Thursday, May 21, 2009

Herzog: Great Book, or Horror Show? You Tell Me


Every weekday, I listen to NPR news. I'm especially fond of a segment called "You Must Read This". It's basically writers recommending works by other writers.

And everybody knows nobody knows good writing like other writers.

This week, Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, talked about how when he gets into a funk, he'll open Saul Bellow's Herzog to a page, any page. Start to read. And immediately, the blues just lift away like dew under a noonday sun.

Funny. I read Herzog and a passionate fury takes hold of me.

A synopsis: Herzog tells the story of a man named Herzog. The well-built son of Jewish immigrants, young Herzog gets his PhD and a bit of fame in academic circles. He marries. Gets divorced. Remarries. His new wife kicks him out. She's having an affair with his one-legged best friend.

He moves out to the Berkshires and begins writing letters. To newspapers. To fellow academics. To the dead.

He just writes. He doesn't send the letters.

He has a few lady friends, but there are some issues there. He tries to make amends with his ex-wife, but there's no making amends. She hates him. He goes to a therapist with her, and the therapist makes it seem as if everything is his fault. His divorce lawyer agrees with his wife and his therapist. His former best friend is laid back to a fault, attempting to remain Herzog's friend while he's fucking his wife and bathing his daughter. The best friend's ex-wife blames her situation on Herzog and verbally tears him to pieces.

Long story short, Herzog takes a gun from a relative's house and has some wild plan to kill his wife and her lover, then kidnap his daughter and make a run for it. Then, he can't go through with murder. So, he picks up his daughter....

And gets into an accident. The cops find the gun in the car. News of the gun gets to his ex-wife.

Uh oh.

Some analysts refer to Herzog as the first truly Jewish character in modern literature, but I don't see it. Then again, I'm not Jewish. But if I'm going for Jewish, I'll read Philip Roth. He's got being Jewish down to a science. Or at least I think he does.

My main gripe with Herzog, as a character and tale, is that the entire time I'm reading it, I just want to reach into the story and slap the shit out of Herzog and Bellow. Herzog the man's basically a study of impotency, and Bellow breathed life into him.

Herzog's a gifted academic who writes letters he never sends. He's a decently built man who doesn't beat the living shit out of the one-legged ex-best friend who's fucking his wife. He's a consistent failure, and that just gets old after a hundred or so pages, never mind four hundred. The whole time, I was just begging him to snap at somebody. Tell his wife off. Tell the lawyer to go fuck himself. Rip off his friend's prosthesis and beat the fuck out of him with it.

Point: If you want to read Herzog without reading it, read Bellow's Seize the Day. In my humble opinion, it tells the Herzog story without the length. At 120 or so pages, Bellow gets quickly to the point with Seize the Day. You get all the same impotency as Herzog. All that great Bellow style Eugenides goes on and on about. And the ending is far better. So there's my "You Must Read This".

1 comment:

chick.a.dee said...

if herzog was any kind of man he would have beaten the shit out of his best friend for fucking his wife, leg or no leg.

are you a Middlesex fan? i've read it five times and am obsessed with it.