HERZOG, A NOVEL BY SAUL BELLOW (BOOK REVIEW AND RECOMMENDATION)

 In this post, I shall review a novel Herzog by an American- Jewish writer Saul Bellow. This was my second novel by Saul Bellow, the first one being The Victim (recently reviewed on my blog but read a long time ago). If we were to compare the two novels, Herzog would be the more literary and ambitious work. In fact, it could be argued that Herzog is Bellow’s best known work. Without a doubt, Herzog is a novel that has had a profound influence on American literature. 

However, this complex novel  is certainly not an easy read. Herzog demands concentration and effort from its reader. It is not the best choice for those who don’t enjoy serious literature and/or are looking for a lighter read. Herzog’s a heavy book, if you get what I mean. Reading it was a rewarding, albeit a difficult experience.

Published in 1964, Herzog met with success and went on to win numerous literary awards. It was even declared one of the 100 best novels in the English language by Time magazine. Numbering more than 300 pages (340 in most editions), Herzog is a neither a short nor a very long novel. A large part of the novel is composed of letters written by the protagonist of the novel Moses Herzog to various individuals, both living and dead. 

U ovoj objavi podijelit ću svoj književni ogled romana Herzog američko-židovskog pisca Saula Bellowa. Ovo je bio moj drugi roman Saula Bellowa, prvi je Žrtva (nedavno opisan na mom blogu, ali pročitan davno). Ako bismo usporedili ova dva romana, Herzog bi bio književnije i ambicioznije djelo. Zapravo, moglo bi se tvrditi da je Herzog Bellowovo najpoznatije djelo. Bez sumnje, Herzog je roman koji je imao bitan utjecaj na američku književnost. Međutim, ovaj složeni roman nije nikako lako štivo. Herzog od svog čitatelja zahtijeva koncentraciju i trud. Nije najbolji izbor za one koji ne vole ozbiljnu literaturu i/ili traže lakše štivo. Herzog je teška knjiga, ako razumijete na što mislim. Čitanje ovog romana je bilo vrijedno, ali teško iskustvo. Objavljen 1964., Herzog je postigao uspjeh i osvojio brojne književne nagrade. Čak ga je časopis Time proglasio jednim od 100 najboljih romana na engleskom jeziku. S više od 300 stranica (340 u većini izdanja), Herzog nije ni kratak ali ni jako dugačak roman. Velik dio romana čine pisma koja protagonist romana Moses Herzog piše raznim pojedincima, živima i mrtvima.


White tunics /Floral skirt/ Camel Bohemian stiletto heels 



A COMPLEX PSYCHOLOGICAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL NOVEL 

What kind of novel is Herzog by Saul Bellow?

It is a novel told from the perspective of its protagonist, Moses Herzog, an intellectual man who is undergoing a life crisis following his second divorce. Trapped in a limbo of spiritual and emotional pain, Moses turns to writing intense letters of varying styles and lengths to ease his state. His thoughts are often chaotic and his general state unbalanced. At certain times our protagonist wonders if he is mentally unstable. However, at other times Moses Herzog seems quite confident and capable of brilliant clarity.  The letters often reflect Moses’ state of mind following his divorce and are often written employing stream-of-consciousness technique. Herzog ( the novel) could perhaps be best described as an intense and not linear piece of writing with a narrative voice that switches from the first to the third person and employs flashbacks and digressions. This novel demands concentration of its reader because of its non-linear narrative but also  in the sense that it is easy to miss something if you are not paying attention. 

PERHAPS THE MOST CULTURALLY JEWISH OF ALL SAUL BELLOW'S NOVELS

What role does the Jewish identity play in Herzog?

It could be argued that Herzog is the most Jewish of all Saul Bellow works. All the major characters in the novel are Jewish. Moreover, the novel talks a great deal about Herzog’s parents, who were European Jewish immigrants.


THE COMPLEXLY FLAWED AND HUMAN PROTAGONIST- MOSES HERZOG

Who is  the protagonist of this novel? What is Moses E. Herzog like?

Herzog at the start of the novel is a torn forty- seven old man, a former academic, who now spends his time frantically writing letters he never sends. Rising from rather humble origins (son of impoverished Jewish immigrants),  Moses’s American dream was taken from him. Now Moses Herzog is a broken man who at times even doubts his own sanity. In some ways Moses Herzog is an unreliable narrator but he is at the same time quite relatable. Who of us is completely reliable? Moses is a very human character, a man who while not without his flaws, but clearly hurt and bewildered. It is clear his second marriage has left him destroyed emotionally and financially.

Herzog’s second wife Madeline has betrayed him with his best friend Valentine and made plans to have him committed to an asylum. What is worse, as the novel progresses, Moses realizes that unbeknownst to him, his best friend and his wife were making plans against him for quite some time. Madeline has successfully stripped Moses of his earrings and tarnished his reputation.What is worse, Madeline limits his visits to their daughter.


“Theirs was not a marriage that could last. Madeleine had never loved him. She was telling him that. 'It's painful to have to say I never loved you. I never will love you, either,' she said. 'So there's no point in going on.'
Herzog said, 'I do love you, Madeleine.'
Step by step, Madeleine rose in distinction, in brilliance, in insight. Her color grew very rich, and her brows, and that Byzantine nose of hers, rose, moved; her blue eyes gained by the flush that kept deepening, rising from her chest and her throat. She was in an esctasy of consciousness. It occurred to Herzog that she had beaten him so badly, her pride was so fully satisfied, that there was an overflow of strength into her intelligence. He realized that he was witnessing one of the very greatest moments of her life.” Saul Bellow, Herzog


 At the opening of the novel, Moses seems to be unable to go back to his work and normal life. Herzog is lost and trapped in his thoughts. Gradually, Moses Herzog comes to his senses. I think most readers will be sympathetic to Moses, but also critical of him. At times I even felt like he got what he deserved in some ways (considering how he treated his past love interests). Moses is, especially in his letters, quite hard on himself as well. Moses Herzog is, albeit a real intellectual, a man not without his flaws. When it comes to his first marriage, it seems that the guilt lies primarily on him and not on his first wife Daisy. Maybe blame never rests solely on one person, but at any rate, Herzog was unfaithful to Daisy. Through flashbacks it is revealed that he has two serious affairs during his first marriage, finally deciding for Madeline and marrying her.

“For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you yourself enjoyed old-fashioned Values? You—you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot. There, Herzog, thought Herzog, since you ask for the instance, is the way it runs.”
Saul Bellow, Herzog




While Herzog maintains that he only sought solace in other women after the end of his second marriage to Madeline, this is questionable considering his history of infidelity. Long story short, Moses is no angel and is aware of it. Moses Herzog maintains a bit of self-irony even when he is at his most depressed and apathetic. This saves Herzog from being too sentimental and soppy. His psychological portrayal was handled very well.  Herzog was made very relatable despite all of his flaws. 


“But what is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead, that point was passed long ago. Perhaps it should be stated Death is God. This generation thinks – and this is its thought of thoughts – that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb. The brittle shell of glass loses its tiny vacuum with a burst, and that is that. And this is how we teach metaphysics to each other. "You think history is the history of loving hearts? You fool! Look at these millions of dead. Can you pity them, feel for them? You can do nothing! There were too many. We burned them to ashes, we buried them with bulldozers. History is the history of cruelty, not love as soft men think.”
 Saul Bellow, Herzog


A NOVEL THAT EXPLORES SERIOUS AND COMPLEX THEMES

What kind of themes does this novel explore?

Herzog (the novel) explores many themes, from identity to relationships. This is not the kind of book you could skim through. It deals with some serious topics (such as abuse) and keeps you on your toes. For example, at one moment in the novel, there is an episode in which it is revealed that the protagonist Moses was attacked and abused as a child. This short episode comes without an introduction of any point and takes the reader by surprise. As the novel progresses, we get a glimpse into many troubled lives. Parenting and family life are themes often examined in this novel. At one point in the novel, the protagonist listens to a court hearing for a mother who killed her child and this is quite a disturbing episode in a novel. As Moses starts to question everything, he also questions the society he lives in. There is talk of social classes. Moses’ parents were extremely poor and this affected their life quality. Moses was able to rise from the poority, but his family life remained chaotic. In his letters, Moses often gets very philosophical and intellectual. Just like with the novel L’amante I reviewed not too long ago, here as a reader, you can choose to focus on all or any of the different aspects of this novel. Some novels are like that, they are wonderfully complex. As a reader, you can choose to focus on the main story line or  on the meditative and philosophical passages about life, society, love and writing; or on those more autobiographical and personal aspects of the book.

“I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And then? I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And what next? I get laid, I take a short holiday, but very soon after I fall upon those same thorns with gratification in pain, or suffering in joy - who knows what the mixture is! What good, what lasting good is there in me? Is there nothing else between birth and death but what I can get out of this perversity - only a favorable balance of disorderly emotions? No freedom? Only impulses? And what about all the good I have in my heart - does it mean anything? Is it simply a joke? A false hope that makes a man feel the illusion of worth? And so he goes on with his struggles. But this good is no phony. I know it isn't. I swear it.”
Saul Bellow, Herzog


What kind of narration does this novel employ? The novel alternates between the third and the first person narration. Bellow writes letters to various individuals, ranging from famous historical people to people he personally knows. Some of these letters are very emotional, with emotions ranging from bitterness, sadness, apathy to anger.  Some of the letters are very intellectual, some are brilliantly clear, others confusing and interrupted.  While writing these letters, Herzog often reveals his own  innermost thoughts and emotions. When he directs his letters to famous philosophers, they are naturally philosophic and intellectual. When he directs them to people he personally knows, they are typically more personal and emotional in tone. 


“No, really, Herr Nietzche, I have great admiration for you. Sympathy. You want to make us able to live with the void. Not lie ourselves into good-naturedness, trust, ordinary middling human considerations, but to question as has never been questioned before, relentlessly, with iron determination, into evil, through evil, past evil, accepting no abject comfort. The most absolute, the most piercing questions. Rejecting mankind as it is, that ordinary, practical, thieving, stinking, unilluminated, sodden rabble, not only the laboring rabble, but even worse the "educated" rabble with its books and concerts and lectures, its liberalism and its romantic theatrical "loves" and "passions"--it all deserves to die, it will die. Okay. Still, your extremists must survive. No survival, no Amor Fati. Your immoralists also eat meat. They ride the bus. They are only the most bus-sick travelers. Humankind lives mainly upon perverted ideas. Perverted, your ideas are no better than those the Christianity you condemn. Any philosopher who wants to keep his contact with mankind should pervert his own system in advance to see how it will really look a few decades after adoption. I send you greetings from this mere border of grassy temporal light, and wish you happiness, wherever you are. Yours, under the veil of Maya, M.E.H.”
Saul Bellow, Herzog



NON LINEAR PLOT FILLED WITH FLASHBACKS AND DIGRESSIONS

What is the plot of this novel like? How long does the story last? Where  is it set? 

As I have already mentioned, the plot of this novel isn’t linear. While the novel actually follows five (eventful and hectic) days in the life of Moses E. Herzog, it seems like it actually tells the tale of his entire life. During the course of those five eventful days, the character of Moses Herzog often travels back in time (in his mind).  These digressions and flashbacks allow us to learn just a great deal about Moses’ life. The novel is set in America (it opens with Herzog being in his house in a fictional town in Massachusetts), but through digressions we also learn of Herzog's visit to Europe.  During the course of the novel Moses travels to visit some friends, but leaves immediately upon arriving and then he contemplates travelling to New York to see a new lover of his Ramona. We learn more about Ramona, who is an energetic and seductive woman, through flashbacks. It seems that Moses cares about her but is unwilling to commit even if he really enjoys Ramona’s company. So, there is this motif of travelling that is present in the novel. Moses seems to be feeling particularly restless. It is like his divorce has turned his life upside down. Moses reconsiders everything, examines his life, his childhood and youth, his life prior to and during his second marriage to Madeline. Gradually we learn of his first wife Daisy, the one Herzog left for Madeline and of their son Marco. We also learn a lot about Herzog’s parents (father and mother) and his siblings. During the course of the novel, one of Moses’ brothers comes to help him. Moreover, it is revealed another brother also helped Moses financially (and emotionally). Moses loves his siblings but struggles in his romantic relationships. 


“I am willing without further exercise in pain to open my heart. And this needs no doctrine or theology of suffering. We love apocalypses too much, and crisis ethics and florid extremism with its thrilling language. Excuse me, no. I've had all the monstrosity I want.” Saul Bellow, Herzog


Is Herzog an autobiographical novel?
While it is true that the protagonist has many things in common with the writer Saul Bellow, the novel is not completely autobiographical. Perhaps only the writer himself knows to what extent are things described autobiographical. It is true that the author experiences a similar experience with his second divorce when his wife left him for a friend of his.  However, it is clear that the author didn’t write Herzog with the intention of it being a fully autobiographical work. Every author draws on his life experiences while writing, it is inevitable. However, some works are more autobiographic, some less. This novel has autobiographical elements, but I wouldn't label it as autobiographical writing. 
What is the language and the style of the writing like? I have already partly answered this question when I explained that this novel uses different writing styles and techniques. The language itself varies depending on the writing style the writer employs in different parts of the novel. For the most part, the language isn’t difficult. Indeed, it is more the narrative  style that can be confusing to the reader.. At times, the novel is hard to read but not due to its language but rather to the sometimes confusing non- linear narration and serious themes it explores. The writer uses some expressions in Yiddish but they are fairly well known expressions. Language depends on the style and tone of the writing. Some parts of the novel are more intellectual, others more emotional and even  graphic. There are even a few poetic moments:
“The wheels of the cars stormed underneath. Woods and pastures ran up and receded, the rails of sidings sheathed in rust, the dipping racing wires, and on the right the blue of the Sound, deeper, stronger than before. Then the enameled shells of the commuters' cars, and the heaped bodies of junk cars, the shapes of old New England mills, with narrow, austere windows; villages, convents; tugboats moving in the swelling fabric-like water; and then plantations of pine, the needles on the ground of a life-giving russet color. So, thought Herzog, acknowledging that his imagination of the universe was elementary, the novae bursting and the worlds coming into being, the invisible magnetic spokes by means of which bodies kept one another in orbit. Astronomers made it all sound as though the gases were shaken up inside a flask. Then after many billions of years, light-years, this childlike but far from innocent creature, a straw hat on his head, and a heart in his breast, part pure, part wicked, who would try to form his own shaky picture of this magnificent web.”


A DIFFICULT READ AT TIMES BUT WELL WORTH THE EFFORT

What was my reading experience like?
I have to admit that I struggled while with this novel, as impressed I was with it. Some parts of the novel were quite depressive and manic, others quite graphic and distrurbing. However, there is no disputing Bellow’s writing skill. This novel is a literary masterpiece. A difficult read, but worth it. 

RECOMMENDED TO LOVERS OF SERIOUS MODERN (AND JEWISH) LITERATURE
Would I recommend this novel? I would recommend it to some readers, but not to everyone. Herzog (the novel)  is a very literary work that demands attention from its reader. The themes it explores  and the language it uses make Herzog an inappropriate read for younger readers.  I would recommend this novel to readers of classical and modern literature. Moreover, due to its philosophical references, it might be interesting to those studying or interested in philosophical subjects. Moreover, it is a great reading choice for those interested in American Jewish literature.

MORE READING RECOMMENDATIONS FROM JEWISH AUTHORS
 THE HUMAN STAIN, A NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN-JEWISH WRITER PHILIP ROTH 


Thank you for visiting. Hvala na posjeti.


Comments

  1. You're so good at writing these in-depth book reviews, Ivana! I am absolutely hopeless at this.
    Not sure if it's one for me, but thank your sharing.
    I'm loving both of your outfits here, in particular that lovely embroidered tunic worn with that gorgeous skirt! Have a lovely Saturday evening and Sunday! xxx

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  2. Such an amazing review. He is one my favorite literary authors! Lovely in mustard, too! Great slacks and high heels! Love the other outfit too. Hope you are having a warm weekend. Stay creative ❤️

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    1. Thank you Ellie. I'm glad to know he is one of your fav literary authors. I think I preferred The Victim by him to this one, perhaps because that one was a surprise read while this book is super hyped (for a good reason but still sometimes I end up preferring lesser known authors).

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  3. Spectacular! Such wonderful outfits and great photos to go with your remarkable review. Yes, so complex and hard to read at time, indeed. Thanks for this wonderful post! Hope your weekend if relaxing and fun. All the best to a wonderful May!

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  4. I have heard of this book but I haven't read it! I do tend to prefer lighter shorter reads, as I'm reading just before bed mostly. I've been trying to find some time to read in the hammock more as well, while the kids play in the back yard, but it has to be a light easy to follow story as I often have to look at what they have found or keep my eyes on them for a bit to make sure they are okay!

    Hope that you are having a good weekend :)

    Away From The Blue

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    1. Thank you Mica. I get what you mean, sometimes lighter readers are better choices with our lifestyle. I have some lighter reading recommendations coming up.

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  5. Gracias por la reseña. Se ve muy interesante. Te mando un beso.

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  6. WOW great post and lovely photos

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  7. You are so good at these in-depth reviews. It sounds a little high brow for my tastes! You look fabulous in the mustard polo neck and flares and the "Bardot" top is so pretty! xxx

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  8. Hi!
    This book review is as difficult as reading the book, I think!! I was here yesterday and today I return to finish, these posts are better than some master's theses!!! Believe me!!
    I think your two looks match this review of a book with such a deep plot!
    xoxo

    marisasclosetblog.com

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    Replies
    1. I can't afford a PhD study so I'm using my blog to publish my thesis😀

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  9. Thank you for the book review with beautiful outfits photos. Greetings.

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  10. Great review, thank you!!!!

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All your comments mean a lot to me, even the criticism. Naravno da mi puno znači što ste uzeli vrijeme da nešto napišete, pa makar to bila i kritika. Per me le vostre parole sono sempre preziose anche quando si tratta di critiche.

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