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When Herzog finally learns that Madeline has been carrying on an affair with his best friend Gersbach, he feels more despair than anger, making him, for all the world, the most hilarious cuckold in literary history. The anger does surface, albeit briefly, towards the end when he steals his long-dead father's antique pistol with the hazy idea of shooting Gersbach. When he gets to Madeline's house however Herzog spies on Gersbach as he gives June a bath. Despite his anger, Herzog notes with almost comic despair that Gersbach is like a father-figure to his child- bathing her, coaxing her and making her laugh. The pain of separation from his daughter stings but Herzog recognizes that he does not have killing in him. Instead, he puts away the gun and makes arrangements to spend the day with his daughter June. Ironically, a minor traffic incident results in the police discovering Herzog's gun. They arrest him and despite his protests--"Listen. I have to get this kid home."--the police drag him off to the police station. For Herzog, the moment's humiliation could not be greater. Even as he crumbles, he is acutely aware of the mark this incident will leave in June's mind. He plays the attentive father, entertaining June while waiting for Madeline to show up. Eventually, he is bailed out by his brother and returns to the source of all his troubles: the cottage in Berkshire county.
His divorce from Madeline is a landmark event in Herzog's life that spurs him into a frenzy of letter-writing; letters that are complicated, complex and finally abortive because he finds himself both unable to finish these letters and unable to mail them. Herzog composes letters to all kinds of people- beginning, in one long passage, with a letter to the President ("Dear Mr. President, I listened to your recent optimistic message on the radio and thought that in respect to taxes there was little to justify your optimism"), then to Professor Heidegger ("Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression 'the fall of the quotidian'") and finally to the New York Times ("...Again a government scientist, Dr. Emmett Strawforth, has come forward with the Philosophy of risk..."). In these letters, Herzog attempts to question the intelligentsia, provoke the political powers that be, to complain. Yet just as often his motive is to set the record straight, as he does in a letter to Sono, his one-time Japanese lover: "You were right about Madeline, Sono. I shouldn't have married her. I should have married you." Herzog does not even spare the dead from his obsession, penning letters to his dead father, his dead mother ("Dear Mama, as to why I haven't visited your grave in so long...") and to Nietzsche. It is not that Herzog composes these rambling letters that is so fascinating; it is the fact that he composes them with so much abandon, like a child with ADD - jumping from one topic to another, from one person to another that he causes his own world to go dizzy around him. That he never actually sends these letters says a lot more about Herzog's state of mind than anything that he writes, as does the fact that several of these letters are composed directly in Herzog's brain and remain there. The letters are, of course, more than the ramblings of a man on the brink of a nervous breakdown- they are, in fact, the opposite. They are the letters of a man examining the madness of the world around him, the madness of the world inside him, as he attempts to make sense of the twain. Herzog is a rudderless boat and as he spins the oars in his own personal purgatory, he achieves a form of self-realization that only the very wise achieve. Indeed his last words are that he has no more words. An apt ending to a book filled with Herzog's incessant brain-chatter.
Unlike contemporary writers of his time, Saul Bellow was given to a rather critical assessment of American civilization. This is especially evident in the letters that Herzog writes to the intellectuals of his time. As he writes in a letter to Edvig: "Dear Edvig. You gave me good value for my money when you explained that neuroses might be graded by the inability to tolerate ambiguous situations." Here Herzog wrestles with the role intellectuals, even those like him, play in society. He notes that, "...the best-treated, most favored and intelligent part of any society is often the most ungrateful. Ingratitude, however, is its social function."
In the Bellovian world, man is constantly at odds against his social environment as it is presented to him in cities and towns. Bellow was particularly critical of America's postmodern fascination with nihilism. In his letter to Nietzsche, Herzog reprimands him saying, "Dear Herr Nietzsche...Humankind lives mainly upon perverted ideas. Perverted, your ideas are no better than those of the Christianity you condemn. Any philosopher who wants to keep his contact with mankind should pervert his own system in advance to see how it will really look a few decades after adoption." Here Herzog rejects not only nihilistic philosophy but in a sense criticizes the adoption of those values by postmodern America which was, at the time, reeling from the after-effect of Kennedy's assassination, anti-war protests and the sexual revolution of the early sixties.
Sex and love also play big parts in Herzog's life. While Herzog sees himself as a weak, emotional yet cerebral being, the women in life are sexually aggressive; Madeline started a sexual relationship with his best friend Gersbach, Sono, his one-time Japanese lover whom he abandoned to marry Madeline, and the exotic and sexually liberated Ramona, his current lover to whom Herzog is unable to commit. Ironically, Herzog turns out to be stronger than these women. Stronger than Madeline who uses love and sex as crutch moving from Herzog to Gersbach and stronger even than Ramona, who for all her 'liberation' frightens Herzog because he suspects her sexual affections are a ploy to trap him into another life of domesticity. But at the heart of all these encounters, is Herzog's quest for meaning in love. He is most clearly seen as a man attempting to understand himself and the world through these relationships.
In a 1981 New York Times Review journalist Michiko Kakutani wrote of Saul Bellow: "Indeed, his choice of vocation, he says, was animated by the traditional challenge 'to account for the mysterious circumstance of being.'"
The concept of a man searching for meaning in himself and in the world around him is a theme continually expressed in Bellow's oeuvre. The fascinating aspect of the Bellovian world is that while his characters appear fictional, they retain elements of universality. We are each imbued with heroic potential- just like his characters and while Herzog may be a specific man, of specific faith living in particular area, his crises are easily identifiable. The greatest challenge Moses E Herzog faces is unraveling the mystery of his being.
That Herzog is a semi-autobiographical novel is self-evident in many ways. For one, both Herzog and Bellow are Jewish, were born in Canada, were twice-divorced, grew up with fathers who were bootleggers, and both were tortured by the clash of Old World conservative values that their parents gave them and the rapidly changing morals of a sexually revolutionized New World. Similarities with Bellow's life and personal beliefs can be found in several of his other works as well. Bellow regarded these similarities as coincidences that were uninteresting and refused to comment on them.
Herzog is finally a novel in grand subjective style of Russian authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky- authors that Bellow admired and studied. The fragmentary nature of the novel as it jumps between ideas and places only adds to the blurry and disconnected way we often see things in our own lives. Herzog is at once charming and deplorable; he is a failed academic but an astute philosopher, a thoughtful husband but cuckolded all the same. By the end of the book, however, Herzog comes to a point of self-realization and in that sense his story ends on a high note even though he is confined to his crumbling cottage in the country.
As a bonus, the edition of the book also contains a foreword by Philip Roth- a great friend, admirer and collaborator of Bellow. Roth, himself a critically acclaimed writer, deconstructs 'The Adventures of Augie March', 'Seize the Day', 'Henderson the Rain King', 'Herzog', 'Mr. Sammler's Planet', 'Humboldt's Gift' and 'What's He In Chicago For?'.
|Buy Now at Amazon.com||Review by Anisha Sridhar|