the ledge files
the ledge - nl - uk
Saul Bellow
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1964

refered to by:
James Joyce

full text search:

the ledge - flash version*


Winner of the National Book Award when it was first published in 1964, Herzog traces five days in the life of a failed academic whose wife has recently left him for his best friend. Through the device of letter writing, Herzog movingly portrays both the internal life of its eponymous hero and the complexity of modern consciousness.

Like the protagonists of most of Bellow's novels - Dangling Man, The Victim, Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King, etc. - Herzog is a man seeking balance, trying to regain a foothold on his life. Thrown out of his ex-wife's house, he retreats to his abandoned home in Ludeyville, a remote village in the Berkshire mountains to which Herzog had previously moved his wife and friends. Here amid the dust and vermin of the disused house, Herzog begins scribbling letters to family, friends, lovers, colleagues, enemies, dead philosophers, ex- Presidents, to anyone with whom he feels compelled to set the record straight. The letters, we learn, are never sent. They are a means to cure himself of the immense psychic strain of his failed second marriage, a method by which he can recognize truths that will free him to love others and to learn to abide with the knowledge of death. In order to do so he must confront the fact that he has been a bad husband, a loving but poor father, an ungrateful child, a distant brother, an egoist to friends, and an apathetic citizen.

As Herzog obsessively reviews the evidence of Madeleine's and Gersbach's affair, we piece together the circumstances of Herzog's recent past: how Madeleine ached to leave their Emersonian life in the Berkshires, how she grew fond of the flamboyant and masculine Valentine Gersbach, how, after their marriage dissolved in Chicago, Herzog took his melancholy to Europe, and how he returned to interrogate each and every one of their friends about Madeleine's adultery. These recollections impugn not only Madeleine and Gersbach, but, more significantly, they impugn Herzog for overvaluing his own suffering. At one lucid point, he borrows a line from Shelley to express the relative meaninglessness of his suffering: 'I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And then? I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And what next?' His sense of injury may be great but what of the pain felt by people like his childhood friend Nachman whose wife has lapsed into insanity? What of the pain of Madeleine's mother Tennie who is left by her playboy ex-husband and her inattentive daughter to age alone? Herzog also asks what the suffering of a cuckolded man is worth in relation to the collective sufferings of societies living in the shadow of Hiroshima and the Holocaust? As a former scholar of Romanticism, Herzog is compelled to weigh serious questions of culture and civilization. Thinking of the world wars, perhaps too of America's involvement in Vietnam
and its battles over racism, Herzog wryly revises De Tocqueville's prediction that modern democracies would produce less crime but more private vice to 'less private crime, more collective crime.' The betrayal he has experienced at the hands of friends and lovers is mirrored by the betrayal he feels at the hands of modern American society where 'people are dying...for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.' While the garbled, fragmentary letters often display the clashing of personal and public crises, for Herzog the project to restore oneself and the project to restore civilization are really one. It is a Romantic idea that finds eloquent expression in Blake whose work is repeatedly invoked by Herzog.

Crucial to the restoration of American culture, Herzog believes, is a condemnation of the 'wasteland outlook.' Referring to an intellectual tradition based on the bleak diagnoses of modern civilization by Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot, Spengler, Heidegger and other existentialist philosophers, Herzog laments the wasteland outlook as 'the full crisis of dissolution...the filthy moment...when moral feeling dies, conscience disintegrates, and respect for liberty, law, public decency, all the rest, collapses in cowardice, decadence, blood.' Real transcendence, according to the wasteland outlook, is only possible in the immoral, 'gratuitous' act. In opposition to this philosophy, Herzog offers the wisdom of Blake: 'Man liveth not by self alone but in his brother's face...Each shall behold the Eternal Father and love and joy abound.' Bellow dramatizes, with comedic effect, these ideas in the 'murder' scene. Pistol wielding Herzog realizes, as he peers through Madeleine's bathroom window and sees his wife's lover bathing his own daughter, that the taking or the saving of life has meaning. He resists the temptations of immoralism, and through this act of moral will Herzog manages to regain his balance. That Herzog transcends his personal hurt while being charged at the police station is both ironic and deeply affecting. Now with a 'tranquil fullness of heart' he can compose letters of a different character. He reaches out in love to join the human race, writing to his dead mother, to congratulate a colleague on a recent book, to Nietzsche to resolve his mixture of admiration and distrust, to God to affirm his will to live, and to himself in which he rises to a state of rapture: 'Something produces intensity, a holy feeling, as oranges produce orange, as grass green.' In the end, with 'not a single word' left to say, Herzog is restored to himself.

Herzog is primarily a novel of redemption. For all of its innovative techniques and brilliant comedy, it tells one of the oldest of stories. Like the Divine Comedy or the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross, it progresses from darkness to light, from ignorance to enlightenment. Today it is still considered one of the greatest literary expressions of postwar America.


bookweb from:
Lezen&Cetera, Pieter Steinz

Henderson the Rain King
Henderson has come to Africa on a spiritual safari, a quest for 'the truth.' His feats of strength, his passion for life, and, most importantly, his inadvertant 'success' in bringing rain have made him a god-like figure among the tribes.

Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life
Gustave Flaubert, 1857
Hopeless romantic commits adultery, in vain attempt to escape her dull marriage and Norman bourgeoisie.

Notes from the Underground
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, 1866
Nihilist denounces the decay of the modern world.

The Trial
Franz Kafka, 1925P
Accused man goes in search of his judges and his crime.

Jean-Paul Sartre, 1938
Historian in the provinces is disgusted by the bourgeoisie.

The Outsider
Albert Camus, 1942
An indifferent French Algerian shoots a man and then refuses to oppose his sentence.

Sister Carrie
Theodore Dreiser, 1900
Working-class girl uses sex appeal to climb the ladder and plunges her lover in disgrace.

Gimpel the Fool, and other stories
Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1956
In 1952, Bellow translated the story 'Gimpel the Fool' from the original Yiddish into English.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, 1884-1885
Humorous, picaresque novel - in dialect - about a boy who travels down the Mississippi on a raft with a runaway slave.

James Joyce, 1922
The ultimate modernist 'urban novel', where streams of consciousness flow freely: a day in the life of a Jewish advertising salesman in Dublin, 1904.

His Collected Stories
Anton Chekhov, 1880-1885
There are many - we'll try and list the various available collections separately. Stay tuned!

An intellectual-in-crisis evaluates his past and writes frantic letters (which he never mails) about the state of the world.

The Professor of Desire
Philip Roth, 1977
Literature professor in crisis pursues his Jewish roots.

Dubin's Lives
Bernard Malamud, 1979
Young woman turns the life of a biographer upside-down.

Leon de Winter, 1995
New York rabbi with midlife crisis grapples with (his) morals.

Zeno's Conscience
Italo Svevo, 1923
Neurotic businessman analyzes his life and non-well-being.

Blue Mondays
Arnon Grunberg, 1994
Problematic love life of a Jewish teenager in Amsterdam.

Barney's Version
Mordecai Richler, 1997
Memoirs of the profligate (fictional) television producer Barney Panofsky.

The Fall
Albert Camus, 1956
Monologue in which a lawyer confronts his own hypocrisy.

Margaret Atwood, 1972
Feminist classic about the salutary influence of the Canadian wilderness.

Money: a suicide note
Martin Amis, 1984
John Self (!) descends into the Hell of consumerist New York.

Among the Dead
Michael Tolkin, 1992
Crime and punishment of a young widower.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers, 2000
Postmodern orphan's tale: Dave Egger's parents died from cancer within a month of each other when he was 21 and his brother, Christopher, was seven. They left the Chicago suburb where they had grown up and moved to San Francisco. This book tells the story of their life together.

The Corrections
Jonathan Franzen, 2001
A suburban family falls apart and is chastened.

Dangling Man
Take a man waiting - waiting between the two worlds of civilian life and the army, suspended between two identities - and you have a man who, perhaps for the first time in his life, is really free. However, freedom can be a noose around a man's neck.
The Adventures of Augie March
Fictional autobiography of a rumbustious adventurer and poker-player who sets off from his native Chicago in the spirit of a latter-day Columbus to rediscover the world - and more - especially, 20th century America.
Seize the Day
New York novel about a man with an impossible father and a wasted life.
Mr Sammler's Planet
Mr. Artur Sammler, Holocaust survivor, intellectual, and occasional lecturer at Columbia University in 1960s New York City, is a 'registrar of madness,' a refined and civilized being caught among people crazy with the promises of the future.
Humboldt's Gift
A chronicle of success and failure, this work is Bellow's tale of the writer's life in America. When Humboldt dies a failure in a seedy New York hotel, Charlie Citrine, coping with the tribulations of his own success, begins to realize the significance of his own life.
The friendship between a writer and a rich, flamboyant intellectual.
The Dean's December
Alternating between Chicago and Bucharest, Bellow's novel tells the story of a college dean who witnesses unrest and corruption at home and abroad, first within the political community of Chicago, then under the oppressive communist rule of Romania.
The Victim
Leventhal is a natural victim; a man uncertain of himself, never free from the nagging suspicion that the other guy may be right. So when he meets a down-at-heel stranger in the park one day and finds himself being accused of ruining the man's life, he half believes it.
make a note


Code (above)

The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
Design: Maurits de Bruijn

Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author.