'Voice' on Literature

Reviews of the last 50 years

He was a man who had touched the sky and bounced back in wonder into all the sensuality and immediacy of the here and now. He interrupted his words with each other and cut his syntax across itself, but he did this not out of any pretense to intellectuality, which he suspected, but in an effort to capture the spontaneity of any living moment and to make that moment illimitable by being deeply, suddenly felt. He dropped his words down pages and manipulated his typography so that he might beat out, through this, the unique rhythm of experience that he wanted to share. He changed his verbs into nouns to give them substance and nouns into verbs to give them life. He lived, as he wrote, in a world of "yes"—

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds

—and when he threw out the capital letters from his own name, he did this to make it a "yes" whenever he put them back again.... [return to top]


October 8, 1964

Heart's Love

Herzog
A novel by Saul Bellow
Viking Press, $5.75

by Bell Gale Chevigny

The name, Moses Herzog, has some punning purpose then: MOSES HERZog hands down the tablets of the law, but they are laws of the heart. The book is full of intellectual material, but the deepest truth it displays is the romantic one of the heart's reasons and the limitations of the mind. The scanty plot structure of the novel (the structure of the first two thirds is the structure of neurotic rehashing of past wrongs) bears this out.

There are two major moments in the plot which are intended to explain his recovery dramatically. The first occurs after his chance, time-killing visit to a courtroom, a brilliant scene in which he witnesses the hearing of a woman who murdered her child. His heart wrung, and unable "to obtain something for the murdered child," some savnig understanding, Herzog goes to Chicago to kill Madeleine and Gersbach. Note: "The decision was not reached; it simply arrived." The second is the moment in which he decides not to kill them. Another striking scene. Standing on a box, he peers through a window at Gersbach, phony, overdone as always, and yet tender as he bathes Herzog's daughter, and their reality exposes his violent plan as ludicrous. And here becomes Herzog's happiness: "It was worth the trip."

This quick tour in and out of Herzog's heart of darkness provides bellow with an opportunity to reject other literary vogues, other ways of treating suffering. Though Moses suffers in style, Bellow wants us to know that he (and Moses) won't resort to forms of suffering stylish in literature. From suffering it does not follow that all is permitted, for instance. "The question of death," Moses wriets, "offers us the interesting alternatives of disintegrating ourselves by our own wills in proof of our 'freedom,' or the acknowledging that we owe a human life to this waking spell of existence, regardless of the void. (After all, we have no positive knowledge of that void.)" Fiction wherein one shuns consolation, looking for "truth in grotesque combinations," is similarly dismissed.

But what has Bellow offered instead? A novel in which hero and author learn to shed their hurt and anger? For the novel itself sometimes seems a long purgative letter by Saul Bellow. The events are quasi-autobiographical, and there is indeed a large peasure of generosity extended to the hero. His errors are rarely understood except in terms of a lovable if over-zealous idealism. Yet perhaps this inadequacy is part of Bellow's point. Moses as a literary man has a high, perhaps excessive tolerance for people who carry themselves as if they were significant, that posture being his own style. He is the masochism peculiar to sensitive people eager to drink life to the lees. The book suggests that the boldest adventurer, if he admits what inner knowledge our times provide, might well be a man who risks getting himself stepped on. The trouble with this explanation is that Moses' inner knowledge is selective: he himself terminated a marriage, his first one. And though the reasons why Madeleine ruined his second marriage are elaborately brooded over, Bellow is content to ignore Moses' contribution to the collapse of his first. [return to top]


December 14, 1967

The Confessions of Nat Turner
A novel by William Styron
Random House, $6.95

By Martin Duberman

William Styron describes his latest novel as "a meditation on history." The phrase is provocative, suggesting a new form wherein history is converted into philosophy rather than, as in the case of most historical novels, romance. Yet the attempt to combine the novelist's imagination with the historian's devotion to "objective reality" (and to preserve both intact) may, on its face, be misguided. If one believes in the prime importance of subjectivity, of using materials from the past (or present) as grist for one's own mill, then some "re-arrangement" of those materials is inescapable. If one believes in the prime importance of objectivity, of staying within the strict limits of historical evidence, then invention must be curtailed. Styron's novel raises the question central to all efforts at historical fiction: can a writer simultaneously be true to the past and to himself? [return to top]


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