Herzog, Saul Bellow, The Viking Press, 1964, 371 pp
In Saul Bellow's sixth novel, I met Moses Herzog, another one of this author's unique male characters. The book hit the #3 spot on the bestseller list for 1964 and won the National Book Award in 1965.
I wasn't sure I was in the mood for a Bellow novel because he demands quite a lot from his readers, but as soon as I was a few pages in, I recognized his familiar voice and we were off.
Moses Herzog is a middle-aged intellectual who has just been divorced by his second wife. He is in a state, hurt, angry, defeated and full of self doubt. He has been cuckolded by a man he considered a friend, he is out of money and the great work of his writing career has become meaningless to him due to his anguish.
Throughout the book he writes unsent letters to all manner of people, including God, trying to explain how he sees things. In actuality he is trying to explain his life and his place in it to himself.
If this sounds like a book in search of a plot, it sometimes is, especially in the somewhat sagging middle section, but it is about a journey through despair. Despair can cause plenty of sagging.
I felt for Herzog in his manic attempts to outrun the madness he has fallen into, especially because his actions are bound to bring more trouble down on his head. That perception of being misunderstood to the point of doubting one's sanity has happened to most people at some point, but most people cannot write about it like Saul Bellow.
I worried for the man that he might take himself beyond some point from which he could not come back. Yet, in those letters he kept writing I could sense that the cold brilliance of his intellect was always aware of the people and society around him, of his options, and of himself. Since I am a person who regularly attempts to think my way out of problems, I could relate.
Perhaps this is not a novel for everyone though I cannot imagine anyone who ventures into it not being brought under its spell. It is not about being wordy, as so many "serious" writers seem to think. It is about the power of his words, the storm of emotion. He can capture on the page the way most of us feel on both our best and worst days.
(Herzog is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)