- Jewish-American Literature's Lost-and-Found Department:How Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick Reimagine Their Significant Dead
He realized he was writing to the dead. To bring the shades of great philosophers up to date. But then why shouldn't he write to the dead? He lived with them as much as with the living—perhaps more, . . .(Moses Herzog 181)
Herzog's compulsive letter-writing is, of course, an index of his psychic agitation and of his tragicomic effort to "have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends" (2). After all, he is a man whose previously sustaining roles—as husband, as father, as intellectual—have failed; he is a formerly brilliant scholar with more scribbled notes than manuscript pages. His compulsive letters are, in effect, a desperate effort to shore up fragments against his ruin.
But that said, Herzog's letters—unmailed and often mental, filled with the alternating currents of high comedy and Big Ideas—are also the very stuff of experimental fiction. If, as Bellow once suggested, Ulysses is a "comedy of information,"1 a novel in which popular science, snatches [End Page 223] of song, folk wisdom, advertisement jingles, and the residue of cultural lore swirl through the confused but lovable Leopold Bloom, Herzog is a novel in which an infinitely more sophisticated body of information and a retinue of the Significant Dead press on Moses Herzog's exhausted brain. By juxtaposing a narrative line with the arc of his protagonist's stream of association, by breaking into, and out of, Herzog's letters, Bellow keeps his own penchant for preachiness under tight control. Herzog was, in short, an epistolary novel with important, and dazzling, differences.
Humboldt's Gift is also a prolonged, often painful, meditation on the responsibilities of the living to the dead, but in this case, what Charlie Citrine, the novel's historian-protagonist, calls his "Significant Dead" seems largely restricted to Von Humboldt Fleisher, a character modeled on the poet Delmore Schwartz. Indeed, Humboldt haunts the novel both as an abiding presence and a fearful reminder. Had I. B. Singer told Humboldt's tale, he would surely have been an invading dybbuk; by contrast, Bellow seems willing to settle for the dead poet as one of Citrine's more troublesome ghosts of the heart.
Citrine, of course, bears more than a little resemblance to Moses Herzog. Both are professional historians who spend as much time with the Significant Dead as they do with the Irritatingly Alive; both have grand books more in mind than on paper; and most important of all, both are "suffering jokers," eggheads with lives "in great disorder." Bellow had already made it clear, in a novel like The Adventures of Augie March, that he was a stylist, perhaps the stylist, to reckon with; his deliberate fracturing of syntax, his Yiddishisms yoked as they were with the heavy quilting of Ideas, added a whole new, and sometime unwelcome, chapter to American letters. But with Herzog and Humboldt's Gift, Bellow added experimental touches both in the how and the what of his narrative technique that allow the Significant Dead to function aesthetically as they had not previously done in fiction.
Not surprisingly, those critics who make it their business to be au courant about matters experimental were unimpressed. As they would have it, Bellow is too much a captive of the Russian novel, too much the social realist, too much the novelist of Ideas—in a word, too old-fashioned—to be mentioned in the same breath with John Barth or Robert Coover, much less with Ronald Sukenick, Gilbert Sorrentino, Joseph McElroy, or Steve Katz. John Barth, balancing his rhetoric between respectfulness and insistence, joined the issue this way:
I sympathize with a remark attributed to Saul Bellow, that to be technically up to date is the least important attribute of a writer, though I would have to add that this least important attribute may be nevertheless essential. In any case, to be technically out of date is likely to be a genuine defect: Beethoven's Sixth Symphony or the Chartres Cathedral if executed today would be merely embarrassing...