I first tried to read this book around 6 years ago, but couldn't finish it - and for the first three fifths or so, it is indeed a very difficult novel to read, centering mostly on the protagonist's internal dialogues and philosophical discussions. The eponymous Herzog is a middle-aged professor of literature undergoing a profound personal crisis after finding out his (now divorced) wife is having an affair with a supposedly good friend of his. The pace picks up somewhat in the last third of the book, with Herzog's monologues (manifest in the form of letters to people he knows, or famous personages of the time, which is the first half of the 1960s) giving way to stuff actually happening - which pushes the hero to the brink, and allows him to realize the folly of his efforts to try change the world, or even reform himself, through philosophizing.
I've found that the novel often appeared to speak to me directly - Bellow is extremely talented in identifying universal aspects of the western male condition and refracting them through Herzog's doubts, fears, and desires. Sometimes this universalizing appears a bit contrived (as in the insertion of the memory of an episode of sexual abuse in Herzog's childhood), but is nevertheless successful in drawing the (male?) reader into the protagonist's universe.
Herzog abandons his search for philosophical meaning not because he would believe life is meaningless, but because he begins to believe its meaning cannot be subsumed under the scope of philosophizing alone
. On the one hand, he realizes that purely intellectual interventions are ineffective; but it is precisely his attempts to give 'scientific' meaning to the world that lead him to this conclusion. In short, reality eludes humanism
, not any sort of search for meaning. The supposedly universal characteristics of humanity, as identified by classical philosophers, are revealed by Herzog to be bogus and entirely inadequate to the more textured, elusive reality on the ground - and surprisingly, this is achieved without a retreat into mysticism, obscurantism, or cynicism typical of other post-modern works.
And I would claim that Herzog definitely is
a postmodern novel - but in a different way than, for instance, Pynchon's or Eco's novels are postmodern. It is postmodern in its theme and its scope, since it deals with the futility of ultimate intellectual searches in modern times - but it does this without succumbing to the ridiculous vicissitudes of postmodern style
. Such an approach is, in retrospect, extremely refreshing, and proves that the 'big questions' of the 20th century (which include, precisely, the apparent disappearance of the relevance of 'big questions' themselves) can be tackled without a retreat into infantile form.
As with all good novels, however, it is impossible to tell whether Bellow fully supports Herzog's final conclusions or not. There are hints that he doesn't. For instance, is Herzog really the right person to be telling us about the 'death of the intellectual'? This may be true in Herzog's own, personal search, but is his very specific life story in any way viably representative of the contemporary condition more generally? Perhaps different people than Herzog should take up the search for meaning - or, indeed, such people should try tackling different questions, in different ways, avoiding navel-gazing. This latter point is supported by the novel's narrative itself - since it is Herzog's retreat into intellectual isolation in a remote area of New England, where he tries to write his newest literary critical masterpiece, that firmly cements the end of his marriage and sends his own personal crisis into motion in the first place!