on 2 August 2001
Moses Herzog is a Jewish academic living in New York in the early Sixties. Following the disastrous break-up of his second marriage, he begins writing letters - first, to practically everybody he has ever met, and then to a varity of public and cultural figures living and dead. It doesn't take the reader long to realise that Herzog is having something of a crisis: his behaviour is erratic and his mind distracted as he remembers in vivid detail key scenes in his life. Perhaps we can make allowances, though - he is trying to make sense of what it means to be alive in the Western world in the second half of the twentieth century, after all. The book is not exactly big on plot, but a certain suspense does build as to whether he's going to get through it with his mind and body intact. The novel is also very well written, and at times dazzlingly so. As a character, Herzog is brilliantly realised - unquestionably an intellectual, he is entirely believable as betrayed husband, doting father, rebellious son, hesitant lover and more besides. The book is a modern classic which captures its time, and still has a lot to say to us about our lives as part of a society too advanced for easy comprehension.
on 27 September 2008
Stunning novel about a middle aged academic almost driven insane by various personal and ideological crises, but who eventually manages to find some peace after experiencing events that finally seem to connect him with reality. I absolutely adored the quality of style and character, and although the plot is incredibly thin, you don't care because it is constructed so brilliantly to allow all those fascinating, perfectly described reminiscences. Definitely I was generally having that feeling of sickening jealousy for the sheer ability demonstrated, albieit in quite a showy way. There are many incredible lines, either simply involving profound observations on life, or via the wonderful eye for character details that Bellow has. The use of letters as a kind of stream of consciousness device works fantastically. Herzog's character is one of the most stunningly rich and real I've ever come across in literature, and the peripheral characters also feel very real and vivid. This novel seems incredibly autobiographical, in fact, and many of the details probably were taken from Bellow's life. The only slight criticism I have is that in one or two places it felt a little contrived. Ramona is obviously set up as the "healthy" choice and feels slightly thin for it. And why oh why would Herzog keep his gun in his pocket when visiting his daughter? This to me seemed totally unbelievable, and merely a silly device. But these tiny quibbles aside, this is definitely one of the best American novels I've ever read.
on 10 June 2008
This novel starts with a ferociously strong image, then moves us into the mind of Moses Herzog. Herzog is a failing professor with an unfaithful second wife, a treacherous best friend, unwritten books and theses which remind him of his failings. Also, in a bizarrely wonderful twist, we find that Herzog writes letters avidly, even compulsively. These are largely to dead people, either relatives or historical figures he has never met. Also mathematicians - he writes to Euclid and points out why his theories don't add up.
The novel also contains a profound and bitter sense of betrayal, Herzog's as his marriage fails and his child whisked from him, Bellow's as similar events in his life mirrored the plot.
This is Bellow's most autobiographical work, including his bizarre childhood and the way he sees an exiled, crushed class (and race) adjust to their new lives, while he with his fabulously realised child's eyes sees only the surface, but sees things an adult would consider sinister.
This book is either a masterpiece or so close it makes no difference. Check it out when you're prepared to be tantalised and confused.
Herzog, more than any other, reveals James Joyce’s influence over the novels of Saul Bellow. It is for much of its length an internal conversation conducted by Moses Herzog with himself, some of which he occasionally commits to paper as part of a series of notes to personages both dead and alive, ranging from existentialist philosophers to his former sexual partners. He remembers his hardscrabble childhood, with his family’s migration from Canada to Chicago, echoing Bellow’s own, and the struggles of his father in making a living, including his foray into bootlegging which earns him a serious beating.
Occasionally other people intrude. He spends a night with his latest girlfriend, Ramona. He rather creepily stalks his ex-wife Madeleine and her partner at her home one night, watching them through the window. He takes his daughter to the zoo carrying an antique pistol, loaded, wrapped in a blanket of czarist roubles, is involved in a minor car crash and finds himself in the police station charged with possession of an unlicensed weapon. In amongst this he travels around New York, Chicago and his country pile in the Berkshires.
For the reader there is little doubt that Herzog is a little unhinged. How else to explain his resentment at the anger displayed by Madeleine when she collects their daughter from the police station? How else to explain the capricious wanderings by train, plane and automobile? How else to explain the compulsive scribblings?
Some of Herzog’s musings reveal a streak of misogyny. It is not possible to say definitively that this reflected Bellow’s own attitudes, but some of the circumstances in the book reflect Bellow’s own at the time. His musings in particular on his treatment by Madeleine suggest it is she, not him, who is the crazy one; he twists her every action so it appears to him a part of a typical feminine conspiracy effected over a long period of time which somehow included marrying him and having his child just out of spite. In his later novel, Humboldt’s Gift, the protagonist Charlie Citrine finds himself strung along by Madeleine’s alter ego, Renata, who ends up dumping Citrine in favour of an undertaker. Ramona on the other hand ostensibly represents a different side of women, more nurturing, forgiving. But she, too, is able to dump lost causes, and it is possible to see Ramona and Renata, and therefore also Madeleine, as the same woman, just seen from different angles.
Returning to this novel after forty years – my college dissertation addressed the works of Bellow – I was struck by how much it is a novel of its time. Published in 1964, it represents a time before the collapse of the post-second world war boom; the big battles of the Civil Rights struggles of the sixties were yet to come, and the counterculture was still in the wings. It is instructive to read it to acquire a sense of what in those days were common modes of discourse, even in the context of liberal art, on a variety of subjects. More prosaically, it is shocking to find Herzog being questioned in the police station, following his road accident, with an untreated head wound. Surely, it occurred to me, a cop nowadays would ensure somebody involved in such an incident would first receive medical attention to ensure there is no concussion? Different times, different priorities, apparently.
Malcolm Bradbury, in the Introduction, suggests that this is Bellow’s best novel, but I don’t agree: Humboldt’s Gift I would say is better executed, has a more interesting worldview, and is also more amusing. Herzog has its moments, and is certainly a fine piece of literature, but four decades on I was less captivated by rereading this than I was when I reread Humboldt’s Gift a couple of years ago. But all that means is that it’s worth trying both to see if it’s me or Malcolm you agree with.
on 7 June 2001
The inner-workings of the mind of an aged American intellectual? Possibly not the most enticing prospect for an enjoyable read, but Bellow's skill in capturing *humanity* in all its variations pulls this off magnificently. Herzog is reminiscent of one of those displaced characters Nabokov created - trapped in an age that doesn't quite accept him, or vice versa. This relationship is even more interesting against the backdrop of the brief fetish of intellectualism in the Kennedy era. However, the real attraction of this book is Bellow's superlative ability to capture the essence of Herzog's increasingly fractured mind, taking the reader on a ride into his own personal world.
on 3 May 2016
This is a very ‘of its time’ non-tale of the family turmoil of a 47 year old American Jew in the late 1960s. Herzog has two ex-wives with a child by each. He still seems to love the turbulent Madeleine who is going out with ex-friend Valentine Gersbach, Herzog has an attractive girlfriend Ramona who can’t distract him from his angst against the family imbalance. Herzog reflects (and writes letters) and interacts with his brothers & sister, family friends, aunts, lawyers, past conversions to Catholicism and his childhood life with his now dead father and mother. Is he simply going mad or just playing society’s game of real life soap opera?
There are some intriguing ideas and literary style (The author seems to seamlessly mix first and third person perspectives using the letter format) and I can understand why the author was awarded the Noble prize for literature. However overall this novel didn’t work for me – being ‘dated’ is less of a problem than its tiresome introspection and lack of focus (ok, I found it ‘boring’).
“All children have cheeks and all mothers spittle to wipe them tenderly. These things either matter or they do no matter. It depends upon the universe, what it is. These acute memories are probably symptoms of disorder. To him, perpetual thought of death was a sin. Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead”
“Herzog wrote, Will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood”
“Herzog listened to the dead at their dead quarrels”
“Lying down to copulate, and standing up to kill. Some kill, then cry. Others, not even that”
I feel a low score would be very unfair to this worthy and readable 1960s work but somehow its lack of entertainment should count against it. Oh well 3 stars.
on 25 December 2013
"This was the post-quixotic, post-Copernican USA, where a mind freely poised in space might discover relationships utterly unsuspected by a seventeenth-century man sealed in his smaller universe. There lay his twentieth-century advantage."
Well, yes, but doesn't that rather go without saying? After patiently appreciating the fluent and precise style of Bellow's writing: the elegant exposition of Herzog's thoughts, the gratifying attention to detail, the investment in minutai, ("The old dog, obese and bald, escaped in fear, claws rapping tiles - clickclick, clickclick"), the conjuring of a vile coterie of affected, self-serious, Jewish elite... After half a book of that, my patience tested, I have to say that my admiration palled a bit.
Perhaps it's the point, but the self-indulgent, egotistic ramblings of a successful, privileged academic between romances, hard done, admittedly, by a vicious ex-wife, struck me as a hollow study in pomposity and insipidity. If that is the point then it's hard won, because for me, the novel can't help but suffer from the unctuous and flattering treatment of Herzog, it becomes guilty by association.
Maybe that isn't the point. Maybe Bellow is, against the odds, pleading sympathy and redemption for his 'innocent' - his big baby. Stuff that. The novel is a rendering of a rarefied breed of inhumane, self-serving creatures, outwardly and invertedly representing the summit of civilisation. They are what success looks like, the novel seems to suggest. And it conspires with them, in its empty intellect and rhetoric, attempting, odiously, to outwit any objections with cunning.
on 13 June 2015
Herzog is one of those books which you feel you should read rather than one you want to read. It reads like an important book more than an enjoyable book. It is IMHO, a book for academics and students of literature.
Personally I felt little connection with Herzog, partly because I am not a Jew, more because I am not an American and most because I don't understand the references that are scattered throughout the book.
However, his character did eventually appeal and I even felt myself strangely identifying with him at times. I also appreciated Bellow's style of narration with the switches between first and third person and the movement from past to present tense.
Yes, I'm pleased that I read it.
on 24 September 2014
I listened to this on the brilliance audio version. Not sure I could have stuck it in print form.
The lead character is a whining arrogant self apologist whose better than average physical appearance and meager academic talents have allowed him to love and receive praise and reward.
Saul Below has captured the soul of the narcissistic neurotic, all intelligent people will find a parallel with themselves to some degree.
on 5 September 2000
Of all the contemporary American authors, Saul Bellow ranks as one of the best. He has a wonderful control of the English language and a fine sense of humour. "Herzog" is one of his funniest, most touching books. It is abounding with energy and character. Meet Moses E. Herzog, a man who, at middle age, is looking back on his life by writing letters that are not to be sent, to his two ex wives, friends and collegues. Out of all Saul Bellow's books, this one ranks as my favorite so, if you're looking for a book that will both move you and make you smile, look no further than "Herzog".