26 Saul Bellow: Herzog

Mr. Pritesh Chakraborty

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The present module will discuss the various aspects and features of the novel Herzog (1964) written by Saul Bellow. Here the focus would be on both the content and formal facets. Bellow, one of the major writers of American prose-fiction presents in Herzog a semi autobiographical account of a promising scholar distracted with personal grievances to the precipice of madness and murder only to recover from the same through the sheer power of will and with a little help from his family and friends. The narrative re-tells the  heart warming and inspiring story of the fall of a common man and his slow but sure rise. The novel continues and confirms the American love for the underdog stories and in turn establishes Bellow as one of the stalwarts of American novel.

Introduction –


According to Malcolm Bradbury in his introduction to the novel, Bellow’s Herzog is “. ..the story of the suffering joker, searching and adrift in the modern thought-world: an age of soft romanticism, five cent syntheses, random massings and redundant goods, accumulating and chaotic process, labyrinthine indirections (no journey Herzog takes  ever seems to go in the right direction).” It won the U.S. National Book Award for  Fiction and the Prix International. TIME magazine named it one of the 100 best novels in the English language (1923 to 2005).


Life of Saul Bellow –


Saul Bellow, the winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for literature and the recipient of three National Book Awards, is a unique spokesman for humanitarian ideals in American literature in the twentieth-century. His writings epitomize the moral vision that is an integral part of the Jewish outlook. He believes in the divinity of the individual, that although a person may be psychologically and emotionally fragile, he/she is created in the image of God and is therefore, majestic. This colossal creature has the ability to overcome obstacles that challenge or impede human endeavour and to determine its own destiny. Bellow believes in the worthiness of life which is also god given, and that one should partake and enjoy the kaleidoscopic experiences one encounters. It is a positive approach to existence and is reflected in a literature that is generally optimistic and affirmative. After the Second World War, the public was ready for, and needed something else. Coming so close to annihilation, it needed a literature of hope and optimism, a literature that would restore dignity to man and a value to his life. This was the period in which Bellow made his slow, yet steady, entry onto the American literary scene. Saul Bellow brought with him a world view that was life-sustaining, predicated on a belief in the inherent goodness of man and the basic significance of existence. The overall perspective of his works is essentially Jewish and, to an extent, religious in its moral concern (even though the ritualistic element is missing). Critics have attempted to link Bellow’s affirmative approach to man and life to various streams of literary expressions. Daniel Fuchs suggests that “Bellow is heir of the first modernists, the romantics, rather than the archmodernists.” Malcolm Bradbury claims that Bellow is a “metaphysical novelist” in his depiction of the human condition, while his artistic interest links him in one way with the American naturalists,” Richard Chase sees an admixture of the naturalist and transcendentalist traditions in Bellow’s writings, and Gilbert porter views Bellow as a “neo-transcendalist.” Nathan A. Scott, however, says that Bellow belongs to the line of “modern fiction whose principal area of inquiry is the phenomenology of selfhood.” Some critics go to Hasidism and others to Reichianism to explain Bellow’s outlook. Certainly Bellow is aware of the various literary trends. He even satirizes them in his fiction and criticizes them in his essays. Yet, it is the Jewish tradition to which Bellow is heir and from this perspective he views and balances all that comes his way.


Did you know:

  • Saul Bellow is the only novelist in America to receive three National book awards for The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Mr Sammler’s Planet.
  • In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Humboldt’s Gift.
  • The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to him in 1976 ‘for human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.’
  • In 1990, Mr Bellow was presented the National Book Foundation Award Medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. He has also received the National Medal of Arts.
  • His play The Last Analysis opened on Broadway but quickly failed.
  • He published his first short story collection, Mosby’s Memoirs and Other Stories in 1968.
  • With the likes of Philip Roth and Eudora Welty, Bellow was one the few writers to have their works published by the Library of congress (in 2003).

Narrative technique –


In this novel artistic vision finds its appropriate concretions; meaning is achieved through form. Point of view is complicated and directly reflective of the emotional and intellectual condition of the protagonist. The conflict in Herzog between his intellect and his sensibilities provides the integrating principle in the novel, setting up the complex point of view, inviting the “lessons” of the reality instructors, intensifying Herzog’s anguish, and leading him, finally, to his transcendental affirmation, in which he frees himself from the compulsion of intellectual systematizing and relaxes in the freedom of an emotional/intuitional “The intellectual has been a Separatist,” says Herzog as he approaches clarity. “And what kind of synthesis is a Separatist likely to come up with? What passes for plot in the novel is a narrative strategy that moves Herzog from a state of agitation to a state of rest, from a frantic search for direction to a discovery of that direction. The events that attend Herzog’s transformation, though, are presented mainly through Herzog’s own perceptions as the central intelligence in a sophisticated and often convoluted narration. Thus, point of view is central to the assessment of Bellow’s achievement in Herzog, yet most critics have settled for summary statements rather than detailed examinations of narrative technique. Earl Rovit, for example, observes that Bellow “reshuffles time sequences expertly, shifts Herzog’s point of view from first- to third-person, employs the device of the fragmentary ‘mental’ letters as a masterly bridge between solipsism and communication, and casts an ambience of irony over his entire construction”. In a similar vein, Eusebio L. Rodrigues writes that “the narrative angle jumps around shifting wildly from one mode to another without warning and often within the same paragraph, creating an illusion of constant rapid nervous motion and a continuity of tempo that offsets the tortoise pace of the action and the cramping time schedule”. And Malcolm Bradbury comments that “. . . this is a book set primarily within consciousness, and there is a parallel formlessness or oblique design in the novel’s structure—until, finally, both Herzog and the book transfigure the plurality of words and explanations into significant silence.” The essentially optimistic perspective and Bellow’s knowledge of the bible influence the style of his fiction. The Yiddish influence upon his language, the idiom, the gesture, the prolixity of his characters, are readily discernible and require no special attention at this point. Bellow often uses specific biblical narratives that express Jewish philosophy and perspective. Herzog could be regarded as a sort of Samson (with his gigantic status as a heavyweight intellectual) who has been betrayed by a modern Deliah – Madeleine. The narrative tries to follow the way the modern Samson recovers his ‘sight’ and goes towards the path of glory (at least that is what we feel at the end of the novel). Though his desire to murder both Madeleine and Valentine could have put  him out of the way forever. Here by using the name Moses, Bellow also indicates that he desires the reader to draw a parallel to the biblical narrative, there are four references in Herzog that suggest linking the two Mosses. For example, Herzog received from a psychiatrist a list of paranoiac traits. There are ten of them, and he likens them to the “plagues of Egypt”. In spite of these parallels there are glaring examples of Bellow’s misuse of Hebrew. Herzog vividly recalls Nachman’s home and seeing the words “DMAI OCHICHO” in the open Bible on the table. The context is not presented and both the Hebrew and the translation are incorrect.


At times it seems that the novel is written only for the initiated few into literature and social sciences since Herzog’s register often turns into one which seems to be incomprehensible for those who are not very well conversant with the allusions. Then again, the involved markers of law terms make us think that whether we are hearing an argument in the court.


The desire of Herzog to complain, lends itself both to the first person narrative and to the memoir or confessional. This is a major characteristic of the novel and suggests various aspects of the comic mode, in its attitude towards the universe in its incongruous correlation between appearances and reality, what the individual thinks his station in life should be and what it really is, or opposite, what it is as against what it really should be, or in the inaccurate assessment by the individual of his abilities, his needs, and his situation.

Did you know:

  • Bellow confessed of having written some 15 to 25 manuscripts of Herzog. He said in an interview that he had taken three years to complete the novel.

Analysis of major characters –

1.4.1 Herzog


 Bellow’s novels are hero-centered to a degree unusual in modern fiction; a hero frequently gives his name to a book. It is nearly always a man, often but not always Jewish, cast in some large role or in search of one: a suffering joker, often stripped down to size by the female. It concerns a man in the crisis of middle-age, on the verge of a mental breakdown, but from the aspect of the Jewish reader and Jewish writer, Bellow presents a study of assimilation. Bellow’s heroes are men of mind but also men of passions, and in that contradiction they suffer the fate of absurdity to which all are condemned. Bellow’s heroes are indeed intellectual heroes, and Bellow himself, as he has often told us, belongs to a generation that was itself shaped by world- historical ideas. Bellow’s heroes have ideas, but like their creator they also have a quarrel with philosophy, and are men of the heart. Not that the world of the heart is easy, as Herzog has discovered; which is why Herzog has turned the world into a place of despair, and his personal life ‘into a circus, into gladiatorial combat’.


From one perspective the novel concerns a man in the crisis of middle-age, on the verge of a mental breakdown. In the beginning of the novel we find Herzog reflecting, ‘If I am out of my mind, it’s alright with me, thought Moses Herzog.’ Yet Bellow also presents a study of assimilation since the very sentence when repeated towards the end of the novel is actually not a statement of despair or hopelessness but of mature acceptance. Since when a man realizes that he is mad he ceases to be so. Bellow delineates both a sociological and psychological factor: the removal of the stabilizing force, brought about by the cohesiveness of the family unit, is concomitant with an instability of character. The breakup of the family also generates a freedom of movement, but it is the kind of freedom that a beggar is endowed with – the freedom of desolation, the freedom to be free, free of any meaningful association. This disassociation can be seen in the larger perspective of the American society which suffers from the same malady of the general rupture of the fabric of the comfortable family life. Thus Herzog is a representative of the aftermath of the great breakup of the family system. He is somewhat similar to Mr Gatsby but here Herzog was ambitious about a position in academia and not in the world of money and fame. Yet Herzog’s end is not as tragic as Gatsby’s. Bellow’s choice of names for the protagonist of this novel, Moses Elkanah Herzog, is related to this consideration of a religious destiny. In no other work of Bellow’s has the name of the hero engendered so much speculation and critical commentary. Moses Herzog was the name of a minor character, a grocer and a victim of Irish anti-Semitism. Bellow’s use of this name has led to obvious comparison of Herzog to Ulysses. Bellow’s use of the name Moses for his Jewish protagonist of Herzog clearly indicates that his concerns will be the themes of slavery, freedom and wandering. The biblical parallel is meant to give stature to the present character, especially when we realize that there is another affinity between past and present Moses. Both were born to Jewish parents about reared in foreign cultures: one among the Egyptian aristocracy, the other in western and Christian- dominated academia. Both are un-assimilable. Again don’t we find a general parallel with the way the nation of America came into being? The puritans escaping from the persecution of the Catholics in Britain? Of course we have to ignore the annihilation of another race – the original Native Americans. Herzog is an intellectual, a professor, writer. He has made a name for himself in the academic world. He is a loser in personal life. We find him a broken man, who attempts to grasp hold of himself and his life and re-make himself, perhaps for the last time. He is “narcissistic,” “masochistic,” “depressive” and neurotic; his ex-wife considers him psychotic, but psychiatrists, lawyers and friends are of no help. He is a man with keen memory and can even “persecute” anyone with the same. He can cure himself and can do so only by facing up to his disease which can be diagnosed in terms of self-indulgence.

He recognizes:

He had been a bad husband-twice

To his country, an indifferent citizen.

To his brothers and sister, affectionate but remote.

With this friends, and egotist. With love lazy.

With brightness, dull. With power, passive.

With his own soul, evasive.

The effect of this assessment of his own shortcomings is a smug complacency at his ability to diagnose, to analyze, to judge. He is a brilliant failure. Malcolm Bradbury says, “Herzog is the first of Bellow’s big comedians of mental strife, the heroes of heart break, for whom the encounter with the big America is crucial.”



One of the major autobiographical traces of Saul Bellow’s life in the novel Herzog is that of Bellow’s failed marriages. Madeleine represents one such failed marriage. She is the epitome of the selfish, neurotic yet attractive and hence all the more dangerous female. She is the manifestation of the castration complex of insecure men like Herzog. It is curious that a woman character who occupies such a share of the narrative will be given so few dialogues to defend herself. No wonder since the  narrative is partly made up of Herzog’s interior monologues, partly by an equally misogynistic omniscient narrator and partly by the neurotically composed letters to various people. Bellow was rather pleased at having created a blue-stocking like Madeleine. She is one of the few successful intellectual ladies in American novels. More than once it becomes clear that she is attractive and had brains as well at least as much as it is needed to trick and defeat Herzog. She is also a ‘wanna be’ intellectual studying Slovakian languages. ‘ Yet she seems to be a concerned mother of June and no wonder she is using Valentine as a ladder to climb further up. She has been seen too long from the perspective of Herzog to be seen any different anymore than the bitch she is made out to be. Herzog calls her neurotic and we are not sure if Herzog is transferring his neurosis onto Madeleine. The way Herzog describes her seems quite reliable but reliability of a man who says that if he was out of his mind it was alright with him is still questionable. A parallel has already been drawn between Madeleine and Delilah following the Jewish-Christian undercurrent of the narrative. This role is all too easily assignable to women in general specially to those who have a better deal than the males in question. Herzog for the most part of the novel obsesses about her which shows her influence in the life of Herzog. Yet significantly Herzog’s gaining of mental health coincides with his letting go of Madeleine and her memory. Importantly the crisis of the novel involves Herzog’s desire to shoot Madeleine and Valentine. Thus in our hatred or dislike of this character we cannot forget her for sometime.

Major themes –


With the desertion of naturalism and the rise of psychoanalysis, fiction, beginning in the forties and continuing through the next generation, became more subjective in its focus on the inner man. Bellow’s novel deal with freedom of choice, social responsibility, the lifestyle of a good man, brotherly love, the uniqueness of the individual , and the dignity and divinity of man. His overall approach to life, as stated above, is affirmative and optimistic. In presenting these ideas as themes of his works, Bellow makes use of his Jewish background and his knowledge of the Old Testament and some of its exegetes. For example towards the beginning of the novel, recalling his sickness at childhood, Herzog says,


 A Christian lady came once a week and had him read aloud from the bible. He read, give and it shall be given unto you: good measure, pressed down and shaken together and running over shall men give unto your bosom.


. . . . And then she had him read, suffer the little children to come unto me.


His novels focus on the individual, the options available to him, his preferences and judgments, and his capabilities in dealing with his present predicament. His characters may grumble, lament, fret, and complain, but they do not despair about the future.


 In Herzog we find Bellow’s highlighting of the disorienting nature of modern civilization with its materialism and misleading knowledge was to be recognised as sometimes resisted by Herzog (and always with disastrous results). It renders Herzog alienated. He suffers from spiritual emptiness. Overwhelmed by sheer abundance that modern civilization offers in material (Herzog’s brother Shura’s success) and sexual gratification (in Sono and Ramona and more so in Madeleine), Herzog always struggled to find spiritual meaning in himself. The quest to cultivate individuality and discover meaning in a world that continues to become more homogeneous and that continually drives out private life was one, if not the primary theme of Bellow in Herzog. Like most of his novels Bellow not only criticizes aspects of American life, but also shows a genuine appreciation of it, expressing an endless fascination with the uniqueness and vibrancy of America.


Comedy one is led to believe is one of the major techniques and themes of the novel. The major source of comedy in Herzog is the endless struggle of people to make sense of life and to sort out all of the issues, and to get the proper historical perspective on oneself. Herzog himself makes fun of this. Herzog modifies President Wilson’s Vice President’s wise-crack, what this country needs is a good 5 cent cigar” into “What this country needs is a good 5 cent synthesis.” Herzog like any of us needs to discriminate, and prepare ourselves to make judgements. Our freedom depends upon the soundness of this judgement. The novel deals with the unprecedented modern crisis, and it is the humour of floundering. This is characteristic of our period. From this point of view, that people are continually saying to one another “Hey! You don’t know nothing. I know. I have the answer.”

Plot structure –


The end of the novel grows organically out of the exposition and resolves the initial conflict without making larger claims than the condition of the central intelligence can support. Of all Bellow’s novels, Herzog has the most complicated and labyrinthine structure. The text is a flow, moving backwards and forwards in time, shifting through odd patterns and loose associations, allowing the prose to slip by sudden connection, turn of memory, frenzied mental jumps. The book is multilayered as no other Bellow novel is, mirroring the mixture of contemplation and frenzy which is the stuff of Herzog’s own mind. The story offers to tell us of a few days in Herzog’s life as he summers at his house in the Berkshires, an old American literary landscape, beloved of Melville and the transcendentalists, where he has settled down trying to explain, justify, make amends. Herzog is also a novel of many zigzag and almost purposeless journeys, as Moses wanders between the two great American cities, New York and Chicago, makes a seemingly futile trip to Martha’s vineyard, and struggles with his double burden: his obsession with his adulterous and vengeful bitch-wife Madeleine; and the intellectual weight of the world’s ideas, contemporary and historical, great and small.


Regarding the plot structure it will be quite pertinent to quote a few relevant lines which are a dialogue between Saul Bellow and Robert Cromie (in 1965) from the book Conversations with Saul Bellow:


Cromie: It seems presumptuous to attempt to give the plot even an outline. . . You had flashbacks – it was almost like a Chinese puzzle. You’ve got flashback within flashback. .


Bellow: I think that if a writer is continually interesting there is no limit to the amount of innovation he can allow himself and there’s no limit to the flexibility of the reader’s attention, provided always, of course, that you hold his attention.

Cromie: I think you managed it most successfully because the flashbacks are not difficult to follow. Once or twice I leafed back to be sure I was in the proper time zone.


Bellow: Well, it is a good deal like telling a long story in the parlour. You can lose everyone if you are boring, of course.

Conclusion –


No modern writer has better constructed this anxious and very serious comedy, more clearly defined the encounter between thought and the labyrinth, more exactly captured the strange, Byzantine, parrot-filled meeting places of modern thought, modern heart, and modern  silence. His place in American letters is well secured, and it will take several years to unravel his impact no only in literature but in politics, philosophy, religion, American studies.

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