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Notes From The Void

  • Nov 18, 2010

Moses Herzog's sour contemplation of his overthought, underlived life makes for a curiously frustrating reading experience. Frustrating by design, perhaps, but no more worthwhile for that.

Herzog is a once-promising academic unable to build upon the success of his early work. When his second wife springs a surprise divorce on him, Herzog exiles himself to a decrepit cottage in the Berkshires and begins writing letters "to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead."

These letters form a narrative underpinning, allowing author Saul Bellow to address assorted questions of love, politics, and death in the form of Herzog's unanchored musings. To many reviewers, it seems these letters are wonderful and engaging reads. For me, they added to the disjointed and stymied nature of a novel stuck in neutral for three-fourths of its 400 pages.

When "Herzog" was published in 1964, reviewers hailed it as a bold advance in literature because its big thoughts are not subtext but the text itself. "After 'Herzog' no writer need pretend in his fiction that his education stopped in the eighth grade," was the review in The New York Times. Bellow has Herzog contemplating Hegel, Hobbes, Spinoza, Nietzsche, the problem of being both Jewish and secular, the tensions of city life, etc. which for a lot of reviewers was great. No need to wrest those concerns out from under the coils of characterization or plot.

The characters in "Herzog" are broad types except for the autobiographical Herzog himself, and the plot is kept at bay a long time by Herzog and Bellow alike. At one point, holed up in the city, Herzog is called by his lover, and agrees to come over. He then spends the next 30 pages on flashbacks and letter-writing while she and the reader wait for something to happen.

"Herzog" does move a bit in its last quarter, as Moses puts down his pen and opts for direct action instead. Bellow does push the pedal a bit; there's even a gun and a car crash. But my lack of empathy for Herzog and the others kept the story at a distance even then.

It's a shame, because as a writer Bellow does create some masterful descriptive passages, and his outlook on the whole is a good deal more warm and engaging than "Herzog's" high-brow exterior suggests. We read of Herzog's desire for transcendence, both mortal and spiritual, and his emerging sensitivity to the fact life exists outside the narrow perimeters of his little world. Death, "the void", is ever-present on his mind, but he grasps for something other than the mindless nihilism of sexual fulfillment. "After all, we have no positive knowledge of that void," Herzog thinks.

Whether Herzog achieves any transcendence is perhaps left to the reader. My reading had the book just end suddenly with nothing settled, which may indeed be Bellow's point. The modern novel may not need a resolution, or plot and characters for that matter. But I do, which left me dissatisfied in Bellow's company despite his ability to channel and develop deep thoughts. "Herzog" may well be a pillar of modern novel-writing, but to me it's also an example of where the modern novel went wrong.

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More Herzog reviews
review by . April 24, 2010
The self-absorbed world of Moses Herzog
Moses Elkanah Herzog is 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.   “Herzog” the novel won the National …
Quick Tip by . July 09, 2010
A great book for anyone who loves Chicago, and Herzog is part of that lost generation, along with Sinclair, Updike, and other great writers whose prose is complex and uplifting.
Quick Tip by . May 19, 2010
One of Saul Bellow's best.
About the reviewer
Bill Slocum ()
Ranked #299
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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