You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


Herzog is a psychological novel by Saul Bellow published in 1964. Most of the action and dialogue occurs inside the protagonist's mind. Moses Herzog is an academic who feels he may be going crazy--he writes letters to people, both living and dead, some from his own life and others from history or philosophy. With these letters he gets a kind of therapy.

Moses' main concern is his suffering. His current suffering is due to that of his second wife Madeleine leaving him for his best friend. In addition to his young daughter June, his son Marco by his first wife is still in his thoughts. One of the sore points with him is the country house in rural Massachusetts that he bought with Madeleine. He had hoped it would be the center of their life together, but she rejected the house and its remoteness from the city life she enjoyed. We learn through Moses' memories of her visit to Boston and their friend Valentine's travel their ostensibly to have her return to her husband. However when Valentine returns for Madeleine's things, including her diaphragm, he realizes he has lost her. Despite a move to Chicago to help their relationship, Madeleine soon leaves him for Valentine and the academic life that Moses turned away from. Thus the house becomes a symbol, an abandoned monument to their failed marriage. It rests in the back of his mind as an annoying reminder of his mistakes and the way that he is used by others.

But he has done his own share of abuse. He left his first wife and had a relationship with a Japanese woman with whom he conversed in French, then left her for Madeleine. He does not have a good relationship with any woman in his life, even his elderly stepmother, whom he takes advantage of by stopping by for a quick visit and making off with his father's old gun. His father had been a poor immigrant, a bootlegger, and finally a respectable businessman. Moses' life is contrasted by his brothers, a wealthy businessman and a well connected political operative.

A good part of the novel is taken up by Herzog's ramblings, both in his letters and his attempts to make sense of his life. These parts were a little dry and difficult to read through. His insecurity in his understanding is matched by his vacillations in his life. He starts to visit a married female friend on Martha's Vineyard but immediately changes his mind and turns around to go home upon seeing her. He has a tentative relationship with a flower shop owner in New York. A visit to a courtroom gives him a chill and leads to his travel to Chicago to retrieve his father's gun. He spies on his ex-wife and daughter but realizes he could never use the gun. But after a traffic accident with his daughter in the car, he ends up in the police station for having the weapon. With the authorities present, he has a confrontation with Madeleine and survives it. His brother bails him out, and Moses meets him at the country house, where he starts to make a home, literally and figuratively rebuilding his life.

Despite the rough parts, I did enjoy reading this book. It is as close as I've ever been to being inside the mind of another person. Such feats are not easy to write. Moses is a troubled man who is trying to find a way to rebuild his life despite years of mistakes. I find it a little disappointing that he is not more a part of his children's life, though this was more acceptable for men decades ago. His writings are part of his therapy, and accordingly they describe his mental state. He is an intelligent man who can see many things quite well, except perhaps the secret to his own happiness. The effect is a full picture of why he behaves the way he does. B+

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