Herzog by Saul Bellow
Moses Herzog is a character with few peers in American literature. He is as human as any breathing person, yet unlike the living, he is endowed with his author’s unique intelligence and eloquence. Herzog’s story is essentially the account of a man’s mid-life crisis. Herzog finds himself at forty-seven twice divorced, the absentee father of two children and failed as a writer and professor. Herzog’s lifelong penchant for immaturity has finally turned against him as he faces the disintegration of his life.
As discoursed by Herzog, Heidegger explains his malady best. Herzog begins the novel to find that his innocent hope for the future of his life (he was to lead a personal life of “Biblical proportions”) has finally proved false and he falls from the pedestal of his youth. He is experiencing Heidegger’s “second Fall of Man” (117). To cope with this new awareness Herzog turns to writing letters to a host of recipients, alive and dead, known and unknown. These letters are Herzog’s sounding board for his thoughts on the nature and purpose of life as well as his own personal tragedies. Herzog’s letters serve a second, less cathartic, purpose as well. In their generally negative and censorious tone they are diatribes against the figures in Herzog’s life that he believes to be somehow complicit in his fall. In this way Herzog’s immaturity is unequivocal.
One of the most telling characteristics of Herzog’s life is his relationship with women. Throughout his life, Herzog expresses an unhealthy attraction to people, women especially, with strong, vibrant, even domineering, personalities. Because his more reserved, civil personality becomes dwarfed in comparison, Herzog is constantly seeking the approval of those around him. Until the end of the novel, Herzog allows his opinion of himself to be dictated by the women in his life. He leans on Madeleine, his atrocious second wife/lover to his best friend, especially, to validate him. When she doesn’t, he is forced to face himself. Or more importantly, he is forced to face his opinion of himself.
While Herzog is graced with enough gripping passages to fill another volume, I found the book’s strongest point to be found at the end, once Herzog has shed his unhealthy attachments to women, and more importantly, his compulsive letter writing. Herzog cogently expresses that life is best led “just as it is willed.” In these few words Herzog realizes that life is miserable when lived within the confines of preconceived expectations. He concludes also that life is “not a solitary thing.” Life cannot be lived through analysis alone, and must be experienced with those one loves in order to be fulfilled.
As the reader navigates the eloquence of Herzog’s mind, one realizes not only the great power of the human mind, but the great danger that comes along with it. I consider this book a treat to be enjoyed by those ready to confront the subsconscious that lurks within us all.