117 of 122 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A comic masterpiece
I was prompted to write this because most of the reviewers published here miss the plain fact that Herzog is extremely funny. Herzog writes letters. He writes manic, crazy, poignant, inspired letters to people both living and dead: to his friends, to his shrink, to his divorce lawyer, to the President of the United States, and to Heidegger, to Schrodinger, to Nietzche and...
Published on February 11, 2002 by Mark B. Friedman
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Herzog
A period piece from the early 60's. Interesting if one wants a to look behind the eyes of a self-indulged Jewish academic and see what type of writing was popular in the intellectual circles of that era.
Published on November 30, 2009 by Agatha Tabby
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117 of 122 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A comic masterpiece,
I was prompted to write this because most of the reviewers published here miss the plain fact that Herzog is extremely funny. Herzog writes letters. He writes manic, crazy, poignant, inspired letters to people both living and dead: to his friends, to his shrink, to his divorce lawyer, to the President of the United States, and to Heidegger, to Schrodinger, to Nietzche and to Willie Sutton. It is, of course, one of Saul Bellow's best novels, written at the height of his carrer, which would place it somewhere on the list of the Top 10 or 20 best American novels of the 20th century. Herzog is worth both reading and re-reading, but the book is clearly not for everyone. It is as personal, realistic, and autobiographical as The Adventures of Augie March, but it is significantly more difficult to read in terms of both style and content. It is probably less accessible than Augie, the work of a maturer artist. Readers should expect neither a conventional plot or a chronological narrative, although the book is highly structured and is brought to a very satisfying and almost inspirational resolution as Herzog regains his equilibrium, which he loses to such comic effect in the early going.
52 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece, but no easy read,
The middle-aged Moses Herzog is a notable literary-historical academic, the father of two children from two failed marriages, and the lover of a string of exotic women. His most recent wife, the Catholic convert Madelaine, has lately left him for his best friend. Herzog is lost. As he reflects on the continuing disaster that constitutes his life, and the choices which led him to this crisis, he begins writing unsent letters - to friends and family, colleagues and enemies, to famous figures both living a dead. As Bellow himself has noted, Herzog is a man who, in the agony of suffering, finds himself to be his own most penetrating critic. He re-examines his life by re-enacting all the roles he took seriously - the professor, the son, the brother, the lover, the father, the husband, the avenger, the intellectual. It's an attempt to divest himself of these personae, and when he has dismissed them, there comes a pause - a moment of grace - which is infinitely more valuable than his trying to invent everything for himself, or accepting human inventions, the collective errors, by which he's lived. He's decided to go through a process of jettisoning or lightening. The effect is that this is something the reader shares. Bellow has the capacity in his novels to cover the smallest timeframe - a matter of days, or even hours in some cases - and yet through the subtle interleaving of flashbacks, meditations and philosophical musings, cover a vast amount of intellectual and emotional ground. His novels are vast in scope yet humanly scaled. The philosophical is made real by instantiation. "Herzog" is a wonderful example of this, and it also contains two of the most compassionate moments I've ever read: Herzog's reaction to a court scene in which the death of an abused child is recounted; and the subsequent scene in which Herzog witnesses, through the window of the marital home from which he's been banished, his best friend and betrayer bathing Herzog's own child. Bellow's genius is to take these moments, one horrifying and one tender, and make them emblematic - give them real cultural, historical implication - without losing for a moment the convincing personal immediacy they have for the characters living through them. That's quite an achievement, and it's why Bellow's novels can be so intellectually rich and so viscerally touching at precisely the same time.
41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't give up half way through,
Half way through this book. I shared some of the doubts expressed by other reviewers. Yes it is well written, but it appeared to be too narrow in its focus. A book whose sole topic is the protagonist's ego is hard to sustain for 340 pages. It cried out for social or political contexts into which the eccentric character could be absorbed. However all my early doubts were dealt with as the book progressed. His love for his daughter, brother and mother give Herzog greater depth and the reader starts to realise that Moses is not just a self-pitying, self obsessive. He is a man out of his depth , an intellectual in an anti-intellectual age. He is a Jew with a long family history of suffering, a "schooling in grief" yet even this proud history of struggle seems trivial because as Herzog notes: "What happened during the War abolished Father Herzog's claim to exceptional suffering". This is one of many aspects of personal history that troubles Moses
The early chapters lay the foundations for the wonderful latter parts of the book. Herzog is one of the most extraordinary literary creations of modern times. Bellow has created a multi-layered madman, pathetic yet loveable, a man of great intellect; solipsistic, moving, pedantic, gentle and above all believable. One moment he is plotting to murder the wife he loathes; the next he is showing the depth of his love for his daughter; then he writes to Nietszche telling the long dead philosopher that he is lying in a hammock in rural Massachusetts. He also writes to God, Heidegger, Eisenhower, ex-lovers and many of the personal and professional rivals he wishes to settle scores with. These letters (never posted), like the wife's one legged lover and Herzog's monkey kissing friend add much dark humour to what is often a very serious and moving narrative. This is a difficult, intense novel, but well worth the effort.
46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars contemporary, like moby dick,
The funny thing about Herzog is that it's no longer contemporary fiction. In terms of language, operating philosophies, and identifiable character types, it's as far behind us as Moby Dick. That's part of the charm of reading Herzog-the discovery that 50 years ago is indeed a half century away. But, like Moby Dick, age doesn't make any difference to the power of Moses Herzog's story, the truths it depicts, or the awe Bellow can sometimes inspire. Herzog is a philosophical novel about a failed academic philosopher who can't help but search for the truth. Whether in love affairs, memories of his Jewish childhood, or the letters he obsessively writes, M. Herzog flings himself against hypocricy, alienation, and boredom. He never wins, but he never gives up, and somehow or another comes to accept his own soul. "The dream of man's heart, however much we may distrust or resent it, is that life may complete itself in significant pattern." Bellow creates that soul from his own, through long and brilliant analytical passages that turn philosophical propositions into intricate, heart-stopping interior monologues. These are interspersed with suggestive aphorisms ("God's veil over things makes them all riddles.") The real secret of Bellow's novel is the emotional pitch of spiritual imperitive and secular compromise so perfeclty rendered in his prose. Half a century later it still resonates.
war on typos: p.302, line 9: "hinding behind the tree trunk" instead of hiding.
p. 227, line 16: "the sinstrument of the soul" instead of instrument.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Saul Bellow's "Herzog",
This was the first novel by Saul Bellow I’ve read. Overall, I thought he had a wonderful writing style, particularly in the smaller details. The descriptions of urban landscapes, facial features, and short sketches of minor characters reminded me of the best stylists from nineteenth and early twentieth century French literature.
The main action of the novel takes place over a period of about five days, as the main character, Professor Moses Herzog, travels back and forth from New York City, Martha’s Vineyard, Chicago, and the Berkshires ruminating over the collapse of his marriage to his second wife. As he moves through space, Herzog travels in time as well. He reviews his personal past and examines his scholarly pursuits. The descriptions of the narrator’s early childhood in Quebec were my favorite segments. I understand that Bellow spent his early childhood near Montreal, and I assume the affectionate portraits of relatives and neighbors may be based to some degree on his own experiences growing up there.
While the minor characters sparkle, the same cannot always be said for the major ones. The middle third of the novel drags on with its descriptions of Herzog’s relationships with two New York women, Ramona and Sono. Both women appear to have no purpose in life other than to serve gourmet meals to Herzog and orchestrate elaborate seduction scenes. These characters go nowhere. At a certain point in your reading you realize exactly where you are – you have been sent backward in time and dropped off in the midst of the ...fantasies of a middle-aged American man of the early nineteen sixties. This is the era of James Bond, JFK, and the dawn of easy availability of the pill. Reading this novel today, you can’t miss the stale aroma of anachronism that pervades these scenes.
Then there is the philosophical meandering. Herzog constantly reels of “letters” with dense philosophical content– whether these are letters committed to paper or imaginary ones that exist only in Herzog’s mind is not always clear. In his correspondence Herzog argues over subjects such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard with an assortment of famous and not so famous addressees, ranging from Adlai Stevenson to Herr Nietzsche himself. The point of these digressions is never clear. I could not find in them a unifying philosophical standard that reflected the action of the novel. Nor does Herzog ever appear to be motivated by some distinct philosophical value. From what I could gather, this is not a novel about a man who derives some hard-earned knowledge after testing his ideas against the world. I received no insight into the novel or the world of ideas from Herzogs ruminations on the history of European philosophy. I read on the dust jacket – that Bellow is a “humanist.” If the point of all this dense text is to say that a humanist intellectual can have a tough time when he encounters evil in the world, then Bellow could have done us a favor by expressing this more succinctly.
Then there is the problem presented by the personification that “evil” takes in this novel. Tolstoy said that all happy marriages are the same, while all unhappy marriages are different. One might add that all nasty divorces are the same, too. Here we have a narrator who is intent on giving us the blow- by-blow of all his ex –spouse’s villainies. It is all there and you have heard it all before – the name-calling, the demonizing, the accusations of child abuse, the anger at confidences betrayed. Maybe this sounded fresh in 1964 when there were fewer divorces; I don’t know. Thirty-five years later, if we haven’t acted out this role ourselves, we at least have had a close friend who has. And we listened and listened, politely agreeing as the accusations droned on and on. Often as we listened, we could imagine the other ex-spouse spewing out similar venom directed against our speaker. Credibility wears thin in these monologues, and after a while this is definitely true for this novel.
Generally, I appreciated the care that marks this novel’s style and structure. The post-divorce whining and the philosophical digressions tried the patience at times, but l I thought the book gave me a good introduction this wonderful author. I will definitely read another one of his novels in the near future.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Profound Insight into the Human Condition,
I have just finished reading this book for the first time, and while I realize that its complexity demands at least one more careful rereading, I am moved to jot down some first impressions.
Bellow is an undoubted master of characterization. Herzog's wife, children, attorney, friends, physician, relatives, in-laws, all burst into life under Bellow's pen. It is amazing the range different types of people he can describe, not just their physical appearance, but their speech, thoughts, and motivation. Even the most minor, fleeting characters such as the taxi driver, haberdasher, and Herzog's stepmother, are rendered unforgettable in a few choice words. The plot is very sophisticatedly structured, nonlinear.
The analysis of Herzog's marriage with Madeleine and its failure is also masterful. Bellow unflinchingly evokes the domestic hell that can arise with both partners are in competition in the same career field, in this case academia. There is one scene in particular, when Madeleine co-opts a colleague who has come to visit Herzog at his country home, and they practically perform a courtship ritual, flinging half-digested theories and authors at one another, strutting and preening, dazzling each other and themselves with their erudition, while Herzog, who could take them both intellectually with one hand tied behind his back, looks on silent and resigned.
Herzog, whose academic career began brilliantly, has drifted for the past several years. The book opens with the shock of the failure of his second marriage, which precipitates him into a frenzy of note-taking and letter writing to friends, enemies, associates and the famous, both living and dead. It is unclear to me if any of these letters, some of which are fairly rational, are ever sent. In The Victim, an early novel, Bellow used the device of several friends gathered in a cafeteria to give monologues on philosophical ideas. Here the letters serve the same purpose. I preferred the earlier device, but felt both slowed the book down. This part of the book might appeal more to those who are well read in philosophy.
It was hard to warm to Herzog, who in the diagnosis of his navy psychiatrist was described as immature. He left his first wife and son for the disturbed Madeleine, and seems relatively unconcerned about this callous act. While trying to repair his doomed second marriage, he engages in a series of significant affairs. He appears to see eros as an outlet for all his troubles. This is a man with a great deal of book knowledge, and other-knowledge (he has a lot of compassion and understanding of others), but with very little self-knowledge. Bellow offers no easy answers, and at the end of the novel, I was unsure if Herzog, spent in a final marathon of letter-writing, had recovered enough to move forward with his career and responsibilities. The book ended on a note of cautious, very cautious, optimism.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lesson in closure.,
Saul Bellow is a brilliant writer, yet I must admit "Herzog" did not capture me as I had hoped it would. Bellow's mastery of prose is stunning, yet "Herzog" seemed to be a bit lacking in just that extra something that separates a really good book from a masterpiece. Moses Herzog seems to be a man who lives a great deal in his own mind, and is filled with inaction fraught with contemplation. He writes letters to persons living, dead, famous and obscure which are never sent, mostly in an attempt to purge his own soul of all the things he sees wrong in the world and his own life. Just as Eugene Henderson was a man of constant action with very little forethought,Herzog, conversely, is a man of too little action and paralyzed with overcontemplation. His letters show the brilliant mind of the man, yet some become quite heady and can quickly lose the attention of a reader who is not familiar with the particular subject which he is speaking about. Plot and action seem to take a back seat in this piece to masterful character development, and it is safe to say that anyone who has gone through an ordeal such as Herzog has will be able to understand and appreciate his feelings and what he's going through. The facts are cut and dried; his wife left him for his best friend, so he attempts to put himself back together and remain a part of his daughter's life. This book is about the journey as much as it is about the destination. It is highly autobiographical with a thin veneer of "fiction" attached to it, as the whole premise of the book echoes the events of Bellow's life at the time it was written, and not suprisingly, the point of view often switches from first to third person almost subconsciously. This work strikes me as a personal catharsis for the author, and a chance for him to indulge the audiences' voyeuristic side. It is clever, masterfully written, and is certainly a heart rending ride through not only Herzog's but also Bellow's life. It is a piece which has the ability to speak volumes to some, yet is without meaning to others. If you can appreciate the purpose the letters serve and the artful way the piece is constructed, you can forgive the sometimes sluggish plot. For those who have read this book as an introduction to Bellow and were turned off from his work by it, I suggest reading "Henderson the Rain King". Perhaps it will give you a greater appreciation of this fine author. "Herzog" can be very powerful to the right reader, and if nothing else, speaks volumes about the author himself.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New old friends,
This was my first Saul Bellow book. I tried others many years ago, and always bogged down, but once I got through the first forty pages of Herzog, I was hooked. Being older was helpful - Herzog's erudition and neurosis weren't too threatening - and the distance of 40 years provided enough historical baffling to make me uncritical about whether Saul was riding the zeitgeist or not. I found Moses Herzog endearing and inspiring, although I'm not sure I'd want to spend much time with him or to be his friend. The tension between his philosophical knowledge and his personal cluelessness was amusing, not just because his wisdom didn't save him but because his willingness to focus on the personal was redemptive. There is great value in simply thinking, in letting your mind become caught up in abstract systems, in testing overarching concepts of meaning in the sexual-emotional furnace. Herzog is full of questions, doubts, prejudices, and failure, but he doesn't let that prevent him from growing into a better flawed person. The smug confidence of his many antagonists, whether his ex-wife, her lover, his psychiatrist, or any of his other comforters, makes Job seem blessed with good friends; Herzog's insecurity and his unfinished personality-in-process emerge as virtues in a world of assured monsters. Finally, he is trying to be a good man, to open his heart, to use his bourgeois suffering to become more loving. He is so successful that his goodness even overlaps his narrow self and extends to some of his compatriots and enemies. The reader is left pondering the mysterious dynamics of the human family and the unpredictability of the individual heart, stretched out on a couch like Herzog, thinking about life with rue and hope. In the days since reading Bellow's novel, I've become increasingly fond of his protagonist and his story. I feel like someone who looks back on a weekend with an old friend in the Berkshires with a glow of happiness and a sigh of relief.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars America's Greatest Living Writer,
I read Herzog after The Adventures of Augie March and am now reading Henderson the Rain King. I'll probably follow it with Humboldt's Gift, which awaits on my night table. In my humble opinion America currently simply doesn't possess a more gifted living writer than Saul Bellow. Herzog's letters to both the living and dead are brilliant epiphanies that showcase the depth of his genius. His writing style is simple, straightforward and captivating for a sensitive reader,who seeks a true literary experience. Bellow draws full,round portraits of characters and they come alive. Moses Herzog is a misfit, an intellectual whose preoccupation with his aesoteric life produces maddening, comic and sometimes tragic conflicts with the realities of everyday existence. I wish America read less Stephen King and John Grisham, and more Saul Bellow: long after American best-sellers are dead,buried and forgotten, Bellow's legacy to American literature will be remembered and treasured.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bellow's best novel,
Herzog is Bellow's best novel. It is a work tremendously alive . Moses Herzog who is suffering something like a breakdown after being betrayed and left by his beautiful and impossible second wife, who takes with her their daughter takes to writing letters to the world, to the living to the dead, to family to the famous to whoever he has a message for . This device gives the work a special intellectual liveliness and humor. .The work has remarkable characters including Herzog himself his best friend and betrayer Valentine Gersbach, the second wife Madelaine and her successor Bellow's mistress, the spectacularly sensual Ramona.
Herzog is an intellectual and part of his task is figuring it all out. And so the book is filled with meditations on the state of Western Civilization , meditations which at one hand can be taken ironically but are often strangely profound. The great connecting device of the novel is in the letters because they connect Bellow's personal state and breakdown with his perception and attempt to understand the Civilization as a whole.
This is a thinking man's novel, a philosophical novel in the best sense. And a funny and moving one.
It is simply one of the best books I know.
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Herzog by Saul Bellow (Hardcover - January 1, 1964)
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