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Herzog (Penguin Modern Classics)
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 24 August 2015
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.
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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.
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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.
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on 20 February 2018
Interesting and reflective of its age
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on 9 March 2016
Excellent
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on 13 January 2016
Mildly enjoyable but it's almost stream of consciousness in style.
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on 17 November 2015
Wonderful, A masterpiece in every way. Read it and laugh :)
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on 29 May 2013
great book. You need to persevere to understand it, but its well worth it.I could relate to how the world works for and against that guy.
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on 31 August 2015
Hard work!
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on 23 May 2015
wonderful
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