is a 1964
novel by Saul
. In a nod to the epistolary
of early British literature, letters from the
protagonist constitute much of the text.
won the 1965 National Book
Award for Fiction
. Time Magazine
included the novel in its All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels|TIME 100
Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005
Herzog is a novel set in 1964, in
States, and is about the midlife
crisis of a Jewish man named Moses
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
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
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
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 psychological 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
The character of Herzog in many ways echoes a fictionalized Saul
Bellow. Similarities between Herzog and Bellow include:
grew up in Canada.
- Both are Jewish.
have parents who had emigrated from Russia (St.
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
- Both were sons of bootlegger
- 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, Sondra .
- Burt, Daniel S. The Novel 100. Checkmark Books, 2004.