These are three very fine, even great, novels. Of course, one doesn't simply dash through Bellow. Each page requires and rewards close reading. While Bellow has been criticized for putting some things in his novels to show off his vast erudition, I found those details interesting and that they contributed to an understanding of the characters in each story.
The first novel is also the shortest. "Seize the Day" is about a middle-aged man who has lost his way in life. Tommy Wilhem can't escape his father or his wife. He hasn't ever found a way to get a footing in life or to carve out a place of success for himself. Tommy's mother died too soon, and it seems his father is living too long. Not that we wish the old guy would die, but because he is so focused on himself that he has become a competitor to his son and does not respond as much of a father, let alone an indulgent one. The wife Wilhelm has left won't give him a divorce (this is before no-fault divorces) and is using everything at her disposal to punish Tommy. Should Tommy surrender and come home emasculated? Yes, Wilhelm has or had a girlfriend, but he doesn't even pull that off well.
Tommy is so desperate for approval that he first went to Hollywood to become the movie star a crooked agent said he could be. The central part of the story involves the investment strategies of Dr. Tamkin. Tommy hopes against reason that Tamkin can succeed and get him not only out of the financial pit he is in, but make him a success so he can finally be his own man. Well, a man of any kind. Some read the end of the story as Tommy finding a place for himself at last and that he will turn things around. I think this is a quite optimistic gloss on what the text actually says.
"Henderson the Rain King" is actually a lot of fun. While many have made the observation that Eugene Henderson's initials, the big gun, Africa, and hunting all betoken a satire of Hemingway, the writing is nothing like his. There is no doubt that Bellow is poking fun at a great many schools of then modern writing, but he is also dealing with the same kinds of themes teased out in "Seize the Day", but in comic form and drawn on a much larger canvas.
Henderson is a huge and physically imposing middle-aged man who is quite wealthy. However, he didn't earn the money, nor was he supposed to get it by inheritance. His father didn't have much use for him, but the favored son died and so the $3 million went to Eugene when dear old Dad died. Henderson was also quite unsuccessful in love, though he did have some adventures along those lines. He can never settle on anything because of the inner voice that cries out "I want, I want, I want". He is able to still the voice for a time with each new thing he tries, whether it is pig farming, playing the violin, painting, taking on a new lover, or adventuring in Africa.
It is this adventuring in Africa that provides the central adventures of the story and the title of the book. It is so much fun that I have to leave it for you to read and enjoy. It isn't all comic, though there are some serious, and some tender moments. The ending does leave the door open for hope that Henderson has found a way to quiet that voice at last. However, it is also possible to read it as another temporary respite and that Eugene will need to find another distraction to throw himself into in order to find another spot of peace.
"Herzog" is unquestionably a masterpiece. This book seems to be the fulfillment of Bellow's desire for "an American novel that might more optimistically search for the `sealed treasure' of ordinary life" [from the entry for 1960 of the chronology provided in this edition]. The actual story of the book occupies only a few days in the life of Moses Elkanah Herzog. Don't you think that name is significant? Is he Moses the lawgiver? Hardly. What about the liberator - the one drawn forth in the reed basket or the one who draws his people out of slavery from Egypt to the Promised Land? Or is Bellow using ironically? What about the contrast between the English - American Moses verses the Yiddish - Hebrew Moshe that we hear him called by his stepmother? Which is he, really? Is he both the assimilated American still rooted in his childhood Yiddish? The middle name, Elkanah, means "God created" and refers to several different Levites (priestly class) in the Bible. Might this be a reference to his being a professor? A Ph.D.? The idea that the modern priests are the professors and educated elite? Again, there would be a certain sense of irony here, because Moses has quit his job, and a great deal of the book is him rejecting and commenting on the whole range of modern thought (as it was in the early 1960s).
Herzog is worn out. And very much like Tommy Wilhelm and Eugene Henderson, he suffers from a kind of impotence of the soul. His promiscuity is actually evidence of the sickness in his soul rather than a sign of robustness. He has former wife and son he threw over for a beautiful younger model, but she threw him over and cuckolded him with his "best friend" and took the daughter they had away to Chicago. It is obvious that Herzog wants her as a kind of possession and how that beauty makes him feel about himself. But it is a story that is richly played out in this large novel. Along the way, Herzog also had a longish relationship with a Japanese woman who was devoted to him, but he threw her away, too. At the time of the novel, he is involved with a strong woman named Ramona, and one of the results of her strength, which he needs and loves, is to run away from her to visit some friends. Immediately after arriving at his friends' home, he flees them, as well.
The story is famous for his impotent letter writing to historical figures, world authorities, friends, enemies, doctors, shrinks, and many other folks. But he rarely sends any of them. He does send a telegram to Ramona towards the end of the novel.
This is an amazingly detailed work that achieves a great deal in revealing the inner life of its protagonist. It was a best seller in its day and won the national book award. It is hard for me to believe that a great many of those who bought it read it from cover to cover. Maybe I am wrong. The topics of divorce, sexual affairs, cuckoldry, and madness were much more taboo than it would soon become. Maybe it was those subjects that caught the imagination of the public. However, there is nothing sensational or erotic in this work of art. That would be left to the pulp novelists such as Jacqueline Susann and an army of others beginning a few years later.
I do want to share one contrary thought that kept coming back to me as I read these novels. To these post-this and post-post-that sophisticates for whom all belief is provincial and even childish and for whom their sexual desires and phantasies become their gods and all important self-definition. Look at the wreckage of your lives, the lost wives, husbands, and children. Look at the lack of lasting happiness. Notice the need for pharmacological assistance to fight depression. Might I suggest something? Make your family the center of your life and give up the sexual fantasies and dalliances. Keep your children close and set aside the things that detract from these foundational values. Oh, I know this sounds so hick and, worst of all, center-of-the-country values. But it really isn't that. It is a form of happiness that actually works. Maybe it doesn't make for interesting novels, plays, movies, or TV shows, but those matter nothing at all. Keep your first wife or your first husband, (after you chose each other carefully - not for narcissistic reasons) and both focus on each other and your kids. Life will actually be better, and you will need a lot less legal and chemical help. Really.
All three of these novels are quite memorable. Bellow's importance has been recognized as has the quality of his work. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and was also given many other awards throughout his life. "Seize the Day" was made into a movie starring Robin Williams in 1986, but I can't find it in print anywhere. One of the things I do wonder about is having twenty-year-old college students read these works. It isn't that they can't read them, of course they can. However, it is hard for me to see how they can relate to these middle aged folks without having lived more and experienced more of the vagaries of real life.
This is a fine edition from the Library of America with a great chronology of Bellow's life and some notes on the text.