Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Herzog the passenger noted, For the life of me, I couldn't understand. I often thought I was going to have apoplexy, to burst. The more comfort you gave me, the closer I came to death's door. But what was I doing? Why was I in your house?

  It must have been funny how I grieved. Looking from my room at the leafless weeds in back. Brown, delicate frames of ragweed. Milkweed with the discharged pods gaping. Or else gazing at the dark gray face of the television.

  On Sunday morning, early, Sandor called Herzog into the living room. "Man," he said, "I found one hell of an insurance policy for you."

  Moses, tying his robe about him as he came from his bed by the bar, didn't understand.

  "What?"

  "We can get you a terrific policy to cover the kid."

  "What's this about?"

  "I told you last week but you must've been thinking of other things. If you get sick, have an accident, lose an eye, even if you go nuts, Junie will be protected."

  "But I'm going to Europe, and I have travel insurance."

  "That's if you die. But here, even if you have a mental breakdown and have to go to an institution the kid still gets her monthly support."

  "Who says I'm breaking down?"

  "Listen, you think I'm doing this for myself?

  I'm in the middle here," said Sandor, stamping a bare foot on the thick pile of the carpet.

  Sunday, with gray fog from the lake and the ore boats lowing like waterborne cattle. You could hear the emptiness of the hulls. Herzog would have given anything to be a deckhand bound for Duluth.

  "Either you want my legal advice or you don't," said Sandor. "I want to do the best for all of you.

  True?"

  "Well, here I am to prove it. You've taken me into your house."

  "Okay, so let's talk sense. With Madeleine you're not going to have trouble. She gets no alimony.

  She'll be married soon. I took her to lunch at Fritzel's, and guys who haven't given Sandor H. the time of day for years came running with a hard-on, tripping over themselves. That includes the rabbi of my temple. She's some dish."

  "You're a lunatic. And I know what she is."

  "What do you mean-she's less of a whore than most.

  We're all whores in this world, and don't you forget it. I know damn well I'm a whore. And you're an outstanding shnook, I realize. At least the eggheads tell me so.

  But I bet you a suit of clothes you're a whore, too."

  "Do you know what a mass man is, Himmelstein?"

  Sandor scowled. "How's that?"

  "A mass man. A man of the crowd. The soul of the mob. Cutting everybody down to size."

  "What soul of the mob! Don't get highfalutin.

  I'm talking facts, not shit."

  "And you think a fact is what's nasty."

  "Facts are nasty."

  "You think they're true because they're nasty."

  "And you-it's all too much for you. Who told you you were such a prince? Your mother did her own wash; you took boarders; your old man was a two-bit moonshiner.

  I know you Herzogs and your Yiches.

  Don't give me that hoity-toity. I'm a Kike myself and got my diploma in a stinking night school. Okay? Now let's both knock off this crap, dreamy boy."

  Herzog, subdued, much shaken, had no answer.

  What had he come here for? Help? A forum for his anger? Indignation for his injustices? But it was Sandor's forum, not his. This fierce dwarf with protruding teeth and deep lines in his face. His lopsided breast protruded from his green pajama top. But this was Sandor's bad, angry state, thought Herzog. He could be attractive, too, generous, convivial, even witty. The lava of that heart may have pushed those ribs out of shape, and the force of that hellish tongue made his teeth protrude. Very well, Moshe Herzog-if you must be pitiable, sue for aid and succor, you will put yourself always, inevitably, in the hands of these angry spirits. Blasting you with their "truth." This is what your masochism means, mein zisse n'shamele.

  The good are attracted by men's perceptions and think not for themselves. You must cleanse the gates of vision by self-knowledge, by experience. Besides which, opposition is true friendship. So they tell me.

  "You want to take care of your own kid, don't you?" said Sandor.

  "Sure I do. But you told me the other day that I might as well forget about her, that she'd grow up a stranger to me."

  "That's right. She won't even know you next time you see her."

  Sandor was thinking of his own kids, those hamsters; not my daughter, made of finer clay.

  She won't forget me. "I don't believe it," said Herzog.

  "As the lawyer, I have a social obligation to the child.

  I've got to protect her."

  "You?

  I'm her father."

  "You may crack up. Or else die."

  "Mady is just as liable to die. Why don't we write the insurance on her?"

  "She'd never let you. That's not part of the woman's deal. It's the man's deal."

  "Not this man's. Madeleine swings her weight like a male. She made all these decisions to take the kid and throw me in the street. She thinks she can be both mother and father. I'll pay the premiums on her life."

  Sandor suddenly began to yell. "I don't give a shit about her. I don't give a shit about you.

  I'm looking after that child."

  "What makes you so sure I'll die first?"

  "And is this the woman you love?" Sandor said in a lower tone. Apparently, he had remembered his dangerously high blood pressure. An elaborate effort occurred which involved his pale eyes, and his lips, and which pitted his chin. He said more evenly, "I'd take that policy myself if I could pass the physical. It would give me pleasure to croak and leave my Bea a rich widow. I'd like that."

  "Then she could go to Miami, and dye her hair."

  "That's right. While I turn green like an old penny, in my box, and she screws around. I don't grudge her."

  "All right, Sandor-was said Herzog. He wanted to end this talk. "Just now I don't feel like making arrangements for my death."

  "What's so great about your effing death?" Sandor cried. His figure straightened. He stood very close to Herzog, who was somewhat frightened by his shrillness and stared down, wide-eyed, at the face of his host. It was strong-cut and coarsely handsome. The small mustache bristled, a fierce green, milky poison rose to his eyes; Ms mouth twisted.

  "I'm getting out of this case!"

  Himmelstein began to scream.

  "What's the matter with you!" Herzog said. "Where's Beatrice! Beatrice!"

  But Mrs. Himmelstein only shut her bedroom door.

  "She'll go to a shyster firm!"

  "For God's sake, stop screaming."

  "They'll kill you."

  "Sandor, quit this."

  "Put you over a barrel. Tear your hide off."

  Herzog held his ears. "I can't stand it."

  "Tie your guts in knots. Sonofabitch.

  They'll put a meter on your nose, and charge you for breathing. You'll be locked up back and front.

  Then you'll think about death. You'll pray for it. A coffin will look better to you than a sports car."

  "But I didn't leave Madeleine."

  "I've done this to guys myself."

  "What harm did I do her."

  "The court doesn't care. You signed papers-did you read them?"

  "No, I took your word."

  "They'll throw the book at you in court. She's the mother-the female. She's got the tits. They'll crush you."

  "But I'm not guilty of anything."

  "She hates you."

  Sandor no longer screamed. He had resumed his normal loudness. "Jesus! You don't know anything," he said. "You an educated man? Thank God my old pa didn't have the dough to send me to the U. of C. I worked in the Davis Store and went to John Marshall. Education? It's a laugh! You don't know what goes on."

  Moses was shaken. He began to reconsider.

  "All right*" he said.

  "What's all ri
ght? his "I'll take a policy on my life."

  "Not as a favor to me!"

  "Not as a favor *"

  "It's a big bite-four hundred and eighteen bucks."

  "I'll find the money."

  Sandor said, "All right, my boy. Finally you make some sense. Now what about some breakfast-I'll cook porridge." In his green paisley pajamas he set off for the kitchen on his long, slipper-less feet. Following in the corridor, Herzog heard a cry from Sandor at the kitchen sink. "Look at this crap! Not a pot-not a dish-there isn't a spoon that's clean. It stinks of garbage. It's just a sewer here!" The old dog, obese and bald, escaped in fear, claws rapping on the tiles-clickclick, clickclick.

  "Spendthrift bitches!" he shouted at the women of his house. "Frigging lice! All they're good for is to wag their asses at the dress shops and play gidgy in the bushes. Then they come home, and gorge cake and leave plates smeared with chocolate in the sink. That's what gives them the pimples."

  "Easy, Sandor."

  "Do I ask for much? The old veteran cripple runs up and down City Hall, from courtroom to courtroom-out to Twenty-sixth and California. For them! Do they care if I have to suck up to all kinds of pricks to get a little business?" Sandor began to rake out the sink. He threw eggshells and orange rinds into the corner beside the garbage pail-coffee grounds. He worked himself into a rage and began to smash dishes and glassware. His long fingers, like those of a hunchback, gripped the plates soiled with icing.

  Without losing beauty of gesture-amazing!- he shattered them on the wall. He knocked over the dish drainer and the soap powder, and then he wept with anger. And also at himself, that he should have such emotions. His open mouth and jutting teeth! The long hairs streamed from his disfigured breast.

  "Moses-they're killing me! Killing their father!"

  The daughters lay listening in their rooms. Young Sheldon was in Jackson Park with his scout troop. Beatrice did not appear.

  "We don't have to have porridge," said Herzog.

  "No, I'll wash a pot." He was still shedding tears. Under the torrential tap his manicured fingers scrubbed the aluminum with steel wool.

  When he grew calmer, he said, "You know, Moses, I've been to a psychiatrist about these effing dishes. They cost me twenty bucks an hour. Moses, what am I going to do with my kids.

  Sheldon's going to be all right. Tessie's maybe not so bad. But Carmel! I don't know how to handle her. I'm afraid the boys are getting into her pants already. Prof, while you're here, I don't ask anything from you" (in return for bed and board, he meant) "but I'd appreciate it if you'd take an interest in her mental development.

  This is her chance to know an intellectual-a famous person-an authority. Will you talk to her?"

  "About what?"

  "Books-ideas. Take her for a walk.

  Discuss with her. Please, Moses, I'm begging you!"

  "Well, of course I'll talk to her."

  "I asked the rabbi-but what good are these reform rabbis? I know I'm a vulgar bastard, The Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang. I work for these kids...."

  He squeezes the poor. Buys credit paper from merchants who sell fancy goods on installments to prostitutes on the South Side. And it's all very well for me to surrender my daughter, but his little hamsters have to have elevating discourses.

  "If Carmel was a little older, I'd say marry her."

  Moses, pale and startled, said, "She's a very attractive girl. Far too young, of course."

  Sandor put his long arm about Herzog's waist and drew him close. "Don't be such a rolling stone, Prof. Start leading a normal life. Where the hell haven't you been-Canada, Chicago, Paris, New York, Massachusetts. Your brothers have done okay right here, in this town. Of course, what's good enough for Alexander and Willie isn't good enough for a macher like you. Moses E. Herzog-he has no money in the bank, but you can look up his name in the library."

  "I hoped that Madeleine and I would settle down."

  "Out in the sticks? Don't be nuts. With that chick?

  Are you kidding? Come back to the home town. You're a West Side Jew. I used to see you as a kid in the Jewish People's Institute. Slow down. Stop knocking yourself out. I love you better than my own effing family. You never pulled that phony Harvard stuff on me. Stick with the folks-with good hearts.

  With love. Jesus! What d'ye say?" He drew away his big handsome sallow head a little distance, to look into Herzog's eyes, and Herzog felt the circuit of affection enclosing them again.

  Himmelstein's face with its long yellow grooves was joyful. "Can you sell that dump in the Berkshires?"

  "I might."

  "Hell, it's settled then. Take a loss if you have to. They've ruined Hyde Park, but you don't want to live with those longhair shmoes anyhow.

  Rent in my neighborhood."

  Though he was tired out, and suffering at heart like a fool, Herzog listened like a child to a tale.

  "Get yourself a housekeeper closer to your own age.

  And a good lay, too. What's wrong with that? Or we'll find you a gorgeous brownskin housekeeper.

  No more Japs for you."

  "What do you mean?"

  "You know what I mean. Or maybe what you need is a girl who survived the concentration camps, and would be grateful for a good home. And you and I will lead the life. We'll go to the Russian bath on North Avenue. They hit me at Omaha Beach, but screw 'em all, I'm still going. We'll live it up. We'll find an orthodox shul-enough of this Temple junk. You and me-we'll track down a good chazan...

  ." Forming his lips so that the almost invisible mustache thinly appeared, Sandor began to sing, "Mi pnei chatoenu golino m'artzenu."

  And for our sins we were exiled from our land. "You and me, a pair of old-time Jews." He held Moses with his dew-green eyes. "You're my boy. My innocent kind-hearted boy."

  He gave Moses a kiss. Moses felt the potato love. Amorphous, swelling, hungry, indiscriminate, cowardly potato love.

  "Oh, you sucker," Moses cried to himself in the train. "Sucker!"

  I left you money for an emergency. You turned it all over to Madeleine to buy clothes. were you her lawyer, or mine?

  I might have understood, from the way he spoke of his female clients and assaulted all the men. But my God! how did I get into all of that? Why did I become involved with him at all? I must have wanted such absurd things to happen to me. I was so far gone in foolishness that even they, those Himmelsteins, knew more than I. And showed me the facts of life, and taught me the truth.

  Revenged with hate on my own proud inanities.

  In the mild end of the afternoon, later, at the waterside in Woods Hole, waiting for the ferry, he looked through the green darkness at the net of bright reflections on the bottom. He loved to think about the power of the sun, about light, about the ocean. The purity of the air moved him. There was no stain in the water, where schools of minnows swam. Herzog sighed and said to himself, "Praise God-praise God." His breathing had become freer. His heart was greatly stirred by the open horizon; the deep colors; the faint iodine pungency of the Atlantic rising from weeds and mollusks; the white, fine, heavy sand; but principally by the green transparency as he looked down to the stony bottom webbed with golden lines. Never still. If his soul could cast a reflection so brilliant, and so intensely sweet, he might beg God to make such use of him. But that would be too simple. But that would be too childish. The actual sphere is not clear like this, but turbulent, angry. A vast human action is going on. Death watches. So if you have some happiness, conceal it. And when your heart is full, keep your mouth shut also.

  He had moments of sanity, but he couldn't maintain the balance for very long. The ferry came, he boarded it, pulling his hat tight in the sea wind, slightly shamefaced because he enjoyed this typical moment of a holiday. The cars were loaded in a cloud of blowing sand and marl while Herzog looked down from the upper deck. During the crossing he rested his feet on his up-ended valise, taking the sun, watching the boats through half-lidded eyes.

  In Vineyard Haven he caught a cab
at the dock. It turned right on the main street parallel to the harbor, lined with big trees-water, sails on the right, and the road passing under leaves filled with sun. Big gilt letters shone on red store fronts. The shopping center was as bright as a stage set. The taxi went slowly, as if the old engine had a heart condition. It passed the public library, and pillared driveways, great lyre-shaped elm trees and sycamores with patches of white bark-he noted the sycamores. These trees held an important place in his life.

  The green of evening was settling in, and the blue of the water, when your eyes turned from the shadows of the grass, seemed paler and paler. The cab turned right again toward the shore, and Herzog got out, missing half of the driver's directions as he paid. "Down the stairs-up again. I get it. Okay." He saw Libbie waiting on the porch in a bright dress, and waved to her. She blew him a kiss.

  At once he knew that he had made a mistake.

  Vineyard Haven was not the place for him. It was lovely, and Libbie was charming, one of the most charming women in the world. But I should never have come. It just isn't right, he thought. He appeared to be looking for the wooden treads on the slope, hesitating, a strong-looking man, holding his valise in a double grip like a player about to throw a forward pass. His hands were broad, heavily veined; not the hands of a man whose occupation was mental, but of a born bricklayer or housepainter. The breeze swelled out his light clothes and then fitted them tightly to his body. And what a look he had-such a face! Just then his state of being was so curious that he was compelled, himself, to see it-eager, grieving, fantastic, dangerous, crazed and, to the point of death, "comical." It was enough to make a man pray to God to remove his great, bone-breaking burden of selfhood and self-development, give himself, a failure, back to the species for a primitive cure. But this was becoming the up-to-date and almost conventional way of looking at any single life. In this view the body itself, with its two arms and vertical length, was compared to the Cross, on which you knew the agony of consciousness and separate being. For that matter, he had been taking this primitive cure, administered by Madeleine, Sandor, et cetera; so that his recent misfortunes might be seen as a collective project, himself participating, to destroy his vanity and his pretensions to a personal life so that he might disintegrate and suffer and hate, like so many others, not on anything so distinguished as a cross, but down in the mire of post-Renaissance, post-humanistic, post-Cartesian dissolution, next door to the Void. Everybody was in the act.

 
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