MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Writer Jeffrey Eugenides knows something about playing around with language. He's the author of two acclaimed novels, "Middlesex" and "The Virgin Suicides." In our series, You Must Read This, authors talk about a book they love. Jeffrey Eugenides recommends a 20th century classic.
Mr. JEFFREY EUGENIDES (Author): 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 pretty much universal. Herzog's life resembles the way we live now, where we're forever sending off e-mails 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 it gets truer the older it is. The impulse here is to quote. Every single part 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 few moments 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 an uptick in pleasure, then pick up "Herzog" and open it anywhere and read.
NORRIS: Jeffrey Eugenides. He's the author of the novels "Middlesex" and "The Virgin Suicides." He was recommending the novel "Herzog" by Saul Bellow.
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