the greatness of herzog

BellowKevin Stevens at The Dublin Review of Books:

“If I’m out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.”

So begins Saul Bellow’s Herzog, a half-century in print and still funny, intense, personal, and contradictory from its opening sentence. Still contemporary. Imbued with two thousand years of learning yet crackling with wiseass Chicago wit. Cerebral and earthy, dense and free-flowing, brilliant, imaginative, hilarious. Thoroughly Jewish yet thoroughly American. And, though many might argue otherwise, the great postwar American novel.

Great works of literature are both representative and unique. Representative because, at least in the Western mimetic tradition, they depict, via genre, rhetoric, and habit of thought, the cultural and political realities of their time. And while full of the detail of the historical moment, the best works also transcend the moment, giving narrative or lyric the scope and depth of the timeless, so that meaning and relevance persist as history fades.

Uniqueness is mediated by language – not simply as style, though that is important, but as the medium through which idea, image, and narrative are captured and conveyed. Language, as Richard Ford puts it, is what happens in literature.

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