Study Guide

Herzog

By Saul Bellow

Herzog Introduction

Man, sometimes it seems like life is one big fat upheaval. As soon as you leave the tyrannical "no dessert until you finish your nasty gelatinous pea soup" childhood days behind, you're hit with teenage angst. Once you finally leave the confines of high school drama behind, you're hit with a quarter-life crisis. And once you finally figure out what to even do with your life, you're hit with the Big Daddy of them all… the midlife crisis.

The dreaded midlife crisis: when a person realizes that their life is half over and that they're going to die someday. (Eeek.) This idea might seem as old as the hills, but the phrase "midlife crisis" was first coined in 1965. We wonder if the publication of Saul Bellow's Herzog, in 1964, was the reason this term was created… because this novel is a too-close-for-comfort peek into the suck embrace-the-suck-and-more-military-speak of this crisis. 

When Saul Bellow published Herzog, he wasn't the first person to write about a man going through midlife mayhem. But he did delve into the nitty-gritty details in a way no one had ever done before. Moses Herzog is a man who is approaching the age of fifty and wonders whether his life has any value (but at least he doesn't decide to cook meth?). He's been divorced twice, and his most recent divorce is especially humiliating: his wife Madeleine has left him for his best friend Val, who has moved into Moses' old house and begun raising Moses' daughter June. On top of that, Madeleine has taken out a restraining order against Moses, conspired with his psychiatrist to get Herzog chucked into an insane asylum… and Herzog's career as an academic has all but unraveled.

Whoa. Suddenly the mandatory bedtimes of childhood, the lunchroom minefields of high school, and uncomfortable parallels between your life and Girls in your twenties seem dandy by comparison.

Moses learns that he will never learn to be happy until he repairs the mental damage that all his recent defeats have caused him. In that sense, reading this book is like watching a wound slowly healing. Herzog learns to cope with his anger and despair. The better he feels the more he notices the world around him, and he notices that life is pretty… awesome.

So no matter how horrendous a midlife (or any other kind of) crisis can be, Herzog is a reminder that all crises end. Phew. By the final pages of this novel, it looks like Moses Herzog is going to make it, and probably become a nutty old geezer who keeps his joie de vivre well into Grandpahood.

But whatever happens to Herzog, we know what happened to Herzog: it won the National Book Award and the Prix International, helped bring Saul Bellow fame and fortune (and an eventual Nobel Prize) and is considered one of the "100 Best Novels" since 1923. Hey, that's a better cure for a midlife crisis than buying a Porshe.

What is Herzog About and Why Should I Care?

You might think we have our work cut out for us, telling you that 1) a book about 2) a middle-aged academic who 3) writes snail-mail letters is at all relevant. (And yes, all of those italics are strictly necessary, if only to get you ready for the italics-fest that is Herzog.)

Recap: book, academic, letters. Hardly timely stuff. So why should you, a denizen of the 21st Century, care about the contents of a fusty novel, in which a fusty dude writes fusty letters?

Because this is the rare novel that's more on-point today than it was even when it was written. And we're talking technologically. Bear with us on this.

Rewind to the early sixties, when the media of choice was the TV, and people spent time talking on the phone. Herzog seemed kind of outdated when it was written, because it was about a guy who writes letters to everyone under the sun, living and dead. It was kind of a sweet throwback to the epistolary novels of a century or more before. It was also brilliant, so people read it and loved it and made Saul Bellow famous because of it… but it was considered a bit of a time capsule. Those groovy, swinging 1960s cats (ugh, we're wincing just reading that slang) knew that if you were facing an existential crisis like Herzog, you wouldn't write letters: you'd call someone.

Fast forward to today, and somehow Herzog is topical. Moses Herzog's mindless, loneliness-fueled writing to everyone and anything mirrors what we do when we're lonely in the here and now. We write. We text, meaninglessly and late at night. We comment. We tweet and retweet. We email, if we're feeling especially prolific.

Herzog's thought his writing to everyone he ever knew (and then some) was a symptom of madness, but today it's a reality and a possibility. Herzog is faced with a feeling of being all alone in the world, and he wants nothing more than to write "Hi" to anyone he thinks might answer. You know what that feeling is like. Moses Herzog is in desperate need of some social media.

By the end of the book everything is fine and dandy and he doesn't need to write anymore. But that's not the relevant part: for one thing, Herzog is miserable for 99% of this novel, and for another, no one really cares about happy endings (to paraphrase Tolstoy, they're all alike).

When Herzog is all alone and miserable, his kneejerk reaction is to write compulsively—something we still do today. But by reading Herzog, and seeing our own compulsions mirrored back to us over the span of history… well, we might just feel a tad less miserable. Or at least marginally less alone.

Herzog Resources

Websites

Saul Bellow at NobelPrize.org
Yup, good ol' Saul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, thus shoring up his status as one of the greatest writers who ever existed. Check out this link and you can even read the speech Bellow presented at the Nobel Banquet.

Saul Bellow at Biography.com
For a clean and easy-to-read rundown of all things Bellow, check out this link.

The Saul Bellow Journal
Yup, there's an entire publication that's dedicated to discussing the work of our main man. If you're feeling hardcore in your love for Bellow, this journal is right for you.

Articles and Interviews

Saul Bellow's Herzog Turns 50
That's right, folks. Saul Bellow's great novel turned 50 years old in 2014. So let's have a party. Or read the book. Or just do whatever you were going to do before you read this.

Review of Herzog at Commentary Magazine
For a thoughtful summary of what makes Herzog so great, check out this handy link.

Saul Bellow Vs. Raymond Chandler
The Guardian newspaper decided to have a single elimination tournament to decide which American novelist was truly the best. In this round, they pit Saul Bellow against Raymond Chandler. But to find out who wins, you'll have to check out this link.

Video

Saul Bellow Reads His Work
Follow this link to get a great sense of what Bellow was like in person, especially when he was reading his own work. Keep your ears open for the part where he discusses Herzog.

Saul Bellow Interview
Yup, here's the man himself giving an in-depth interview back in the day.

Audio

Clip From Herzog Audiobook
It ain't the whole shebang, but it's enough to give you a sense of what it'd be like to hear Herzog read aloud.

Herzog Audiobook on iTunes
And here's the rest of the audiobook if you're looking to buy.

Another Audiobook Version
Because who wants to buy an audiobook without shopping around first? No one, that's who.

Images

Saul Bellow at Herzog's Age
Based on their other similarities, Herzog and Bellow would probably look alike, too.

Baby Bellow
Here's Bellow looking a little younger. Just look at that stare he's rocking.

Bellow Toward the End of His Life
Because let's face it (unlike Herzog)—we all get old.