Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Herzog, Saul Bellow (1964)

The master’s most autobiographical, and therefore most Jewish, book

David Samuels
September 17, 2013

Every male Jewish writer secretly or not so secretly accounts himself to be either a Rothian or a Bellovian. Roth’s acolytes are all about look-at-me-Mom tricks and po-mo gesturing, mixed with longings for mama’s liver and the desire to do unclean things to mama’s liver and then be praised for writing about it so that mama will be secretly proud of her unruly son. Bellow was a grown-up man who was married five times and also fell for Wilhelm Reich and phrenology. If Roth believed in Freud, Bellow believed in the irrational, which is another name for love. Herzog is more than just the grown-up version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; it’s also Bellow’s most autobiographical and therefore his most Jewish book, which defines a kind of ongoing and deeply personal sense of complaint—against women, history, and man’s fate. And what Bellow understood emotionally was that humans are deeply irrational; he was moved by their fate because it was entirely his own.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.