Winner of the National Book Award when it was first published in 1964, Herzog traces five days in the life of a failed academic whose wife has recently left him for his best friend. Through the device of letter writing, Herzog movingly portrays both the internal life of its eponymous hero and the complexity of modern consciousness.
Like the protagonists of most of Bellow's novels - Dangling Man, The Victim, Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King, etc. - Herzog is a man seeking balance, trying to regain a foothold on his life. Thrown out of his ex-wife's house, he retreats to his abandoned home in Ludeyville, a remote village in the Berkshire mountains to which Herzog had previously moved his wife and friends. Here amid the dust and vermin of the disused house, Herzog begins scribbling letters to family, friends, lovers, colleagues, enemies, dead philosophers, ex- Presidents - anyone with whom he feels compelled to set the record straight. The letters, we learn, are never sent. They are a means to cure himself of the immense psychic strain of his failed second marriage, a method by which he can recognize truths that will free him to love others and to learn to abide with the knowledge of death. In order to do so he must confront the fact that he has been a bad husband, a loving but poor father, an ungrateful child, a distant brother, an egoist to friends, and an apathetic citizen.
Herzog is primarily a novel of redemption. For all of its innovative techniques and brilliant comedy, it tells one of the oldest of stories. Like The Divine Comedy or the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross, it progresses from darkness to light, from ignorance to enlightenment. Today it is still considered one of the greatest literary expressions of postwar America.
"A masterpiece." (New York Times Book Review)
"Herzog has the range, depth, intensity, verbal brilliance, and imaginative fullness - the mind and heart - which we may expect only of a novel that is unmistakably destined to last." (Newsweek)
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Grows Within You
- Chris Reich
Stuck in Your Head
I spend a lot of time arguing that you can get as much from an audiobook as from a paper book, but Bellow tests that claim. This is a powerful book about a man who has a hard time pulling himself out of the texts of his life and into his real life. It's slow -- slow in the sense that not that many things happen -- but it's also raging in the way we're in and out of Herzog's mind. His imaginary letters (some real) show him trying to get traction in the real world as he flees to the world of writing.
As a result, it's sometimes hard to listen to a novel that's so much about the business of writing. I often wanted to stop and re-read a sentence -- Bellow is a master of the sentence -- and I missed a sense of the textual nature of Herzog's various letters. Hillgartner can signal that we're into a new letter, but I don't think he can get across the effect of seeing the heading and recognizing the deterioration or recovery of Herzog's mind. And that's a crucial distinction because I think there are ways in which Herzog's mind (as caught in the text) is a different character from Herzog himself (as caught in his own story).
- Joe Kraus