There's a little thing I do when I can't write: When I'm feeling sleepy, when my head is in a fog, I reach across my desk, digging under the piles of unanswered mail, to unearth my copy of Herzog by Saul Bellow. And then I open the book — anywhere— and read a paragraph.
It always works. Right away I'm restored to full alertness and clarity. Style, in literature, has gone out of style. People think it's just ornament. But it's not: The work that goes into a writer's style, the choices that are taken, the cliches that are chucked, represent a refining of thought and feeling into their purest, most intelligent, most moral form.
Of course, there is a danger, with a great stylist, that the sentences will outclass what the sentences are about. Not with Bellow. Bellow gets the mix between form and content about as right as possible. His sentences pack maximum sensual, emotional and intellectual information into minimum space — all the while generating an involving, deeply moving story.
Published in 1964, Herzog is about a middle-aged college professor, in the midst of an emotional crisis, who begins writing letters: "He had fallen under a spell," Bellow writes, "and was writing letters to everyone under the sun. . . . Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead." The book zooms off from there. Herzog goes from New York, to Martha's Vineyard, to Chicago, to the Berkshires, penning his funny, serious, brilliant, self-lacerating, accusatory letters, each one acting like a new screen in a hypertext novel that opens an entirely different piece of his life: his immigrant childhood in Montreal; his indomitable ex-wife Madeleine; his numerous lady friends; his free-falling career, his pain at losing his daughter in divorce. Bellow, the supreme realist, discovered in Herzog a new form — the self-reflexive epistolary novel — without any of the obscurantism or self-preening of so-called "experimental" novels.
Herzog worried that his frantic letter-writing meant he was "out of [his] mind." But, in the last 45 years, his predicament has become universal. Herzog's life resembles the way we live now, where we're forever sending off e-mail and texts, fielding cell phone calls: where we're no longer any one place but everywhere — and nowhere — at once. Our life in shards, randomly returning.
The mark of a truly original work of art is that is gets truer the older it is.
The impulse here is to quote. Every single page of Herzog teems with jokes, apercus, deep-thinker riffs — little genius moves every other sentence. The impulse is to read the entire book out loud. But I've only got a minute here, time to make the pitch but not go nine innings.
So let me say this: If you're in the market for a safe neuro-enhancer, something to break you out of your foggy-headedness, a pill more powerful than Adderall or Provigil, with no side effects other than pleasure, then pick up Herzog and open it — anywhere — and read.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.