesion capable of altering her behavior radically. She was known to have violent epileptoid fits of rage; her tolerance for emotions controlled from the affected lobe was known to be very low. Because she was a poor crippled creature, she had often been molested, later sexually abused by adolescent boys. Indeed, her file in children’s court was very thick. Her mother loathed her, had refused to attend the trial, was quoted as saying, “This is no kid of mine. We wash our hands of her.” The defendant was made pregnant at nineteen by a married man who lived with her several months, then went back to his wife and family. She refused to give the child for adoption, lived for a while in Trenton with it, and then moved to Flushing, where she met the other defendant, at the time employed as porter in a lunchroom on Columbus Avenue, and decided to live with him at the Montcalme Hotel on 103rd street—Herzog had often passed the place. You could smell the misery of it from the street; its black stink flowed out through open windows—bedding, garbage, disinfectant, roach killer. His mouth was dry and he sat forward, straining to her.

This is an unpleasant story, start to finish. But who is to blame? Interesting that the scene is a court of law, where such concepts like liability and justice are supposed to have meaning. And notice how Herzog is consumed by the story, when everyone else, even the defendants, seem unaffected.

The medical examiner was on the stand. Had he seen the dead child? Yes. Did he have a report to make? He did. He gave the date and circumstances of the examination. A hefty, bald, solemn man with fleshy and deliberate lips, he held his notes in both hands like a singer—the experienced, professional witness. The child, he said, was normally formed but seemed to have suffered from malnutrition. There were signs of incipient rickets, the teeth were already quite carious, but this was sometimes a symptom that the mother had had toxemia in pregnancy. Were any unusual marks visible on the child’s body? Yes, the little boy had apparently been beaten. Once, or repeatedly? In his opinion, often beaten. The scalp was torn. There were unusually heavy bruises on the back and legs. The shins were discolored. Where were the bruises heaviest? On the belly, and especially in the region of the genitals, where the boy seemed to have been beaten with something capable of breaking the skin, perhaps a metal buckle or the heel of a woman’s shoe. “And what internal findings did you make?” the prosecutor went on. There were two broken ribs, one an older break. The more recent one had done some damage to the lung. The boy’s liver had been ruptured. The hemorrhage caused by this may have been the immediate cause of death. There was also a brain injury. “In your opinion, then, the child died violently?” “This is my opinion. The liver injury would have been enough.”

All this seemed to Herzog exceptionally low-pitched. All—the lawyers, the jury, the mother, her tough friend, the judge—behaved with much restraint, extremely well controlled and quiet-spoken. Such calm—inversely proportionate to the murder? he was thinking. Judge, jury, lawyers and the accused, all looked utterly unemotional. And he himself? He sat in his new madras coast and held his hard straw hat. He gripped his hat strongly and felt sick at heart. The ragged edge of the straw made marks on his fingers.

Why does this speak to me so? Because I’m a father with a three-year old child? That’s certainly part of it, but I think I would see the horror in this simple tale even if I wasn’t. Like Herzog, I’m on the edge of my seat, dreading to hear any more. And it is simple, the story, simple in its construction and simple in its telling. Having the abbreviated facts revealed in the style of a court drama is an effective way to pack a lot of information into a relatively few words. It’s also a good way to accentuate the things that are missing—the passions, emotions and frustrations of the lives being described. They are, of course, the real story here, the complicated side of this simple recitation of facts—and they are, of course, ultimately more difficult to write about.

A witness was sworn, a solid-looking man of thirty-five or so, in a stylish oxford gray summer suit, of Madison Avenue cut. His face was round, full, jowly, but his head had little height above the ears and was further flattened by his butch haircut. He made very good gestures, pulling up his trouser legs as he sat, freeing his shirt cuffs and leaning forward to answer questions with measured, earnest, masculine politeness. His eyes were dark. You could see his scalp furrow as he frowned, weighing his answers. He identified himself as a salesman in the storm-window business, screens and storm windows. Herzog knew what he meant—aluminum sashes with triple tracks: he had read the ads. The witness lived in Flushing. Did he know the accused woman? She was asked to stand, and she did, a short hobbling figure, dark-red hair frizzy, the long eyes recessed, skin freckled, lips thick and dun-colored. Yes, he knew her, she had lived in his house eight months ago, not exactly employed by him, no, she was a distant cousin of his wife, who felt sorry for her and gave her a room—he had built a small apartment in the attic; separate bathroom, air-conditioner. She was asked to help with housework, naturally, but she also took off and left the boy for days at a time. Did he ever know her to mistreat the child? The kid was never clean. You never wanted to hold him on your lap. He had a cold sore, and his wife at last put salve on it, as the mother would not. The child was quiet, undemanding, clung to its mother, a frightened little boy, and he had a bad smell. Could the witness further describe the mother’s attitude? Well, on the road, they were driving to visit the grandmother and stopped at Howard Johnson’s. Everyone ordered. She had a barbecued beef sandwich and when it came began to eat and fed the child nothing. Then he himself (indignant) gave the boy some of his meat and gravy.

I fail to understand! thought Herzog, as this good man, jowls silently moving, got off the stand. I fail to…but this is the difficulty with people who spend their lives in humane studies and therefore imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended. Of course he really knew better—understood that human beings would not live so as to be understood by the Herzogs. Why should they?

And there it is. Human beings would not live so as to be understood by the Herzogs. That’s the essence of writing, isn’t it? That last, uncrossable chasm between fiction and reality. Obscure it as much as you like with your scintillating prose, there are certain things about real life that you will never be able to portray accurately in your fiction, because they are not the kind of things you will ever be able to understand.

But he had not time to think of this. The next witness was already sworn, the clerk at the Montcalme; a bachelor in his fifties; slack lips, large creases, damaged cheeks, hair that looked touched up, voice deep and melancholy, with a sinking rhythm to every sentence. The sentences sank down, down, until the last words were lost in rumbling syllables. An alcoholic once, judged Herzog from the look of his skin, and there was a certain faggotty prissiness in his speech, too. He said he had kept and eye on this “unfortunate pair.” They rented a housekeeping room. The woman drew Relief money. The man had no occupation. The police came a few times to ask about him. And the boy, could he tell the court anything about him? Mostly that the child cried a lot. Tenants complained, and when he investigated he found the kid was kept shut in a closet. For discipline, was what the defendant told him. But towards the end the boy cried less. On the day of his death, however, there was a lot of noise. He heard something falling, and shrieks from the third floor. Both the mother and the boy were screaming. Someone was fooling with the elevator, so he ran upstairs. Knocked at the door, but she was screaming too loud to hear. So he opened and stepped in. Would he tell the court what he saw? He saw the woman with the boy in her arms. He thought she was hugging him, but to his astonishment she threw him from her with both arms. He was hurled against the wall. This made the noise he had been hearing below. Was anyone else present? Yes, the other defendant was lying on the bed, smoking. And was the child now screaming? No, at this time he was lying silently on the floor. Did the clerk then speak? He said he was frightened by the look of the woman, her swollen face. She turned red, crimson, and screamed with all her might, and she stamped her foot, the one with the built-up heel, he noticed, and he was afraid she would go for his eyes with her nails. He then went to call the police. Soon the man came downstairs. He explained that her boy was a problem child. She could not toilet-train him. He drove her wild sometimes the way he dirtied himself. And the crying all night! So they were talking when the squad car came. And found the child dead? Yes, he was dead when they arrived.

“Cross-examination?” said the bench. The defense lawyer waived examination with a movement of long white fingers, and the judge said, “You may step down. That will be all.”

When the witness stood, Herzog stood up, too. He had to move, had to go. Again he wondered whether he was going to come down with sickness. Or was it the terror of the child that had gotten into him? Anyway, he felt stifled, as if the valves of is heart were not closing and the blood were going back into his lungs. He walked heavily and quickly. Turning once in the aisle, he saw only the lean gray head of the judge, whose lips silently moved as he read one of his documents.

Or was it the terror of the child that had gotten into him? Can you imagine the terror that child must have felt? Can I? Can Herzog? Can anyone? He was three, raised from infancy by a mentally retarded woman, and kept in a closet. What kind of world is it in which the person you feel the most instinctual love for—your mother—is also the person that most represents fear, terror, shame and pain? What could he understand at three? What could he understand but what Bellow will soon describe as the monstrousness of life, and understand it better than any author ever could. And in spite of all that, he is not real. He is a fictional character in a quickly sketched anecdote.

Reaching the corridor, he said to himself, “Oh my God!” and in trying to speak discovered an acrid fluid in his mouth that had to be swallowed. Then stepping away from the door he stumbled into a woman with a cane. Black-browed, her hair very black though she was middle-aged, she pointed downward with the cane, instead of speaking. He saw that she wore a cast with metal clogs on the foot and that her toenails were painted. Then getting down the loathsome taste, he said, “I’m sorry.” He had a sick repulsive headache, piercing and ugly. He felt as if he had gotten too close to a fire and scalded his lungs. She did not speak at all but was not ready to let him off. Her eyes, prominent, severe, still kept him standing, identifying him thoroughly, fully, deeply, as a fool. Again—silently—Thou fool! In the red-striped jacket, the hat tucked under his arm, hair uncombed, eyes swollen, he waited for her to go. When she left at last, going, cane, cast, clogs, down the speckled corridor, he concentrated. With all his might—mind and heart—he tried to obtain something for the murdered child. But what? How? He pressed himself with intensity, but “all his might” could get nothing for the buried boy. Herzog experienced nothing but his own human feelings, in which he found nothing of use. What if he felt moved to cry? Or pray? He pressed hand to hand. And what did he feel? Why he felt himself—his own trembling hands, and eyes that stung. And what was there in modern, post…post-Christian America to pray for? Justice—justice and mercy? And pray away the monstrousness of life, the wicked dream it was? He opened his mouth to relieve the pressure he felt. He was wrung, and wrung again, and wrung again, again.

The child screamed, clung, but with both arms the girl hurled it against the wall. On her legs was ruddy hair. And her lover, too, with long jaws and zooty sideburns, watching on the bed. Lying down to copulate, and standing up to kill. Some kill, then cry. Others, not even that.

I think Bellow packed a lot into this little tale to help him illustrate that kind of world he saw and the difficulty he had as an intellectual in dealing with it in his fiction. Herzog is tormented by the existentialism of life, the need to derive meaning from one’s own circumstances and on one’s own terms. He struggles mightily with this, and is intimidated by the ease with which others seem to master themselves and their surroundings.

A man may say, ‘From now on I’m going to speak the truth.’ But the truth hears him and runs away and hides before he’s even done speaking. There is something funny about the human condition, and civilized intelligence makes fun of its own ideas.

“A man” is, of course, Herzog, who wants there to be absolute truth in the universe but is becoming more and more convinced that there isn’t.

It all goes back to those German existentialists who tell you how good dread is for you, how it saves you from distraction and gives you your freedom and makes you authentic. God is no more. But Death is. That’s their story. And we live in a hedonistic world in which happiness is set up on a mechanical model. All you have to do is open your fly and grasp happiness. And so these other theorists introduce the tension of guilt and dread as a corrective. But human life is far subtler than any of its models, even these ingenious German models. Do we need to study theories of fear and anguish?

In the world Bellow describes in his courtroom story, theories of fear and anguish are superfluous. With such horror in the world, why is anyone postulating on its intrinsic meaning? And this final thought from very late in the book, about the pursuit of absolute truth and its role in shaping our society.

In the seventeenth century the passionate search for absolute truth stopped so that mankind might transform the world. Something practical was done with thought. The mental became also the real. Relief from the pursuit of absolutes made life pleasant. Only a small class of fanatical intellectuals, professionals, still chased after these absolutes. But our revolutions, including nuclear terror, return the metaphysical dimension to us. All practical activity has reached this culmination: everything may go now, civilization, history, meaning, nature. Everything!