Goldstein’s Novels of Ideas: Saul Bellow’s Herzog

This piece completes a series of reviews highlighting philosopher-novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s list of the best “novels of ideas”. Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964) was ranked first on her list.

Herzog is an excellent contender for the top position on a list of novels of ideas. It was instantly heralded as a literary “masterpiece” when it was published in 1964, and won Saul Bellow his second National Book Award for Fiction. Praise for the book and illuminating studies thereof have continued for nearly 50 years. It appeared on TIME’s All-TIME 100 Novels and author Philip Roth has called its protagonist Bellow’s “greatest creation.”

A Montreal bootlegger’s son turned American academic, title character Moses Herzog’s doctoral work was sufficiently illuminating that he continues to receive academic posts despite failing to finish his long-gestating work on the Romantics. At his wife’s insistence, he quits his most recent university position to move to the country and work. But Herzog ends up cuckolded and divorced, losing his wife and never finishing his manuscript. Now he teaches night courses, makes failed plans for his family, and composes letters to friends, family, politicians and thinkers both alive and dead. The letters are never sent and are rarely even put to paper but appear in the book in italics to break up the narrative of his fumbled attempts to escape madness.

There is an interesting narrative in Herzog, but the book often follows Herzog’s mental wanderings. In addition to the letters, Herzog makes extensive use of flashbacks. The book is ultimately a fascinating study of life in a world of ideas. The explicit emphasis on ideas present in the letters also appears in the main narrative and flashbacks. Even Herzog’s sessions with a psychiatrist focus on issues like whether Nietzsche had a Christian view of history.

By directly engaging with intellectual greats, Bellow inserts ideas into his novels in a straightforward fashion. He does not pander to his audience. Consider the following letter from the text, which Goldstein highlights: “Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, 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?”. The Heidegger reference appears without context. Herzog presumes a certain level of intelligence. The book is nonetheless funny; some letters can be read ironically, in a manner that undermines, rather than reinforces, the pretentiousness often accompanying allusion.

The placement of the intellectual references demonstrates the unique place of ideas in the lives of thinkers. In both everyday discussions and in his letters, Herzog shifts between the mundane and the intellectual. The Heidegger letter accordingly appears after short letters to a cousin and the President and before a long letter about risk to the New York Times challenging an undergraduate comrade who has since achieved success.

The world of ideas reigns in Herzog. When he writes to his Governor, Herzog ends up asking himself, “Since when have you taken such an interest in social questions, in the external world?” It is, however, clear that the world of ideas and the real world are constantly co-mingling. A story of relationship difficulties, intellectual failures and, at times, seeming madness, Herzog could be read as a cautionary tale for readers about the perils of living with ideas. Living in a world of ideas alone comes with its consequences. Engaging with these ideas, however, is well worth the potential risks.