Herzog (novel)

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Herzog (1964 1st ed) - Saul Bellow.jpg
First edition
AuthorSaul Bellow
Cover artistMel Williamson[1]
CountryUnited States
PublisherViking Press
Publication date
September 21, 1964[2]
Media typePrint

Herzog is a 1964 novel by Saul Bellow, composed in part of letters from the protagonist Moses E. Herzog. It won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction[3] and the Prix International. In 2005, Time magazine named it one of the 100 best novels in the English language since Time's founding in 1923.[4][5]

Plot summary[edit]

The novel follows five days in the life of Moses E. Herzog who, at the age of forty-seven, is having a midlife crisis following his second divorce. He has two estranged children, one by each wife, and is in a relationship with a vibrant woman, Ramona, but finds himself running away from commitment.

Herzog spends much of his time mentally writing letters he never sends. These letters are aimed at friends, family members, and famous figures, including recipients who are dead or who Herzog never knew. 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.

Herzog's second wife Madeleine has recently left him for Valentine Gersbach, who Herzog considered a close friend. While still married, Madeleine convinced Herzog to move her and their daughter Junie to Chicago, and to arrange for Gersbach and his wife, Phoebe, to move as well. The plans were a ruse, and shortly after arriving in Chicago, Madeleine throws Herzog out and attempts to have him committed to an asylum.

The novel opens with Herzog in his house in Ludeyville, a (fictional) 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 an actual note saying that he has to leave.

Herzog then heads to New York and, after spending a night with Ramona, he heads to the courthouse to discuss with his lawyer the possibility of regaining custody of his daughter, Junie. He subsequently witnesses a series of 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 in which 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 to kill Madeleine and Valentine and run off with Junie.

The plan goes awry when he sees Valentine giving Junie a bath and realizes that she is in no danger. The next day, after taking his daughter to the aquarium, Herzog crashes his car and is charged with possession of a loaded weapon. His brother, the rational Will, picks him up to try and help 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, which Herzog has considered but ultimately decides against. To Will's surprise, Ramona joins them for dinner 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.

In flashbacks throughout the novel, other critical details of Herzog's life come to light, including his first marriage to Daisy, their son, Marco, the life of Herzog's father, 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."[6] Herzog is such a person. In fact, he considers his addiction to ideas to be his greatest virtue. 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."[7] 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."[8] 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."[9]

The story is told entirely from Herzog's point of view, alternating between first-person and third person.[7] 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."[10] 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.[11]

As the novel progresses, the letters 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.

Autobiographical elements[edit]

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 (ultimately Bellow would marry five times, divorcing four of his 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.[12] Similarly, Ramona is based on Rosette Lamont, a professor of French whom Bellow dated after divorcing his second wife Sasha Tschacbasov.[13] Both Lamont and Ludwig reviewed Herzog without mentioning the autobiographical elements, the latter favorably describing it as "a major breakthrough".[14]

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."[15]


  1. ^ "Bellow 1964". Flickr. December 22, 2010. Archived from the original on July 11, 2021. Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  2. ^ "Li: Herzog". Library of Inspiration. Archived from the original on November 27, 2020. Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  3. ^ "National Book Awards 1965". National Book Foundation. Archived from the original on April 30, 2021. Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  4. ^ Kelly, James (January 6, 2010). "TIME'S List of the 100 Best Novels". Time. Archived from the original on June 29, 2021. Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  5. ^ Lacayo, Richard (January 7, 2010). "Herzog". Time. Archived from the original on June 30, 2021. Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  6. ^ Pinsker, Sanford; PH.D, Professor Sanford Pinsker, B. A. (1991). The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction. SIU Press. p. 133. ISBN 978-0-8093-1581-9.
  7. ^ a b Moynahan, Julian (September 20, 1964). "The Way Up From Rock Bottom". Times. Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  8. ^ Bellow, Saul (1993). Conversations with Saul Bellow: A Collection of Selected Interviews. Academic Foundation. p. 63. ISBN 978-81-7188-080-5.
  9. ^ Pifer, Ellen (1991). Saul Bellow: Against the Grain. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-8122-1369-0.
  10. ^ Mencken, Henry Louis (1972). The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920-1970. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-87140-054-3.
  11. ^ Dipple, Elizabeth (1988). The Unresolvable Plot: Reading Contemporary Fiction. Routledge. p. 213. ISBN 978-0-415-00662-0.
  12. ^ Heer, Jeet (November 8, 2010). "Bellow's Emulators". The Walrus. Archived from the original on April 22, 2014. Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  13. ^ "Saul Bellow's Revenge Novel". The New Yorker. Condé Nast. May 4, 2015. Retrieved July 26, 2022.
  14. ^ Menand, Louis (May 11, 2015). "Young Saul". The New Yorker. pp. 71–76. Retrieved May 7, 2015.
  15. ^ Bellow, Saul (1994). Conversations with Saul Bellow. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 99. ISBN 978-0-87805-718-4.

External links[edit]

Preceded by National Book Award for Fiction
Succeeded by