Tuesday 20 May 2014

Book Review- Herzog by Saul Bellow

One of the Penguin classics, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, I don't think this book needs any of the routine introduction that I do for my other reviews. I picked up this book from the American Center Library in New Delhi and was enchanted by the sweetness of its melancholy. There is a hauntingly beautiful, tragic and comic, bittersweet tale of Herzog and then there are stories. This loser-by-choice has had a life full of events and due to his intellectual faculties, he is almost driven to the point of insanity. His friends and family are worried about him but there he is tumbling down the emotional alleys with his brain still intact, wearing it like a helmet as his ex-wife and her lover leave to stones unturned to humiliate him and mutilate his conscience. 

There is no big plot or narrative in the novel and it is written in a laid back style with emphasis mostly on Herzog's life and occasional plight. The inner dialogue and the letters that he writes to random people are the highlight of the book. The academic knowledge and the critical thinking mind of his have both perks and perils. His thought brings him to reality and helps him reflect critically on his own mental situation and gives him strength to battle it out but the same mind makes him vulnerable to snap judgement and comic insanity as he is able to deduce people's motives and intentions from their actions. 

The language is florid and yet simple. The descriptions are particularly vivid and the characters are brought out nicely. There is an intentional ambiguity in the book about the correctness of facts, I think. It lends flavour to the overall theme of the book which displays the world through the eyes of Moses Herzog. 

The characters of Madeleine and Ramona are the two other somewhat pivotal characters of the novel. Madeleine on one hand has been given the shape of the hole that lies in Herzog's heart yet, the tragedy is comic because she is not the only one who happens to have done so. He also has an army of people like his previous wife, his in-laws, his own psychiatrist and a host of other characters who fail to soothe his already ailing heart; Ramona on the other hand is the gooey, disorderly mush that Herzog is unsure can fill the hole in his heart. Our loser is not so unlucky and has his fair share of experiences with women of all sorts. One gets the feeling that Herzog has somehow grown an affinity towards the pathos. The novel is a road to self discovery and it helps one grow as a person. There are situations which are complex, subtle and the wordsmith has just chosen the right words for them. 

A perfect novel for a lazy Sunday afternoon, do not gulp it all down at once, enjoy it sip by sip.

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