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The self-absorbed world of Moses Herzog

  • Apr 24, 2010
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 Book Award when it was published in 1964. It is written primarily in the third person, but episodically reverts to first person narration. As he tries to make sense of his life, Herzog resorts to writing letters (often unfinished and always unsent) to various people – family and friends, associates and strangers, and famous people from history. We see only Herzog’s view – his complaints about the people in his life – but we don’t see what they think of him. Author Jeffrey Eugenides calls “Herzog” a “self-reflexive epistolary novel.” Herzog is trying to regain balance, and the letter writing seems to facilitate the healing process. It’s a way to work through the problems of his life and modern society. Some have called it a “novel of redemption,” but I’m not sure that’s the case. It renders a rather harsh judgment on the contemporary world of the 1960’s. In some respects, the novel reminds me of “A Serious Man,” the 2009 film written, produced, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. In the movie, college professor Larry Gopnik finds his life unraveling as his wife Judith empties his bank account and seeks a divorce to move in with Sy Ableman, whose personality resembles that of Valentine Gersbach in the novel.
The women in Herzog’s life are variably portrayed. We don’t learn much at all about Daisy. Madeleine seems to be a psychopath (or at least a sociopath). The New York City shopkeeper Ramona is compassionately drawn. She’s just doing her best to make ends meet and find a meaningful relationship in middle age. Herzog doesn’t give her the consideration she seems to deserve. He’s too preoccupied with himself and his hatred of Madeleine.
In New York City, while waiting in the courthouse to meet his lawyer and discuss custody of June, Herzog stumbles upon a number of hearings that illustrate the ugliness of life. In one example, a young woman is on trial for the death of her 3-year-old son. He died from a ruptured liver after she threw him against the wall while her boyfriend watched from the bed where he was smoking a cigarette. The story makes Herzog physically sick. Referring to himself, he says: “this is the difficulty with people who spend their lives in humane studies and therefore imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended.” What is the emotional suffering of Herzog in comparison to this kind of horrific event? And what about global events of destruction and genocide like Hiroshima and the Holocaust? As Theodore Solotaroff says in his review “Napoleon Street and After,” “War and genocide have reduced the sacredness of the individual life.”
My favorite episode in the book occurs when Herzog returns to his childhood home in Chicago and goes through his father’s old roll-top desk. He takes his father’s old pistol (which has two bullets in the chamber) and some old Russian rubles. With unclear intent, he goes over to the house where Madeleine is living with Valentine and looks through the bathroom window. He sees Valentine giving June a bath, sees the affection his friend has for the child, and leaves. The next day he takes June to the aquarium and on the way back is rear-ended by a truck while merging too slowly onto the expressway. He’s knocked out and when he regains consciousness the police officers at the scene have discovered the gun and rubles he forgot to remove from his pocket the day before. He’s dragged off to the police station and booked. Madeleine arrives to claim June and Moses’ brother Will posts his bail. Moses’ affection for his daughter is probably the warmest thing in the book.
The self-absorbed world of Moses Herzog

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review by . November 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, …
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
Steve DiBartola ()
Ranked #152
I was invited to join Lunch by one of the developers, who apparently read some reviews I posted on Library Thing. My interests are books, music, and movies. I enjoy both classical and contemporary fiction, … more
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