Herzog by Saul Bellow – An Excellent Bad Book

Herzog by Saul Bellow, published in 1964, tells the story of an academic enduring a mid-life crisis. Moses Herzog has just gone through his second divorce, and is having a lot of trouble – poor chap – with his latest book on romanticism. We follow him for five days as he tries to go on holiday, has a date with a very pleasant woman called Ramona, worries about how wife number two, Madeline, is looking after their daughter, crashes his car, gets into trouble with the Chicago police, and visits his run down house in rural Massachusetts. Through all of this he reflects on his life, while exploring his concerns via imaginary letters written to many different people – friends past and present, or famous figures both living and dead.

This is not a book driven by plot. It can be quite tricky to follow, with past and present floating in and out, and abrupt changes between first and third person. It’s a book where the real interest lies in the ideas.

You will have to be the sort of reader who enjoys ideas if you are to enjoy Herzog. The same, I fear is true of reviews of the book. Fair warning if you are to read on.

Assuming you’re still with me, if Herzog is a book of ideas, a central one involves the way a situation of similarity can also show dramatic differences. For example, Herzog, who spends his days thinking fancy thoughts about Kierkegaard and Hegel, is also the same man who has to deal with house maintenance, bodily functions, and matrimonial strife. Herzog plays a game with his daughter, June, where they imagine an odd association for people who are the most of anything – the weakest strong man, and the strongest weak man, the stupidest wiseman, and the wisest blockhead. In his letters, Herzog mentions, amongst other things, Schrödinger’s thoughts on life’s struggle to maintain a fragile identity in the face of entropy, which always tends to decay into a uniform ‘thermodynamic equilibrium’. The book spends a lot of time describing a kind of thermodynamic equilibrium where friends can be enemies, clever people can be idiots, and good ideas can be pretentious nonsense. At the end of the book Herzog rediscovers his own equilibrium, pottering around his dilapidated house. But remembering Schrödinger, individual identity remains a basically unstable thing. Meanwhile, equilibrium also remains an unstable thing, because life is always trying to get away from it and maintain a separate, unequal, identity.

Herzog is an intellectual book, which is also earthy and emotional. It suggests the promise of underlying unity in a divided world, while also portraying divisions as a defining aspect of life. The achievement of the novel lies in the way it is big enough to encompass so many opposites, leaving their identities alone, while still bringing them together into a whole. The book could even include an accommodation of those who write admiring reviews, and others who might issue one star.

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