Read from August 20 to 27, 2014
"Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?"
What is the world for the intellectual? The playground of his ideas or the hell of his emotions? For Moses Hezog, a forty-seven-year old former Professor in a mid-life crisis is certainly both. Recently gone through a messy divorce and the tragi-comedy of a marital triangle, the hero looks for the cathartic liberation from this emotional ballast in two ways: by writing letters to acquaintances and strangers, to the living and the dead, and by remembering the past. The result? A very exquisite mixture between epistolary and psychological novel intertwined with cleverly hidden intertextual dialogues, in a perfect narrative structure and a memorable collection of characters. A masterpiece signed Saul Bellow.
The novel follows Herzog’s quest to make sense of the world either following Tolstoy’s belief – that freedom is personal and indifferent to historical limitations, or Hegel’s conception – that freedom begins with the knowledge of death, knowledge fed by history and memory.
Therefore, the letters are not necessarily a way of communication (he never sends nor finishes them) they are a way of self understanding, Tolstoyan way: “I go after reality with language.” Thus, he keeps arguing with Spinoza whether the desire to exist is enough to lead to happiness, he feels like rejecting Nietzsche’s view of any present moment as a crisis, a fall from classical greatness on the principle that he had a Christian view of the history despite his accusation that Jesus Christ enslaved the world with his morality, and finally he find a new interpretation of Kirkegaard’s belief that knowledge can be acquired only through hell by seeing suffering as a personal choice; not by playing at crisis, alienation, apocalypse and desperation, but as an antidote to illusion:
…people of powerful imagination, given to dreaming deeply and to raising up marvelous and self-sufficient fictions, turn to suffering sometimes to cut into their bliss, as people pinch themselves to feel awake.
Together with Samuel Johnson, Herzog discovers that suffering can acquire an almost hedonistic quality:
Grief, Sir, is a species of idleness.
If the letters are the intellectual dialogues with the world, memories are the emotional ones. Through personal history, this time in a Hegelian way, Herzog rebuilds his own image, since: “I am Herzog. I have to be that man. There is no one else to do it.” On these grounds he recalls all his “reality instructors”: his parents who taught him to love and to lose the loved one, his women who taught him that “not thinking is not necessarily fatal”, that is he can divorce intellect from emotion unpunished, his friends who taught him that generosity has sometimes an unbearable price tag. Two memorable, Dostoyevskian figures emerge in all their contradictory splendour from this recollection: his second wife, Madeleine, who, according to Herzog, tried to steal his place in the world and his rival and former best friend Valentine Gersbach, who tried to become him, emulating his opinions and gestures. The only form of the self preservation, Herzog discovers, is detachment, so the final lesson the hero is gradually taught is the acceptance of death, be it physical or emotional:
And you, Gersbach, you’re welcome to Madeleine.
Enjoy her – rejoice in her. You will not reach me through her, however. I know you sought me in her flesh. But I am no longer there.
However. However. Which is the door to freedom – intellectual or emotional? Tolstoy or Hegel? For it is sure you cannot go through both at the same time, since they are rather opposite. Herzog clams up in the end, refusing either word or feeling, or simply refusing to tell. It‘s up to us to open whichever door we seem fit – for him and for ourselves, in a dignified answer to the mocking question of Longfellow’s dog at Kew: “Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?”