Herzog (novel)

Herzog (novel)

"Herzog" is a 1964 novel by Saul Bellow. In a nod to the epistolary novels of early British literature, letters from the protagonist constitute much of the text.

"Herzog" won the 1965 National Book Award for Fiction. Time Magazine included the novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005". [http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/]

Plot summary

"Herzog" is a novel set in post-war America and is about the midlife crisis of a Jewish man named Moses E. Herzog. He is just emerging from his second divorce, this one particularly acrimonious. He has two children, one by each wife, who are growing up without him present. His career as a writer and as an academic has stalled. He is currently in a relationship with a vibrant woman, Ramona, but finds himself running away from commitment.

Herzog's second marriage, to the demanding, manipulative Madeleine, has recently ended in a humiliating fashion. Madeleine convinced Moses to move her and their daughter Junie to Chicago, and to arrange for their best friends, Valentine and Phoebe Gersbach, to move as well, securing a solid job for Valentine. However, the plans were all a ruse, as Madeleine and Valentine were carrying on an affair behind Moses's back, and shortly after arriving in Chicago, Madeleine throws Herzog out, securing a restraining order (of sorts) against him, and attempting to have him committed to an asylum.

Herzog spends much of his time writing letters he never sends. These letters are aimed at friends, family members, and famous figures. The recipients may be dead, and Herzog has often never met these people. The one common thread is that Herzog is always expressing disappointment, either his own in the failings of others or their words, or apologizing for the way he has disappointed others.

The novel opens with Herzog in his house in Ludeyville, a town in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. He is contemplating returning to New York to see Ramona, but instead flees to Martha's Vineyard to visit some friends. He arrives at their house, but writes a note - this one an actual note - saying that he has to leave:

:"Not able to stand kindness at this time. Feeling, heart, everything in strange condition. Unfinished business."

He heads to New York to start trying to finish that business, including regaining custody of his daughter, Junie. After spending a night with Ramona, he heads to the courthouse to meet his lawyer to discuss his plans, and ends up witnessing a series of tragicomic court hearings, including one where a woman is charged with beating her three-year-old to death by flinging him against a wall. Moses, already distraught after receiving a letter from Junie's babysitter about an incident where Valentine locked Junie in the car while he and Madeleine argued inside the house, heads to Chicago. He goes to his stepmother's house and picks up an antique pistol with two bullets in it, forming a vague plan of killing Madeleine and Valentine and running off with Junie.

The plan goes awry when he sees Valentine giving Junie a bath and realizes that Junie is in no danger. The next day, after taking his daughter to the aquarium, Herzog is in a car accident and ends up charged with possession of a loaded weapon. His brother, the coldly rational Will, picks him up and tries to get him back on his feet. Herzog heads to Ludeyville, where his brother meets him and tries to convince him to check himself into an institution. But Herzog, who had previously considered doing just that, is now coming to terms with his life. Ramona comes up to join him for a night - much to Will's surprise - and Herzog begins making plans to fix up the house, which, like his life, needs repair but is still structurally sound. Herzog closes by saying that he doesn't need to write any more letters.

Through the flashbacks that litter the novel, other critical details of Herzog's life come to light, including his marriage to the stable Daisy and the existence of their son, Marco; the life of Herzog's father, a failure at every job he tried; and Herzog's sexual molestation by a stranger on a street in Chicago.


The beauty of the novel lies in the dissection of Herzog's mind. In typical Bellow style, the descriptions of characters' emotions and physical features are rich in wit and energy. Herzog's relationships are the central theme of the novel, not just with women and friends, but also society and himself. Herzog's own thoughts and thought processes are laid bare in the letters he writes.As the novel progresses, the letters (represented in italics) become fewer and fewer. This seems to mirror the healing of the narrator's mind, as his attention turns from his inner struggles towards the options offered by his current situation – not having to be a scholar, the possibility of starting afresh with Ramona, and so on. In other words, the pyschological clarification that is taking place at the level of content is reflected stylistically in the movement from a predominantly epistolary mode towards a more linearly organized narrative.


The search for identity

Herzog spends most of his time fretting about what he isn't - a good husband, a good father, an academic success - that he defines himself in those terms, rather than accepting himself and defining himself in terms of positives. At the novel's end, he is beginning to show signs of making that transformation:

:"Myself is thus and so, and will continue thus and so. And why fight it? My balance comes from instability."

It is also worth noting that the name of the title character, Moses E. Herzog, comes from a minor character in James Joyce's Ulysses.

The failure of philosophy

Herzog finds modern life degrading with its acceptance of materialism and victimhood. He left a stable marriage with his first wife (Daisy) because he found it dull and alienating, but ended up in a marriage that left him isolated and the victim of a con. Herzog's letters and thoughts reveal his readings of the major philosophers, but finds them all lacking, including Freud and Nietzsche, explaining in letters where their ideas have failed him. Herzog's own worldview is more optimistic:

:"The light of truth is never far away, and no human being is too negligible or corrupt to come into it."

Autobiographical elements

The character of Herzog in many ways echoes a fictionalized Saul Bellow. Similarities between Herzog and Bellow include:
* Both grew up in Canada.
* Both are Jewish.
* Both have parents who had emigrated from Russia (St. Petersburg).
* Both lived in Chicago for significant periods of time.
* Both were divorced twice (at the time of writing; Bellow would go on to divorce four of his five wives.)
* Both were sons of bootlegger fathers.
* The character of Valentine Gersbach is based on Jack Ludwig, a long-time friend of Bellow who had an affair with Bellow's second wife, SondraFact|date=March 2008.


* In the Kingsley Amis novel "Stanley and the Women" (1984), Stanley's son Steve reads a copy of "Herzog" and abruptly tears it up.


*Burt, Daniel S. "The Novel 100". Checkmark Books, 2004. ISBN 0-8160-4558-5

External links

* [http://www.saulbellow.org/NavigationBar/TheLibrary.html Summary of Herzog on saulbellow.org]
* [http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/herzog/ Sparknotes study guide on Herzog]

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