Reading Note:
After Herzog
8 April 2019

¶ When you’ve just finished Saul Bellow’s Herzog, what do you read next? The book now atop my reading pile was John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, but I certainly wasn’t in the mood for a Western. I wanted to remain in the company of cosmopolitan, well-read characters, men and women who, like me, were likely to be bored rather than stimulated by the Great Outdoors. But I wanted a little more focus, a little more discipline; Moses Herzog has a lot to say, but he has a hard time finishing a thought. Whether Bellow himself could compete with own his novel’s pyrotechnics is arguable, but in any case Herzog gave me my fill of funny fireworks. Without too much fuss, I chose Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening. It proved to be just right. It both kept the vibe of Herzog going and made me forget that I had just read it. 

The embarrassing thing was my growing doubt that I had ever re-read Starting Out in the Evening. I have re-read the novels that followed it, each several times, but in the case of this notable book of 1998, I had returned not to the original but to the excellent film adaptation, starring Frank Langella and Lauren Ambrose, which came out about ten years later. I’ve seen the movie so many times that the pungent comment of ageing writer Leonard Schiller about the undertaking of young graduate student Heather Wolfe — So, you’ve embarked on a project of questionable merit — put Langella in the room, right there next to me. 

This time, of course, I’d chosen to read Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening because I had just read Bellow’s Herzog. Mixing media would have defeated the purpose, which was, as I say, to prolong the atmosphere of mid-century intellectual life as sustained by incidentally academic American Jews.  Why Jews? Jews were still asking genuine questions and trying to frame workable answers; while WASPs had adopted the French vice of declaring what they wanted to hear — sadly for them (the WASPs) in rather inferior language. And by “intellectual life,” I mean real life, with families and apartments, sibling rivalries and unreliable friends — not to mention (the word comes up in Morton, too) “cocksmanship” — as lived by very smart, bookish people.

You may be asking, how did the second novel stand up to the first? Herzog has been a classic since it appeared. One feels obliged to add the modifier “coruscating” somewhere. The title character never steps out of the spotlight and never runs out of entertaining shtick — quite a performance! Starting Out in the Evening is in every way more modest — Leonard Schiller’s is only one of four points of view — but it is also immensely lovable, even if people who aren’t in the habit of reading good books might have a hard time seeing what’s so lovable about it. It’s true that, toward the end, the hard lines  that serve as so many trenches throughout most of the narrative — Schiller’s obscurity, Heather’s ambition, the impasse between Ariel and Casey about having children — are softened enough to suggest happy endings all round — not that the actual beginnings of such endings are evidenced by the novel. But what I mean by “lovable” is the moment in which Heather, having indulged in pouring forth some extravagant, insincere hopes for Schiller’s much-deserved celebrity, and basking in the pleasure of have “obviously” moved the old writer, is painfully surprised when he reached across the table not to caress but to smack her. What’s lovable is the exchange that follows this take-down. Schiller returns to his cup of coffee without saying anything, while Heather, much against her will, helplessly weeps. Eventually, she pulls herself together enough to say, “I’m sorry everything got so fucked up.”

To which he says — try to imagine Moses saying this to Madeleine — “You gave an old man some excitement.” That’s lovable. There is nothing remotely so appealing in all of Herzog

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