On Words and Writing: Bellow’s Herzog

January 24, 2007

One of the outstanding features of Herzog is Bellow’s unique phrasing and sentence construction. Throughout the early part of the book, Bellow routinely links words that are near rhymes:

“His friend, his former friend, Valentine, and his wife, his ex-wife Madeleine…” (418 *page numbering taken from the Library of America edition)

“With power, passive. With his soul, evasive.” (421)

“What he was about to suffer, he deserved; he had sinned long and hard; he had earned it.” (425)

I had more, including a really good one, but I didn’t want to mark up my LoA edition. These little moments provide the book with a lyrical, musical quality.

take the first quote. the women’s name is typically pronounced mdln, and the man’s name is Vlntn. you could directly rhyme the names, mdln::Vlnn, but, other than the non-existent Saint, no man really pronounces his name that way. instead, the words are close enough that we think they should rhyme, a fact emphasised by the parallelism of the sentence structure, and the two’s intertwined lives. likewise, “passive” and “evasive” are so close, and in the same sentence positions, that we want to make them rhyme.

The last quote is almost a perfect poetic line. The rhythm is perfect until the “it.” if the sentence had ended on “earned” without the additional particle, it would sound perfectly Shakespearean. Instead, the line is another near match.

These quotes, and I’m sure there are many more in the book, match the nursery rhyme repeated by Herzog throughout the novel:

I love little pussy/Her coat is so warm/And if I don’t hurt her/She’ll do me no harm

“warm” and “harm” obviously have the same form, but different sounds; much like “evasive” and “passive.” many view the nursery rhyme as a key to understanding Herzog’s character, and his psychological development. these near rhymes are another way of seeing the inner workings of Herzog’s mind. it’s another way of looking at the inner idiosyncrasies of Herzog’s thought processes.

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