Herzog is a 1964 novel by Saul Bellow, composed in large part of letters from the protagonist Moses E. Herzog. It won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and the The Prix International. TIME magazine named it one of the 100 best novels in the English language since "the beginning of TIME" (1923 to 2005).
Herzog is set in 1964 in the United States, and is about the midlife crisis of a Jewish man named Moses E. Herzog. At the age of forty-seven, 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. His career as a writer and an academic has floundered. He is 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. While still actively married, 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 mentally 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 them. 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, which includes regaining custody of his daughter Junie. After spending a night with Ramona, he heads to the courthouse to discuss his plans with his lawyer. He 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 crashes his car and ends up being charged with possession of a loaded weapon. His brother, the 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 dinner – 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.
"People don't realize how much they are in the grip of ideas", Bellow once wrote. "We live among ideas much more than we live in nature." Herzog is such a person. In fact, he considers his addiction to ideas to be his greatest virtue. And, it should be noted, Herzog's ideas, as expressed in his letters, are brilliant and seductive; "After Herzog", the New York Times book reviewer exulted, "no writer need pretend in his fiction that his education stopped in the eighth grade." But, said Bellow in an interview, Herzog "comes to realize at last that what he considers his intellectual 'privilege' has proved to be another form of bondage." It is only when he has loosened this bondage and gotten in touch with the "primordial person" who exists outside this ideology that Herzog can "achieve the experience of authentic being."
The story is told entirely from Herzog's point of view; of the hero's pervasive consciousness, Irving Howe wrote: "We are made captive in the world of Herzog... the consciousness of the character forms the enclosing medium of the novel." The beauty of the novel lies in this 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 and the intellectual ideas that fascinate him towards the real world outside and the real 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 narrative.
The character of Herzog in many ways echoes a fictionalized Saul Bellow. Both Herzog and Bellow grew up in Canada the sons of bootleggers who had emigrated from Russia (St. Petersburg). Both are Jewish, lived in Chicago for significant periods of time, and were divorced twice (at the time of writing; Bellow would go on to divorce four of his five wives). Herzog is nearly the same age that Bellow was when he wrote the novel. 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. Similarly, Ramona is based on Rosette Lamont, a professor of French whom Bellow dated after divorcing his second wife Sasha Tschacbasov. Both Lamont and Ludwig reviewed Herzog without mentioning the autobiographical elements, the latter favorably describing it as "a major breakthrough".
Asked about these similarities, Bellow said "I don't know that that sort of thing is really relevant. I mean, it's a curiosity about reality which is impure, let's put it that way. Let's both be bigger than that."In the Kingsley Amis novel Stanley and the Women (1984), Stanley's son Steve reads a copy of Herzog and abruptly tears it up.
Ian McEwan begins his 2005 novel Saturday with an extended epigraph from Herzog.
The middle name E. in Moses E. Herzog stands for Elkanah.
The narrator/protagonist of J. M. Coetzee's "The Vietnam Project" in Dusklands, before being committed to an asylum, has in his possession a copy of Herzog in addition to Patrick White's Voss (novel). All three authors (Bellow, White, and Coetzee) went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature after the publication of Dusklands, which was published in 1974.
The plot of the movie A Serious Man from the Coen brothers is partly similar to the plot of Herzog, as the main character in both is a middle-aged Jewish professor whose wife leaves him for their family friend. In both the wife asks him to leave his own house, and he passively agrees without arguing. As a consequence, he teeters on the verge of losing his mind and his academic career suffers.
Moses Herzog is the name of a Dublin merchant in chapter 12 of James Joyce's Ulysses.