The Pequod Review:
Moses Herzog is a Romantic scholar who has been working for years on his magnum opus. His wife encourages him to leave his university job and move to the country in order to complete his study, but shortly afterward he is cuckolded and divorced, and his manuscript remains unfinished. Now deeply discouraged and at a dead-end professionally, Herzog has taken to writing (but not sending) letters to family, friends, and others, both dead and alive. Saul Bellow's novel Herzog is primarily comprised of these letters.
From them we learn all about Herzog – his psychology, his history, and his intellectual concerns. He writes letters to anyone and everyone: Martin Heidegger (“Dear Doctor Professor, I should like to know what you mean by the expression ‘the fall into the quotidian.’ When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?”), President Eisenhower, the Maryland police, Quaker Oats (“Dear Sirs: It disturbs me from time to time that you should advertise your puffed wheat as Shot from the Guns, under the brand name of Quaker”), Nietzsche, Spinoza, Jung, Freud, God, and even his psychiatrist.
The letters are often funny, and reveal a perceptive and intellectually playful mind at work. Herzog is a complicated character, sensitive and intelligent but defensive and not fully self-aware; the book in some ways is a comprehensive record of his self-justifications. Meanwhile, his intellectual knowledge reveals itself to be entirely unhelpful to his day-to-day concerns, and his personal life remains a mess.
And while the book struggles at times to find a firm narrative, Bellow’s prose has moments of stunning beauty, as he describes Grand Central Station (“the subterranean road of engines, voices, and feet and… the galleries with lights like drops of fat in yellow broth and the strong suffocating fragrance of underground New York”), money (“With me, money is not a medium. It passes through me – taxes, insurance, mortgage, child support, rent, legal fees”), and the industrial sections of New Jersey as seen from a commuter train (“volcanic shapes of slag, rushes, dumps, refineries, ghostly torches, and presently the fields and woods… At dusk, Trenton approached like the heart of a coal fire”). Highly recommended.