by Saul Bellow

Book, 1964



Call number




New York, Viking Press [1964], 341 pages


In one of his finest achievements, Nobel Prize winner Bellow presents a multifaceted portrait of a modern-day hero, a man struggling with the complexity of existence and longing for redemption. Winner of the National Book Awards.

Media reviews

Anybody who has gotten some distance from a heartbreak’s wickedest throes, and wants to understand it, and wants to feel again the vibrancy of mind that made love possible in the first place, should read... Herzog.
3 more
The New York Times Book Review
A masterpiece... Herzog's voice... for all its wildness and strangeness and foolishness is the voice of a civilization, our civilization... The book is new and classic, and its publicaiton now... suggests that things are looking up for America and its civilization.
Book Week
With this new work, his sixth novel, Saul Bellow emerges not only as the most intelligent novelist of his generation but also as the most consistently interesting in the point of growth and development. To my mind, too, he is the finest stylist at present writing fiction in America.
Saturday Review
A novel that is certain to be talked about and written about for a long time to come, Herzog reinforces my conviction that Bellow is the leading figure in American fiction today.

User reviews

LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
I think that "Herzog" is a fine novel, but I also think that it's a tough book to love, or even to like. I imagine that there are a lot of readers who aren't going to be too interested in exploring the myriad neuroses of a depressed, self-involved nearly broke middle-aged Jewish intellectual with
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two ex-wives. Herzog is a deeply flawed character, and there's a lot about him, like his abiding grudge against his second ex-wife and her new lover, which might not be redeemable. Also, the book lacks what most people would call a plot: we witness the main character walk around New York, take a trip to Martha's Vineyard, and drive around Chicago, but this one makes "Mrs. Dalloway" look tightly plotted and full of action. As he wanders, Herzog, reminisces, berates himself and others, considers the state of the modern world in knotty paragraphs peppered with five-dollar words, and writes a lot of letters he'll never send. The book even lacks much of an emotional arc. Baggy and formless as it sometimes seems, Bellow resists the urge to tie all of the strands of his character's life together too neatly in the novel's last pages, and I imagine that many readers will find this anticlimactic. "Herzog" is, by turns, boring, spellbinding, exacting and diffuse. It makes Phillip Roth look like beach reading.

Somehow, though, I think that Herzog is a very worthwhile book, perhaps even an essential book, though perhaps not for the reasons its author intended. Bellow is, first of all, a fantastic writer at the sentence level. This isn't to say that his writing is traditionally beautiful or lyrical: these adjectives often don't apply to his prose. But I think it's clear that he managed to develop an absolutely unmistakable voice. There is such a thing as a "Bellow sentence," and maybe saying that a writer's bent the language they work in into an uncontestably unique shape is the highest compliment that you can pay a writer. Not coincidentally, Bellow is also very, very good at what one might call the small stuff: tiny physical details, the often ignored rituals of everyday life, descriptions of buildings and clothes and skylines. It would be easy, I suppose, to call Herzog a pre-feminist troglodyte, and he certainly is a grouch, if a grouch who has certain grandly romantic tendencies. But sixty years or so after it was first written, the novel might be considered a perfectly preserved image of middle-class life in America in the middle years of the twentieth century. It's all extraordinarily vivid, and Bellow takes the same meticulous care in describing his character's attitudes and expectations as he does describing the minutia of his daily life. His intellectual digressions, too, might be taken by some readers to be the products of a disorganized, overeducated mind, and in some sense, they are. But I also think that Bellow took the time to bury this book's themes very deeply indeed. There is, underneath all of this verbiage, a genuine meditation about how, or if, one can remain human in an increasingly dangerous and pitiless modern world. Moses Herzog is full of personality quirks, and not all of these are exactly pleasant, but he is also a man of his era, an iconic character despite himself. "Herzog" might also be considered as a series of expertly rendered brief interviews with hideous people: during the few days whose events are described here, Herzog spends time with many of the individuals who are most important to him. We meet his stepmother, his brother, some of his friends, his lawyer. Some of these scenes are amusing and others are sad, but, reading them, you might easily come to the conclusion that Bellow's got "it," the gift of making fiction seem real and human. Even as one recognizes many of these characters as Jewish-American "types," one emerges from the book feeling that one has actually met them. That's a rare talent, and one that can't be learned in writing workshops. And maybe that's the best reason to read "Herzog," it proves, as D.H. Lawrence did, that the products of literary genius aren't always neat or admirable. Challenging and often frustrating, but also recommendable.
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LibraryThing member samatoha
a true modern classic.
deep and complex as it is,it might be the most importend american novel of the last century.
trying,like Musil,dostoyevski and tolstoy,to deal with the problem of indvidual existence in the confused (post) modern world, through the eyes of an intelectual of the old world.
more a
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book of ideas,and the problem they arise,Herzog,in a way,is the opposite charactar to Updike's Rabbit,but it seems both are trying to cope with the same problems.
Bellow here,also has the deepest understanding of the psychology of mankind,and like all the greatest books,he also offers true consolation.
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LibraryThing member thorold
Fifty years on, it's probably time to take the blinkers off and start seeing this as a book that should be flung aside with great force. I do still have a little niggling doubt: Bellow was clearly someone who could write when he wanted to. It's a novel that puts big ideas across in clever, subtle
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ways, and it contains some passages where the writing is extremely beautiful.

But 90% of it is utterly unappealing. It's presented from the point of view of a protagonist I just couldn't find any sympathy with. You would probably have to be a male, heterosexual intellectual really to appreciate it, preferably an unreconstructed 1960s type that's never heard of the women's movement. Herzog is supposed to be someone the reader engages with, but in the end he just acts like all the middle-class divorced dads I know, falling to pieces until a new girlfriend conveniently turns up to look after him.

I wonder if anyone's thought of rewriting the story from Madeleine's point of view?
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LibraryThing member kant1066
I remember reading "Henderson the Rain King" and then "Ravelstein" perhaps in my first or second year of university, and thinking they were pedantic and overly contrived. I hadn't read anything by him in the intervening ten years or so. Then, on a fluke, I picked up "Herzog" wondering if I might
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have learned how to appreciate Bellow. To make a long story short, I read it in a few days, and finished it thinking that it may be one of the greatest American novels of the last fifty years.

Bellow once said "People don't realize how much they are in the grip of ideas. We live among ideas much more than we live in nature." Bellow's Moses Herzog - both the protagonist and the novel he inhabits - are brilliantly illustrative of this. He is a scholar of nineteenth-century intellectual history whose interests run from Hegel to "the state of nature in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English and French political philosophy," the title of his only published book. Herzog brims, intensely and relentlessly, with ideas; they are how Moses relates to his world. Unable to articulate his ideas in any other way beside letter-writing, Moses does this endlessly, composing letters to President Eisenhower, his dog, his mother, and the long-dead philosophers that have consumed a lifetime's worth of attention. He never sends them.

After two failed marriages, the second of which ended with his best friend Valentine Gersbach living with his wife, and a current love affair with a woman named Ramona which is in ambiguous standing, Moses decides to escape. But he can't. Everywhere he goes, he is confronted with the world's ugliness: while waiting to talk to his divorce lawyer, he overhears cases of prostitution and child abuse, he is haunted by the life that Valentine and his ex-wife are living, and is tempted to take a few Old World Russian rubles and a handgun from the desk of his dead father. At the end of the novel, Moses achieves a kind of catharsis in which he finds that he no longer needs to write any letters, and in which the sentimentalist might hold some faint hope that Ramona might successfully enter his life. Knowing Moses, I wouldn't hold my breath, but I was surprised at the degree to which I was hoping that he would find an undiluted happiness which wouldn't have to suffer his constant hyperscrutiny.

This is a book about all the Big Subjects: writing, memory, displacement both physical and intellectual, love and its discontents, and philosophy. It seems that not even the novel itself can contain its subjects or all of its size. "Herzog" asks a lot of its readers, but I found its rewards to be numerous. If you have never read Bellow before, I would suggest that you read the first fifty pages. If you dislike it, don't bother with the rest: he never eases up and the tone doesn't change. However, don't make the same mistake I made, reading a couple of his books in college and then failing to return to him for a decade. Bellow, at least for me, was one of those writers that I needed to be at a certain age to fully appreciate.
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LibraryThing member gbill
Herzog is not unlike Ulysses in style as a lot of the novel takes place in Herzog’s brain, and Bellow is certainly more accessible than Joyce, but to me the comparison relative to the book being a classic is a stretch.

The use of writing letters to process the pain of losing his wife to his best
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friend makes for entertaining reading in many cases, and the range of those to whom these letters are addressed is quite wide, e.g. dead philosophers, politicians, childhood friends, the credit department of Marshall Field & Co, etc. However, they were sometimes a little too esoteric for me, and some, like the letter to God at the end, were disappointments.

At the end Herzog is at peace with his situation, but because he has dealt with this crisis and others in his life mainly intellectually, it’s harder to feel empathy for him. The allusions to sex and Herzog’s relationships with women are interesting in the beginning of the book (“Quack”! … “The ejaculatio praecox”!), but they wore thin towards the end. The book seems to drag on a bit and could have been pared down.

I was tempted to give the book 2.5 stars but after going through it again, I did find enough nuggets of wisdom to rate it higher. Some of Bellow’s descriptions, like the one contained within the passage between leaving the subway and the man in the change booth sitting in a light “the color of strong tea” to the “pious old women who trod the path of ancient duty, still, buying kosher meat” I thought were truly great.

Bellow was certainly timely in 1964, but then also made timeless conclusions:
“The point was that there were people who could destroy mankind and that they were foolish and arrogant, crazy, and must be begged not to do it. Let the enemies of life step down. Let each man now examine his heart. Without a great change of heart, I would not trust myself in a position of authority. Do I love mankind? Enough to spare it, if I should be in a position to blow it to hell? Now let us all dress in our shrouds and walk on Washington and Moscow. Let us lie down, men, women, and children, and cry, ‘Let life continue – we may not deserve it, but let it continue.’ In every community there is a class of people profoundly dangerous to the rest. I don’t mean the criminals. For them we have punitive sanctions. I mean the leaders. Invariably the most dangerous people seek the power”.

And while criticizing the “establishment”, also criticizing the next generation:
“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”.

On philosophy:
I don’t agree with Nietzche that Jesus made the whole world sick, infected it with his slave morality. But Nietzsche himself had a Christian view of history, seeing the present moment always as some crisis, some fall from classical greatness, some corruption or evil to be saved from. I call that Christian.

The view of man as both good and evil
“But reluctance to cause pain coupled with the necessity to devour … a particular human trick is the result, which consists in admitting and denying evils at the same time.”

“Demographers estimate that at least half of all the human beings ever born are alive now, in this century. What a moment for the human soul! Characteristics drawn from the genetic pool have, in statistical probability, reconstituted all the best and worst of human life. It’s all around us. Buddha and Lao-tse must be walking the earth somewhere. And Tiberius and Nero. Everything horrible, everything sublime, and things not imagined yet”.

My net: there’s certainly enough here of interest to say this is a good book, but for me neither the story nor the insights are profound enough to say it’s a great book.
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LibraryThing member ctpress
This is a very cerebral novel with a lot of references to important names of philosophy, politics, history and religion.

The main character Herzog is in a deadlock in his life, twice divorced and drifting toward a total mental meltdown. The book follows him within a few days, but there are numerous
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flashbacks to earlier episodes in his life and then there's the letters he writes to everyone without sending them - they cut into the story - some funny others very philosophical.

The parts of narrative I liked very much and the conversations he's having with different people. Not that anything dramatic happens - but it's more the psychological journey he's on, learning to accept his place in the world.

Herzog has one problem - he has lived many years with a lot of ideas in his head - and they are presented here - in a way its fascinating to read all this seemingly random generalizations about society and culture - but it becomes quickly very tedious.

I will try another Bellow - this one didn't work for me.
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LibraryThing member LostFrog
A brilliant and mad book, but that doesn't necessarily make for an entertaining read. It wasn't very captivating, but I do appreciate it, and it got me interested in Bellow's other works.
LibraryThing member baswood
The next book along my shelf was one I had read some time ago. It had kept its place because on a first reading I felt I had not fully come to grips with it. I had found it intellectually challenging, because of the way it is written. It takes the form of a narrative story, interrupted by the
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thoughts of the protagonist (Herzog), expressed in self penned letters, which questioned the state of the world and his place in it. I remember finding the letters an interruption of the narrative flow that required a different mind-set to fully appreciate them. The letters, or in some cases parts, or fragments of letters are integral to the text, but are made distinctive by being type set in italics. I found the reading experience exactly the same this time around, and was tempted to gloss over parts of the longer letters.

Moses Elkanah Herzog is a forty something jewish male who is undergoing a mid life crisis. He is an academic, currently not employed, living alone in a large remote house in the countryside. He seems to be at war with the world at large and in particular with his ex-second wife Madeleine who has turned him out of their conjugal home and is living with his best friend. He is spending his time thinking of his past and how he has arrived in his current situation. Part of this process, which maybe a healing process, is writing letters to people from his past and also to fellow academics and politicians: the letters remain unsent. Moses would appear to have many things in his favour: although not a rich man, his two brothers are both rich and supportive, he has made his mark in the world of academic publications, he owns the house in the countryside that he has renovated himself; he is fit and in good health and is attractive to the opposite sex. The narrative finds him travelling to see two of his female admirers and also to have time with his young daughter Junie who lives with Madeleine and Gersbach her lover.

Herzog wallows in self pity, perhaps brought on by paranoia, but also by writers block. The most important person in the world; Herzog's world is Herzog himself and he is judgemental on all of the people around him especially the women. He claims that Madeleine finds him over-bearing, infantile, demanding, sardonic and a psychosomatic bully and by his own story there is plenty of evidence of all of this. He repeatedly refers to Madeleine as that b*tch and while her actions have given him cause for grievance one wonders how much of this he has brought on himself. In mitigation he fills in the background of the struggles of his poor ancestors and his relationships with friends and other women as well as the state of the world that he finds oppressive. He asses himself at the start of the novel and finds his characteristics: narcissistic, masochistic, anachronistic and his clinical picture is depressive, but there are worse cripples around:

"Satisfied with his own severity, positively enjoying the hardness and factual rigour of his judgement, he lay on his sofa, his arms rising behind him, his legs extended without aim."

Herzog's relationships with women form the central core of the novel. There is much about his marriage to Madeleine for whom he has not a good word, apart from the fact that she is drop dead gorgeous. There is Sono the Japanese lady who he was seeing when he met Madeleine. There is Wanda with whom he had an affair and now there is Ramona. The egotistical Herzog sees relationships with women as a battle of the sexes and carnal relations are apparently the major reasons to get involved. He thinks:

"The man wants to deceive, and then to disengage himself: the woman's strategy is to disarm and detain him."

While one might be hard pressed to accuse Herzog of misogyny, one would certainly say he shows a lack of respect for the women in his life, only asking himself what they can do for him. The fact that they seem to do a lot for him is duly recorded, but they are never allowed to get too close.

Herzog in an attempt to get custody of his daughter Junie visits the Magistrates courts where he sits in the public gallery and witnesses a couple of trials, a small time crook immersed in poverty and then a nineteen year old mother accused of battering her daughter to death because she made too much noise. Leaving the court he visits his family residence and takes a gun from his fathers office with a vague idea of getting even with Madeleine and Gersbach, but following a traffic offence he finds himself in a Chicago police precinct and after his second brush with lives outside of his own, he takes himself back to his house in the Countryside. He settles down again and sets about making the house liveable, he stops writing his letters, he is visited by a concerned brother and Ramona, but underlying a Hollywood ending is that Herzog is still Herzog.

Back to the letters: an integral part of this novel and woven into the narrative with great skill. They are thought provoking, many of them are witty, certainly cheeky and occasionally angry, but they remain a problem for this reader. While they provide a background to Herzog's thoughts by providing context for the early 1960's and the fears of many people such as: increasing violence, annihilation as a result of the atomic age and governments threatening the freedom of the individual, they tend not to have a direct relevance to the story: they tend to intrude. I found the best solution for me was to go back and re-read the longer letters, when I had finished the narrative. They are in themselves something of a tour de force, but they can be a fault line.

Herzog is an original novel, but it is also a novel of its time. It would seem to have an autobiographical feel to it: Herzog is Bellow and while I can sympathise with academic jewish angst and vouch for many of the attitudes of males from the battles between the sexes at the time: I am not jewish, I am not an academic and not all the women in my life have been so stunningly attractive as described in Bellows book, I am therefore still keeping my distance from a novel that does not completely work for me and so 4 stars.
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LibraryThing member miketroll
A book I must re-read. I first read it more than 30 years ago. The neurotic, middle-aged, self-absorbed hero did not connect with my youthful mindset. I suspect I may still not like this book second time round, but for different reasons.
LibraryThing member ByrningBunny
"Moses Herzog, a philosophy professor whose career started brilliantly but has stalled for some time, has been abandoned by his second wife Madeleine, a former student who took up with his best friend Valentine Gersbach. Through the course of this brilliant 1964 novel, one of Bellow's most admired,
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Herzog goes over the past (his two marriages, the child from each of them, his academic career, his infidelities) and obsessively writes letters (most of them unsent) to the people in his life as well as the occasional world leader or celebrity. Basically, Herzog has a nervous breakdown while trying to put his life back together and identify a future course. He discusses literature and argues with various philosophers along the way, so this is not light reading by any means, but terrific phrases and passages pop up throughout. "A man may say, 'From now on I'm going to speak the truth.' But the truth hears him and runs away and hides before he's even done speaking.""
David Loftus, Resident Scholar
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LibraryThing member SanctiSpiritus
This book is not for the fainthearted. Nor, is it for the casual reader. The book is similar to that of Crime and Punishment, The Trial, Seize the Day, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. EXCEPT, Herzog goes much deeper into the psyche, and soul of the protagonist. It is an exceptional book.
LibraryThing member joyriders
Another book about a divorced college professor who can't stop thinking about sex. This one just happens to be a whiny Jew. I didn't finish this book, as I didn't feel I would grow from reading it.
LibraryThing member theportal2002
A number of hours I will never get back, I don't know if I am too dense for this book but it was just the ramblings of a sick mind...
LibraryThing member joshrothman
Bellow's best novel. Beautifully written. Herzog is like the professorial, Jewish equivalent of Tolstoy's Levin.
LibraryThing member Randall.Hansen
It's hard to critique a classic, but I liken this work to Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye -- different generations, and about a decade apart, but both novels focus on the character (and character flaws) of the main character... in this book, Moses Herzog, a professor and PhD -- the only educated
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person in his family -- who struggles with two ex-wives and two children, and a mind that may be on the verge of collapse. Does he find redemption/sanity? Parts of the main character and one of the protagonist come directly from Bellow's life. A nice read, but some of the literary references WAY over my head.
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LibraryThing member sinaloa237
I must be really honest: I guess I'm not knowledgeable enough to fully understand Saul Bellow (and Herzog in particular)... This one was hardly accessible to me ; certainly a masterpiece but a demanding one.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Moses Alkanan Herzog is a man experiencing a midlife crisis. His coping mechanism is to write letters in his head; if they make do it to paper, they are letters he most often does not mail. With each letter comes a flashback to a particular monumental time in Herzog's memory. Most of his
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reminiscing centers on his two failed marriages and all the relationships to which he cannot commit. He is a well intentioned, extremely intelligent yet sad man. An example: sometime after the divorce from his second wife Herzog visits a friend and her husband on Martha's Vineyard. Soon after arriving he realizes his friends are way too happy for his state of mind. He decides, moments after arriving, he he must leave immediately. Instead of facing his well-intentioned friends to explain the mistake, Herzog writes a note and slips away unnoticed. There is a singular self-satisfaction in the fact that he makes it back to New York City by 11pm. Herzog has a heart and deeply cares, despite the fact he is so misunderstood. When he suspects his daughter is being abused he travels to his ex-wife's home to confront the abuser. His motives are good even though the end is not what he intended.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
835 Herzog, by Saul Bellow (read 20 Jan 1966) (National Book Award fiction prize for 1965) I found this book extremely distasteful, and I did not like it at all. I have read six books by Bellow and did not like any of them. Why read that many books by an author one detests? The reason for reading
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the ones I read after I knew I could not stand Bellow is that they won a prize and I do read Pulitzer prize winners and National Book Award prize winners as a matter of course.
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LibraryThing member marysargent
This also quite good (I read Humbolt's Gift first), although not as enjoyable as Humbolt. The main character is a more crazy Charlie Citrine , and there are many letters (unsent) to famous and not so famous folks, expounding his philosophical and other views, thus, not as enjoyable, more difficult,
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but certainly interesting.
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LibraryThing member hectorius123
I am 50. Herzog was 47. I've made mistakes; thankfully not piling up as Herzog's are as we read the novel but troubling all the same.

I found myself devouring this book and journeying with Herzog as he strives for the answers. There are iconic passages of insight : the scenes where Herzog is
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kissing Ramona goodbye outside her florists and when we finally encounter Madeline at the police station come to mind but there are several others.

The novel was written in 1964 when I was four and the protagonist is a Canadian Jewish immigrant to the USA but these cultural and generational differences did not affect my appreciation.

It is not a perfect book- which is? The letter compositions work well but, to me, were sometimes incomprehensible.

Unlike others I didn't take to the first childhood flashback - in fact I skipped it after a page or so.

Finally, the characters of Ramona and his brother Willi are both too uniformly sympathetic in my view

But these are niggles and the novel as a whole provided me with a very rewarding experience.

As a footnote, I tried to read Herzog in my 20's and gave up !
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LibraryThing member Laura400
I really didn't like this. It's probably my fault. I've tried two highly rated Bellow novels, and finished them even, but I can't connect. To me the book seemed from another time, but not in a good way.
LibraryThing member Explorations
Sadly, all those critics' experiences of a beautifully constructed novel of ideas were entirely lost on me, as I ended up having to force myself to read more of this middle-aged guy's miserable whining. Bellow might well have succeeded at jotting down a brilliant exploration of this fellow's mind -
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it's just a shame there wasn't much interesting to observe about Herzog's psyche in the first place. To summarize this novel, think the park bench scene in Sartre's Nausea, repeated across 350 pages, with the addition of occasional tales of Moses' depressing relationships.
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LibraryThing member Dottiehaase
After hearing letters written by Saul Bellow, I wanted to read one of his books. One of his letters to a dying friend is so tender. I only read about 10 pages in the beginning and the last 10 pages. I would need a lit class to get meaning out of this book, The story is about Moses Elkanah Herzog is
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47 years old and the son of immigrant Jewish parents from Russia. He’s a professor and author of a modestly successful academic book, “Romanticism and Christianity.” Lately however his life is falling apart. His manipulative second wife Madeleine has taken up with his best friend Valentine Gerspach, and he’s an absentee parent to his son Marco by first wife Daisy and to his daughter June by Madeleine. Pulitizer award writer, but not for me.
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LibraryThing member carterchristian1
Probably really a great read if you are 50ish and and American male Jew, probably wondering at this stage of your life "Is this all there is ?" A bit hard to take seriously.
LibraryThing member Coach_of_Alva
A Jewish intellectual rages in unsent letters at the shortcomings of his acquaintances and his peers as a method of remaining calm and sane during his brutal second divorce. I wasn’t always enraptured with the novel, for what I thought was going to be a metafictional deconstruction of the modern
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world turned out instead to be a realistic psychological novel. But I only got mildly irritated in places, never truly vexed, for the details churning in poor Herzog’s mind were colorful and fascinating. I enjoyed them in a voyeuristic manner, for I always suspect that Bellow, like Roth, was drawing on his own disastrous experiences with women. If nothing else, I made me feel smug with how I have lived my life.

Malcolm Hillgartner adapted his booming American voice to a variety of female, Jewish, and even African American accents well enough to be believable without being stereotypical. I was as surprised as I was pleased, for I was very disappointed in my other experience of him; i.e. his inability to create an appropriate atmosphere for his readings of Lovecraft.
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Original publication date



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