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Herzog | Context

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Autobiography and the Revenge Novel

Herzog is a revenge novel, one written to right wrongs done to the writer. In many ways the plot is lifted from Saul Bellow's own life. At the time of the first publication of Herzog, it was common knowledge among Bellow's associates the story was based on incidents from the author's life barely transformed to fiction. The parallels range from the description of Herzog's family and friends to the crushing breakup of his second marriage.

Writer Louis Menand recaps the details in an essay in The New Yorker (May 2015). Bellow, teaching at Bard College in upstate New York, had a close friendship with Jack Ludwig, a professor of literature who Menand calls "an oversized personality, a big man, extravagant, a shameless purveyor of bad Yiddish, and an operator." During this time Bellow divorced Anita Goshkin, his first wife, and married a Russian woman named Alexandra, known as Sasha. Ludwig was also married. He idolized Bellow, and although Ludwig had become Bellow's best friend, and the two couples socialized, Ludwig engaged in a protracted secret affair with Sasha.

Bellow lampoons the real-life Ludwig and Sasha through the characters Valentine Gersbach and Madeleine Pontritter. Madeleine is characterized as a hateful psychopath, and Valentine, by the end of the novel, comes off as nothing more than a shallow, theatrical buffoon. Herzog, Bellow's fictional representative, suffers rage and jealousy for the majority of the novel, but ultimately finds release in an epiphany—the underlying reason for Gersbach's seduction of Madeleine is an attempt to become Herzog. "Enjoy her—rejoice in her," exalts the recently enlightened—and unshackled—protagonist. He goes on, "I know you sought me in her flesh ... but I am no longer there."

Bellow also illustrates the dark side of adultery, accusing both Madeleine and Gersbach. Of Madeleine, the narrator says, "In spirit, she was his own murderess." Madeleine and Gersbach "divvied me up," Herzog realizes, each taking on and mimicking different aspects of his personality. Herzog turns the defeat into spiritual victory, proclaiming, "God has gilded me all over." For the real-life Ludwig and Sasha, Bellows makes his point: they may have tried to kill him, but he transformed tragedy into triumph.

The novel faithfully presents many details from Bellow's breakup—only a few have been changed. When Bellow left Bard and country living, he accepted a job at the University of Minnesota and dutifully arranged a job there for Ludwig. Herzog performs a similar kindness for Valentine Gersbach. Ludwig served as best friend and confidant to both Bellow and Sasha, and the couple shared—to Bellow's great disadvantage—a psychiatrist and a lawyer. In Herzog Bellow uses this connection to great comedic effect. When Sasha announces she is leaving Saul, she insists she simply does not love him and there is no third party. Sasha leaves with Adam, their son, and moves in with Ludwig. Brokenhearted, Herzog worries over his little daughter June, now living with Gersbach and Madeleine. Bellow learns from the family babysitter after he and Sasha separate that Ludwig and Sasha had been lovers for the past two and a half years. Bellow also goes off to Europe—Herzog reflects on his trip to Europe in Herzog—and, as in the novel, assiduously collects attractive women along the way. Menand notes there is "at least one respect in which the novel is not based on real life: Bellow didn't have a nervous breakdown. He wrote Herzog instead."

Not merely fascinating as gossip, the reception of the novel and the reticence of the novel's reviewers provide cultural commentary as well. The major critics of the period, Bellow's friends and associates who knew the whole story, agreed Herzog was an idea-driven work in an age "full of fearful abysses." Many warned, without a hint that there was good reason, the novel should not be read as autobiography. Herzog's letter-writing habit was seen as a "send-up of the intellectual's effort to understand human behavior." Menand sensibly offers another view: "The whole point of his story is that when you are completely screwed the best you can hope for is a little sex and sympathy."

Moreover, not only did Jack Ludwig review the novel, but so did Rosette Lamont, a professor of French who was the model for the sexually adept and beautiful Ramona in the novel. In her review, Lamont, ignoring the parallels between art and life, barely comments on Ramona except to say "her religion is sex, a welcome relief from Madeleine's phony conversion." Ludwig's review was even more to the point, boldly asserting the book should not be read as autobiography "as if Bellow's enormous gifts were simply playing at second-guessing reality and settling scores." On the contrary, with this book, Ludwig wrote, "Bellow is after something greater ... man's contradiction, his absurdity, his alienation."

Roots in Ulysses

A model for Bellow's novel can be found in the Irish novelist James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). In fact, the character Moses Herzog's name comes from a character in Ulysses. Joyce takes one day in the life of an ordinary man and creates Ulysses, a novel based on the classical story of the warrior Odysseus from the Greek poet Homer's epic The Odyssey. Joyce's hero, Leopold Bloom, a Dublin Jew and an outsider in Catholic Ireland of the early 20th century, is a salesman of advertising married to a beautiful woman who is a professional singer.

In Homer and in Joyce, the protagonists engage in meandering homeward journeys with concerns about the faithfulness of their respective wives. Bellow's character Moses Herzog, too, is on a journey homeward. Despite his marriages (one past and one current at the opening of the novel), he is also a meanderer among women. In addition to bruising self-conflict, his battles are limited to the battles of the sexes.

The Postwar Novel and the Immigrant's Story

The American novel in the decades of the 1950s and the 1960s reflected, whether stated or not, a worldview shattered by World War II. The fallout was moral, technological, and social, addressing the genocidal outrage of the Holocaust and the ethical vacuum left by the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Postwar American prosperity provided another category of questions with respect to value. In a 1950s essay the influential American critic Leslie Fiedler posed this question for the contemporary novelist: "Can the lonely individual, unsustained by tradition in an atomized society, achieve a poetry adult and complicated enough to be the consciousness of his age?"

Saul Bellow, in emphasizing the Jewish immigrant's story, produced a novel whose power lies in no small part in a depiction of the sort of emotional and moral compromise survival in the tumultuous century's second half demanded. Neither victim nor martyr but clearly a survivor, Moses Herzog portrays native ambivalence, moral ambiguity, and a naive humanity. The style of the novel and the realism of the narrative echo the character's ambiguity. The style preserves the romance of assimilation and reinvention of the self, while the narrative, in its psychological realism, acknowledges the brutal challenges of individual survival.

Moses Herzog's life lessons originated in "lies," as he describes his mother's loving support. They were organized by a harsh and stubbornly optimistic father whose unfailing and desperate efforts to earn a living were not always legal. Nevertheless, what Moses recalls from his early life in a poor immigrant community are the ordinary kindnesses shared in a community of uniquely endowed individuals.

He recalls his parents' tolerance for a drunken boarder who had nowhere to go, and also their repugnance as he helplessly soiled himself. The man stretches the bounds of their hospitality but never of their care and concern. He reflects on the "potato love" (a sort of spontaneous, open love) among successful, professional men whose boyhood in an immigrant community had created a lasting bond. He recalls the utter foreignness of some of the neighbors and relatives. For example, he describes Tante Taube's slow preparation of strudel: "In his youth he had watched her take ... an hour to spread the dough over the table when she baked. Her strudel was like jeweler's work, and filled with red and green gems of preserves." He also recalls without malice the fortune his Aunt Zipporah had accumulated and would not share even when her brother needed help. She believed if she could have such success in America, anyone willing to work as hard as she might have the same. All the characters are survivors, coping in idiosyncratic ways.

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