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I Really Love Pancakes, But Pears Aren´t Usually Worth the Trouble, And That´s Why Saul Bellow Was a Great Writer

March 2, 2012 by Reader's Connection

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Pears are unfriendly and flavorless for much of their supermarket shelf life; and once they’re in my kitchen, they don´t often ripen in a meaningful way. One day they’re paperweights, the next day they’re fossils. Or squishballs. Why buy these things?

But pancakes . . . ah, pancakes. Just look at them.

 

 

istock_000014676770xsmallSaul Bellow deserved the Nobel Prize if only because he could pull my personal tastes inside out. In his short novel Seize the Day (1956) there’s a frightening character named Tamkin–a psychiatrist, supposedly, who’s full of dubious advice about the commodities market–and Tamkin eats a plate of pancakes in the hotel restaurant while leading Tommy, the protagonist, toward his financial demise. Photos like the ones here are the equivalent of pornography, reaching me at my most predictable level, whereas Bellow uses one of my favorite, most comforting food-forms to draw me into a claustrophobic chamber of doom.

 

And pears! In Herzog (1964), the novel about which I came here to rave, Moses Herzog is heading for Grand Central Station in New York, planning to ride a train to New England, and he remembers a childhood holiday train ride.

His parents were Russian immigrants who had come down a few class levels in Montreal. Even at bootlegging, his father Jonah wasn’t successful. But Jonah had bought a basketful of pears for that train ride, and when I read about them, decades ago, they had as strong a pull as Tamkin’s pancakes. Their pull was toward Herzog’s past and his feelings about his family–and beyond that toward a vision of the greater world that’s the opposite of claustrophobic.

The whole family took the streetcar to the Grand Trunk Station with a basket (frail, splintering wood) of pears, overripe, a bargain bought by Jonah Herzog at the Rachel Street Market, the fruit spotty, ready for wasps, just about to decay, but marvelously fragrant.

In the next paragraph, young Moses uses the bathroom on the train. Not as a result of eating the pears.

The train crossed the St. Lawrence. Moses pressed the pedal and through the stained funnel of the toilet he saw the river frothing. Then he stood at the window. The water shone and curved on great slabs of rock, spinning into foam at the Lachine Rapids, where it sucked and rumbled. On the other shore was Caughnawaga, where the Indians lived in shacks raised on stilts. Then came the burnt summer fields. The windows were open. The echo of the train came back from the straw like a voice through a beard. The engine sowed cinders and soot over the fiery flowers and the hairy knobs of weed.

But that was forty years behind him. Now the train was ribbed for speed, a segmented tube of brilliant steel. There were no pears . . .

On Rereading

No pears. Herzog is in his forties now, with two marriages behind him, not as sure as he had once been about his importance as a scholar, and a bit unsure as to where his home is. I thought there was great power (and sweetness and humor) in this evocation of his boyhood in Canada, before the family landed in Chicago and father Jonah found more profitable work and  the children grew up and went their ways.

I wasn’t alone in my feelings about those pears. Patricia Meyer Spacks, whose personal feelings about pears are unknown to me, cites the same passage in her book On Rereading. When I saw that someone else had been moved by that marvelously fragrant fruit, I thought This is so cosmic. That does it. It’s time to reread Herzog.

You may be wondering what happens in the novel, outside of two train rides. Not much. A couple of murders are contemplated, and there’s an arrest, but don’t get your hopes up. Moses Herzog is an emotionally displaced professor who wanders around for a few days (New York City, Martha’s Vineyard, Chicago, western Massachusetts) and spends a lot of time thinking about his past. His personal interchanges are generally messy, and he finds more fulfillment in the writing of letters–to loved ones and acquaintances, living and dead, and to Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson and bank robber Willie Sutton and all manner of people.

 

wiki_episWikipedia includes Herzog in its article on Epistolary Novels, but I think of those as consisting solely of letters between fictional characters, whereas the letters that Moses writes are interspersed with his life’s occurences in wonderful ways.

His old friend, zoologist Lucas Asphalter, for example, is the one who tells Herzog that his second wife, Madeleine, has been having an affair with his friend Valentine. But Asphalter is introduced to the reader by the letter that Herzog begins to write to him, having read in the newspaper of heroic measures that Asphalter has taken with a lab monkey.

What’s gotten into you? I often read “human interest” paragraphs but I never expect them to be about my friends. You can imagine how it shook me to see your name in the Post. Have you gone crazy? I know you adored that monkey of yours, and I’m sorry he’s dead. But you should have known better than to revive him by mouth-to-mouth respiration. Especially since Rocco died of TB and must have been jumping with bugs.

Odd as it may sound, this letter helps to set the scene for an adultery-revelation that is gripping but comical.

You may have heard that there are no sympathetic female characters in Herzog, or anywhere else in Bellow’s fiction. I disagree. Herzog’s current girl friend Ramona, and his stepmother and his ex-mother-in-law, are all sympathetic. Readers just have to deal with the fact that these women, and the whole universe, are being siphoned to us through the consciousness of Moses Herzog; and the guy is a mess.

You may grate your teeth when he goes on about women’s thighs and blemishes and whatnot, but here’s his description of an old teacher that he likes:

Yes, tiny, nervous Pulver with his timid, whole-souled blue eyes, his crumbled teeth, the profile of Gizeh’s mummy as pictured in Robinson’s Ancient History, the taut skin hectically spotted with high color. Herzog loved this man in his own immoderate, heart-flooded way.

 

The world and its people are a vision that Herzog witnesses compulsively, and the big ideas in his letters have their place in a densely described physical world–I should say his physical world. When you sit down with this novel, it’s like sitting down at a 3D movie and putting on your special glasses. But your glasses here are Herzog’s eyes.

And he sees his own strangeness, understands some of the limits of his perceptions. Here he is in his New York City apartment, prepping for a date with the lovely Ramona. I can’t use my special 3D italics for this passage, because Herzog launches into one of his letters, and I’ll need italics for that.

One of the new poplin shirts was next. He removed all the pins. Then he put on the madras jacket. He bent down to see what he could see of the harbor through the small opening of the bathroom window. Nothing in particular. Only a sense of water bounding the overbuilt island. It was a movement of orientation he was making, like his glance at his watch which did not tell him the time. And next came his specific self, an apparition in the square mirror. How did he look? Oh, terrific–you look exquisite, Moses! Smashing! The primitive self-attachment of the human creature, the sweet instinct for the self, so deep,  so old it may have a cellular origin. As he breathed, he was aware of it, quiet but far-reaching, all through his system, a pleasing hunger in his remotest nerves. Dear Professor Haldane . . . No, that was not Herzog’s man at this moment. Dear Father Teilhard de Chardin, I have tried to understand your notion of the inward aspect of the elements. That sense organs, even rudimentary sense organs, could not evolve from molecules described by mechanists as inert. Thus matter itself should perhaps be studied as evolving consciousness . . . is the carbon molecule lined with thought?


Some questions may pop into your mind.
(1) Was this “intelligent design” in the early 1960′s?
(2) Doesn’t carbon come in atoms rather than molecules?
(3) In order to enjoy this novel, do you have to have thoroughly read de Chardin and Hegel and Kierkegaard and the others about whom Herzog muses and to whom he writes letters?
(4) Isn’t this blogpost getting kind of long?

Answers:
(1) Ask Moses. No, wait, don’t interrupt him. He has a hot date.
(2) Yes.
(3) No.
(4) Yes.

So just one more passage. In order to please his second wife Madeleine, Moses sinks a lot of money into a house in or near Ludeyville, a Bellow-engendered town in western Massachusetts. A guest comes calling, one day, and he and Madeleine converse and impress each other in a way that strikes Moses as pretentious. (I alone in the Western world feel that even Madeleine is sympathetic, but that’s another blogpost.)

The three of them are sitting outdoors. Madeleine and the guest jabber on, and Moses ponders. When I said earlier that he’s a compulsive witness, I was borrowing from this passage. May your life be full of pancakes or pears, and both if they are both to your taste. And may you witness some visions.

The lawn was on an elevation with a view of fields and woods. Formed like a large teardrop of green, it had a gray elm at its small point, and the bark of the huge tree, dying of dutch blight, was purplish gray. Scant leaves for such a vast growth. An oriole’s nest, in the shape of a gray heart, hung from twigs. God’s veil over things makes them all riddles. If they were not all so particular, detailed, and very rich I might have more rest from them. But I am a prisoner of perception, a compulsory witness. They are too exciting. Meantime I dwell in yon house of dull boards. Herzog was worried about that elm. Must he cut it down? He hated to do it. Meanwhile the cicadas all vibrated a coil in their bellies, a horny posterior band in a special chamber. Those billions of red eyes from the enclosing woods looked out, stared down, and the steep waves of sound drowned the summer afternoon. Herzog had seldom heard anything so beautiful as this massed continual harshness.

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