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Saul Bellow: Herzog

This novel was Bellow’s most successful and is considered by many to be his best. It is also his most autobiographical. Like Moses Herzog, the hero of this novel, Bellow had recently been cuckolded and his life was a mess. But what Bellow the writer does is to show us a man who is disintegrating, show us in great depth the state of his mind and then show us his attempts at putting himself back together again. We have seen this before in other Bellow novels – think of Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day for example – but never to this extent and with this great skill.

Moses Herzog is twice divorced, firstly from Daisy and, more recently, from Madeleine. He has a child from each marriage. Madeleine had tricked him, persuading him to move to Chicago with their friends, the Gersbachs and even help Valentine Gersbach get a job, when all the time she was having an affair with Valentine. When they get to Chicago, Madeleine throws Herzog out and even tries to have him committed. Herzog considers killing Madeleine and Valentine, particularly when he thinks they are mistreating June, Madeleine’s daughter with Herzog. He does not, of course, but is arrested for possession of a firearm when it is found when he has a car accident (with June in the car). But, eventually, with the help of his brother and girlfriend, Ramona, he starts to put his life together again.

What distinguishes this novel from the other Bellow hero-falls-apart-and-puts-himself-together-again novels is that it is to a great extent an epistolary novel. Herzog writes numerous letters – to God, to the living, to the dead, to the famous – which he never sends. In these letters, he often apologises for how he has disappointed these people or how he is disappointed. As well as writing letters, his time alone in the house in Ludeyville, in rural Massachusetts, is spent in reminiscing about his past, his academic career (he published a book), his first marriage and his father’s failures. It is these letters and reminiscences that make up the core of the book. They are seemingly disorganised but are clearly meant to represent the disorganised state of Herzog’s mind and help make the book a wonderful insight into the mind of a desperate man.

Publishing history

First published 1964 by Viking