Time Magazine Top 100 Novels
Book 43: Herzog by Saul Bellow
This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.
Herzog is named for the main character Moses Herzog a Jewish former professor whose mind seems to be unraveling in the aftermath of his second divorce. The story is told from a first-person perspective and the reader is invited into the rambling reflections of an intelligent but cluttered mind. Moses Herzog begins by stating, “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me.” We encounter in Moses’ thinking, speaking, and especially in his incessant drive to write notes to a diverse group of recipients from former friends and relations to President Dwight Eisenhower a mind balancing on the precipice of sanity. There are times when the erratic and non-chronological reflections full of non-sequiturs do feel like a descent into some type of madness of this man driven by compulsions he doesn’t understand.
The mind of Moses Herzog is the entirety of the novel and entering into that mind is to encounter the contradictions and confusions of a person who struggles to comprehend the world around him and the feelings and motivations of other individuals. His divorce caused, in his view, by the manipulation by his wife and best friend shatter him. A combination of the situation and the makeup of Moses as an individual leave him caught in an egocentric loop where the world revolves around his experience of it. He is not a rational actor at this point in his life and he often sabotages himself by making impulsive decisions on a whim which cause him trouble. For the majority of the book, he is not in his right mind. At the end his intelligent mind finally comes to rest and appears to let go of its compulsions.
Herzog is a strange book. I can understand why it is considered a masterwork and the comparison to James Joyce’s Ulysses is apt since both share a stream of consciousness manner of narration. Due to the erratic nature of Herzog’s mind the story is often slow moving and then it can jump suddenly when his mind seizes on another compulsion. I struggled to find Herzog a likeable character since he is so enmeshed in his own ego and madness. Reading a novel in first person forces the reader to see the character through their own eyes and Herzog seemed to have an inflated opinion of his abilities while still not liking the person he had become. Perhaps the genius of the work is seeing through the eyes of madness. I can appreciate it as an experiment in literature but as a novel it is not one that I will probably return to. All experiences of fiction are subjective and there are many readers throughout the last sixty years who have made this a classic.