Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Reading Herzog

Buried under a pile of graduate student drudgery as I am, I am still reading and ticking off Nobel Literature laureates. This week, I'm reading Saul Bellow's Herzog.

Herzog is a professor who is so afflicted by the cruelties of his ex-wife that he is reduced to a semi-sane state, wherein he stops in the middle of his lectures of scribble down snippets of letters. These letters - to various people from various points in his life and also to politicians and other stranger - are a kind exorcism of the things bottled up in Herzog. But everything is so abstracted; Herzog can only talk of his life problems in philosophical settings.

Usually, the act of writing unsent letters should be cathartic and, ultimately, healing. It's like journaling - a way to shake off depression and repression. In Herzog, however, I think this letter-writing is not some optimistic sign, but the exact opposite. The aspect of the letters that Herzog writes which is brought out in the book is not that the letters unburden Herzog in any way (which they don't) but, instead, that they are letters to no one. These letters and scribblings contribute to the isolation of Herzog as opposed to alleviating it.

These books by these Nobel Literature laureates - they're never about people who, through some arduous process, can retreat back to the human norm, settle down and become an ordinary Joe Schmoe. Nope, the main characters in these books are all characters who have gone too far down some path of their own to come back to any form of mainstream happiness. The Buendias in One Hundred Years of Solitude live in their solitude - the worst kind of solitude; solitude amongst fellow human beings - until there is no chance of any of them integrating back into society. In The Piano Teacher, Erika is isolated in her own world, which she shares with no one. Kien was so buried in his library that he could not understand the meaning of people outside his sanctuary of books, leading to his ultimate destruction. Herzog, too, is insular, sharing in this kind of insularity amongst people.

Some of his snippets are intriguing, though. Here are a few quotes from Herzog's:

"Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead."

"Will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood."

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