Considered one of the greatest literary expressions of postwar America, this is a masterpiece by one of America’s finest novelists. Herzog traces five days in the expansive, troubled mind of a failing academic, cuckolded by his best friend and usurped as a father. Eventually retreating to his abandoned home in rural Massachusetts, Moses Herzog commits himself to solitude and sets out to understand the energies and influences – within him and without – that have shaped his life. In a series of letters, he addresses the women on whom much of his identity has depended – his mistresses, his dead mother and his ex-wife, the beautiful, cruel Madeleine. He writes to President Eisenhower and the philosophers Nietzsche and Hegel. He jots, even, a few lines to God. Herzog’s missives – never sent – are at once manic and inspired, poignant and darkly comical. ‘I go after reality with language,’ he says.
Herzog writes furiously, determined to fathom not only his own tormented psyche but the spiritual crises of the 20th century, via the history of thought itself. Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work’. Herzog, first published in 1964, is perhaps the greatest example of this, exploring the tragicomedy of the postmodern self, adrift in vast cities, straining for attachment in ‘a society that was no community’. Philip Roth described Herzog as ‘intellectual theater’, and his phrase is apt: Bellow’s novel presents, in all its drama, the limitations, contradictions and tremendous depths of how we think, perceive and feel. Carefully researched photographs complement the narrative. Some are the work of little known photographers; others are by acclaimed professionals such as Aaron Siskind and Leonard Freed. Each brings an arresting visual image to a scene or feeling in the novel, from Herzog’s mental disintegration to the black railings of the fire escape that he eyes as he writes his letters.