Toward the end of Saul Bellow’s last novel, Herzog’s wild ruminations are pierced by a very real horror when he wanders into a courtroom where a man and woman are standing trial for infanticide. The woman—semi-retarded, dim, brutalized—had, in a fit of fury, dashed her son to death against a hotel wall while her lover lay casually smoking in bed. From the vision of the dead child’s uncomprehending terror Herzog’s mind spins to his own daughter, who is kept from him by his ex-wife and her domestic consort Gersbach, the erstwhile friend who managed first to cuckold Herzog and then to usurp his role as father. Herzog’s glimpse in the courtroom of unthinkable human viciousness clears away the ambiguities around which he has wrapped his domestic situation, and, for once, instead of writing a letter or monograph about it, he sets out with an old family gun to rescue his daughter and do battle with those who have abused his heart. But when he sees the man he wishes to kill through a bathroom window in the act of tenderly washing his, Herzog’s, child, he falters, and reverts to his old self.
To shoot him!—an absurd thought. As soon as Herzog saw the actual person giving an actual bath, the reality of it, the tenderness of such a buffoon to a little child, his intended violence turned into theater, into something ludicrous.
If there is a notion of fate in Bellow’s work, it is that good men are destined, and know it, to misconceive life again and again. Throughout the book Herzog chases continually a reality which refuses to bow to the preconceptions formed of it by an imaginative intelligence. At one instant life seems a madman’s dream, but no sooner has one armed oneself against this flamboyant guise than it changes into something small and ordinary. For the figures of Bellow’s imagination, scratching away furiously for a resting place in life, this shifting reality is the cause of their comic and humbling pratfalls which force them to accept at last a world that is reluctant to offer simultaneous satisfaction to the mind and heart. When passion seems required, something is inevitably produced to disjoint the moment and set loose the ironies of thought which inform a Herzog that he is an incongruity, an actor done up in cod-piece, tights, and doublet sauntering into a kitchen set.
This sense of the antic perversity of life, its refusal to live up to the simplest or most elaborate human expectation, pervades almost all of Bellow’s work. For Augie March, a picaresque raisonneur, it can provide an amusing spectacle, a sort of existential rodeo where he can watch others testing their theories of how life can be broken and tamed before it bucks them off. “He was another of those persons who persistently arise before me with life counsels and illumination throughout my entire earthly pilgrimage,” says Augie about one …