Book Review

on sleaze via Saul Bellow

sleaze is not a synonym for prurience

I’ve never before read any Saul Bellow.

In my head he’s in that same kinda style of “Great American Novel”ist that I read lots of when an undergraduate and have only occasionally wrangled with since.

So, why did I read this now?

Because I finished the book I was reading while strolling on a book shop binge (when bookshops were briefly open in-between lockdowns) and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day was the shortest book I had bought. Then I went straight into Herzog because if not now/then, when will I/would I have read it?

There was a £1.99 sticker from an Oxfam on the back of the copy of Herzog I own, which is such a low price for a secondhand book that it may mean I’d been carrying it around for almost a decade.

I don’t remember buying it, but I do remember packing it up and taking it to Barcelona and I – evidently – packed it up and brought it over the ocean to Canannadda. It is time, I suppose, for Bellow.

It became time.

I read Sieze the Day within about three or four hours.

It’s a short novella, it’s about a 40-something lapsed Jewish lad (can a Jewish person be lapsed or is that a Catholics-only word? Non-practising, maybe?) who is struggling in the world having just lost his job and walked out on his wife and then his girlfriend dumped him because he couldn’t get a divorce fast enough.

His father (a retired doctor) won’t lend him or give him any money and, desperate, Willy/Tommy (he has two names because he tried and failed to become an actor in his youth) falls under the spell of an ageing con artist who tricks him out of the last money he has by claiming to invest it in the commodities market, on lard.

The book is, well, it’s what I expected.

Kinda engaging and discursive in a very trad “liberal” way; most of the characters are described as unhygienic which feels a bit claustrophobic tbh, a bit grubby, and the slowly spiralling trajectory of the failed actor, failed salesman, failed father, failed lover, failed husband, failed man is very archetypal mid-20th century fiction. Very Arthur Miller.

Anyway. It was OK. Good enough.

I immediately flipped from Seize the Day to Herzog and was astounded, appalled, disgusted, to realise it is basically the same book.

Herzog is also the story of a 40-something lapsed/non-practising Jewish guy who is struggling in the world having just lost his job and his marriage and his home and his girlfriend, too.

Instead of a failed actor, this guy (the eponymous Herzog) is a failed academic, and instead of leaving his wife hoping for a younger lover, Herzog’s wife dumps him for someone else.

The prose is excessively sleazy-

maybe the promise of “sleaze” was what drew me to finally pick this up-

I’ve always enjoyed sleaze in literature and I’d love to find a way to explore a theory of sleaze

where it went, why “sleaze” disappeared from the mainstream-

sexuality, now, tends to be depicted either positively or negatively, as a source of pain/horror or as a source of joy/fun-

rarely is contemporary literary sex between these poles-

rarely is sex treated dispassionately, without importance-

The way in which I always read “the idea of Sleaze”, tho, is a sexuality for which one is judged for, something taboo yet accepted, normalised, not treated as sinister

if it’s sinister it’s not sleaze?

if it’s sleazy it’s not sinister?

A playful excess of lust?

a flaw, not a cause for destruction?

can one be sleazy and not a monster?

if one is a monster, has one transgressed beyond sleaze?

Sleaze can be annoying, but can sleaze be a threat?

Herzog as a book is sleazy, I think, in the way I have imagined/described the concept of sleaze.

Maybe sleaze like the above doesn’t exist, tho, maybe an “excess of lust” (or lust in an inappropriate setting) is not safe, in particular is not felt as/read as safe by the objects of that desire, especially when those objectified people are more vulnerable than I or Saul Bellow’s middle class middle-aged cishet male protagonists or Saul Bellow himself or, of course, Ian Fleming and all those other “sleazy” male writers I read and have read (and probably you read and have read them, too, the fact that you’ve read this much of a weird blog post loosely about Saul Bellow is not a sign in your favour) –

Sleaze, especially in a political sense, is often used as a synonym for corruption, as a word that excuses – or minimises – misbehaviour-

the way i have conceptualised sleaze above is unrealistic-

excess lust isn’t cutesy, isn’t funny, is not safe-

sleaze is not a synonym for prurience-

I should probably go and read the rest of Herzog

Written March 19th, again in a launderette.

nb: i read the rest of it, meh is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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