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When I read this book aged seventeen I made little of Herzog except to ask, doodling on the flyleaf, if he was ‘precursor to Woody Allen?’ Re-reading eighteen years later, I find Herzog unbearably moving, enraging in his misogyny, endearing in his helplessness, vibrating as ambiguously as someone alive rather than imagined, his internal monologue as chaotically powerful as Pound or Lowell – and yes, a little like Woody Allen, served very black, no sugar.

Moses Herzog is perpetually on the point of psychic collapse, his life disintegrating in slow-motion while he maunders on, hyper-intelligent, profoundly Jewish, and vastly absorbing in his melancholy, his tragi-comic kvetching. The novel starts and finishes in the same place, treading a circle around the hell that is divorce. The gloom spurs the comedy on; the two are antagonistic, inseparable, mutually sharpening. Herzog’s self-pity is virtuosic, his self-hatred is heroic, and his scholarship has made him stupid. He has the ability to mess up any simple situation – most memorably a day out with his baby daughter, which ends with his application for police bail. Even a quick glance at himself in his girlfriend’s bathroom mirror gives rise to this Ecce Homo: ‘Ruin comes to beauty, inevitably. The space-time continuum reclaims its elements, taking you away bit by bit, and then again comes the void.’ Just another trip to the john for Moses Herzog.

The novel is inextricable from its main character: Herzog is Herzog as Hamlet is Hamlet. The title has a princely resonance. Herzog means Duke in German (an honorific which, incidentally, the filmmaker Werner Herzog, born Werner Stipetic, chose as his surname because he ‘thought there should be someone like Count Basie or Duke Ellington making films’). The name conjures a sense of fiefdom – the kingdom of the main character’s mind – as well as another bone-dry irony, because unfortunate, unhappy Herzog is so proudly named.

In Ulysses, Joyce alternates between third person omniscient and interior monologue, a combination that establishes a consciousness at once larger and deeper than the hero’s waking mind. The narrative in Herzog is in the third person, frequently focalised for Herzog – a variant on the staple Joycean method. (Joyce, of course, has many additional modes.) The deliberate self-presentation of the first person would be too knowing, too constricting. Everything is inflected with Herzog’s vision from the ‘troubled, dire green’ of a doctor’s waiting room walls to ‘clumsy, stinking, tender Chicago’.

Like Timofey Pnin, or Willy Loman, Moses E Herzog is created in three moral dimensions. He is kind, pure of heart, sympathetic. He is shambolic, egotistical, pathetic. These two dimensions – good and bad – are completed by a third. He is forgiven, continually forgiven by the author, morally and even aesthetically: ‘his elegance never deserted him, even when he scratched.’ His consciousness is given the privilege of minute detail, the competing allusions, memories and sensations that flicker across his mind, retrieved in rich samples over a period of a few weeks.

This is a phenomenological novel, and this is its wonder and its limitation. The book inhabits Herzog so profoundly it cannot slip into any other soul at the same time. The women in this book would be, were it not for their gifted execution, appalling caricatures. They are functions of Herzog’s need, oppositional ciphers whose experience outside his mind is nil. Of the two main women in the book, one is a bitch and the other a comfort blanket; Sono, a Japanese woman who is his third, more casual amour, is treated by Herzog with the detached curiosity of a sex tourist. Only Herzog is infinitely nuanced and thoroughly human.

Take the suppleness of the writing when applied to Herzog giving a lecture, on page 2: ‘His white face showed everything – everything. He was reasoning, arguing, he was suffering, he had thought of a brilliant alternative – he was wide-open, he was narrow…’. Then on page 5 his ex-wife Madeleine enters, to be given one hollow sentence: ‘Madeleine… had great charm and beauty of person also, and a brilliant mind.’ The tone has changed from slippery and live to dull and cardboard. The compliments are meant to ring false, of course, because Madeleine, as we soon discover, is a ‘plotting bitch’, a ‘fake’ and a ‘psychopath’. She is extravagant, wasteful, greedy, scoffing Hersheys secretly in pregnancy, with a broadening behind, unclean in her personal habits (‘so proud but not well wiped’) – she is subjected, in other words, to the lowest insults of misogyny. She is permitted nothing, no scrap of dignity or sympathy, while Herzog is given everything. Madeleine Pontritter is a hate-filled portrayal, which brings the novel a bitchy, enjoyable energy, a bolt of pure colour down the centre of the canvas which serves to increase the muted complexity of Herzog’s shimmering pathos.

How different to the infinite sympathies of Richard Yates, which extend equally to man and wife in Revolutionary Road (1962), making the whole so much more emotionally mature. Revolutionary Road is a witness to the battle of the sexes, while Herzog is a bloody, barbed missile. Revolutionary Road is photo-realist, while Herzog is satirical, Nabokovian, exquisitely overdone. Does Bellow even understand the sexism of his own creation? Of course he does. In repeated swift jabbing movements – buried in the text to be truffled by the reader who cannot bear for such talent as Bellow’s not to have a moral authority too – Bellow prods Herzog for his lack of respect, his lordly expectations. Madeleine, also an academic, did not care for him domestically: ‘…he couldn’t stand the disorder and loneliness of bachelorhood. He likes clean shirts, ironed handkerchiefs, heels on his shoes, all the things Madeleine despised.’ Later, Bellow ribs Herzog – oh he definitely, most certainly is ribbing Herzog, isn’t he? – when he has Herzog bridle against his girlfriend Ramona’s ‘lectures’. ‘Moses shut his eyes and raised his eyebrows. Here we go.’ Ramona is permitted all of five sentences – this in a book which is logorrhoeic, torrents of ideas falling like asteroids across the page – when she is muted by: ‘Please, Ramona, Moses wanted to say – you’re lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch – everything. But these lectures! For the love of God, Ramona, shut it up.’

Perhaps it is the sense of a shared joke between the male writer and the male reader that means I cannot love this book no matter how I enjoy it. The women are sources of danger or succour; it is the male characters whose foibles are fondly mocked. ‘The perfume of her shoulders reached his nostrils. And, as almost always, he heard the deep, the cosmic, the idiotic masculine response – quack. The progenitive, lustful quacking in the depths. Quack. Quack.’

That the basso profundo of male sexuality sounds like a duck is among the book’s broadest concessions to comedy. (That and the unforgettable Valentine Gersbach, the faithless friend who seduces Madeleine and moves on his wooden leg ‘like a Gondolier’. ‘He had a thick face and heavy jaws; Moses thought he somewhat resembled Putzi Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s own pianist.’) The quack of male desire is the inanity that drives this hellish cycle of marriage and divorce which Herzog endures (and Bellow too: in total five times married). Ramona has no toxic aspect to her character, because she has not yet become a wife. The novel is a deep tunnel into a primitive part of the male point of view – an airless place to be trapped for 341 pages – were it not for the light, zingy, free-associative intellectualism that constantly plays like a badminton game about the reader’s ears.

‘Dear Herr Nietzsche,’ writes Herzog, utterly cracked and eating out of cans in his crumbling country estate: ‘You speak of the power of the Dionysian spirit…’ Nietzsche, Valéry, Kierkegaard, Pope, Dryden – their orts and fragments are sprinkled across the text, half-profound, half-idiotic, maddening straws of meaning that Herzog grasps at. He is partly a sage, partly a crackpot, reading 10-cent Enlightenment poetry in his tumbledown grasshopper-infested lavatory: ‘I am His Highness’ dog at Kew/ Pray tell me Sir, whose dog are you?’ Herzog’s brain is an echo chamber in which Bellow’s exceptional ear performs, his chosen epigrams resonant as bells. The prose gains musicality – nears music – as it reaches beyond sense.

The jagged beauty of Bellow’s prose has been hymned before. It redeems everything. The ideas and attitudes in the book are inert, hidebound, and dusty. To think about it is depressing. But to read it is to be drawn along on a cross-current of verbal dynamism as pleasurable as it is just. There is not a duff sequence of sentences in the whole book. There is one repeat: ‘soft throat’ applied to two different paramours which could have done with a cut (the phrase, not the throat). The mad mosaic of reference and exclamation (‘I fell in love with the Atlantic. O the great reticulated, mountain-bottomed sea!’) reminded me of Robert Lowell – Herzog, waking in the blue in his mouldy patrician home in the Berkshires, afflicted by voices, riven by women.

There are hints that Herzog is going to succumb like Humbert Humbert to heart disease, or more likely kill himself, but the comic happy ending of romantic resolution is also kept dangling before us, as Herzog writes notes to Nietzsche on The Birth of Tragedy. ‘You speak of the power of the Dionysian spirit to see the Terrible, the Questionable… to witness Decomposition, Hideousness, Evil… All this the Dionysian spirit can do because it has the same power of recovery as Nature itself.’ Picking flowers in the long grass of his country estate is where we leave Herzog, poised between two equally possible outcomes – suicide and Dionysian self-regeneration, both as real as Schrodinger’s cat is both dead and alive. It is impossible to know which fate befalls him, an ambiguity which is, incidentally, a technique used in the finale of Mad Men, in which Don Draper’s zenith and suicide were artfully simultaneously implied. In the hands of a lesser writer than Bellow such a non-committal outcome would leave the reader frustrated or becalmed, but here it is invigorating, transcendent.

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