Herzog by Saul Bellow


  "History" gave everyone a free ride. The very Himmelsteins, who had never even read a book of metaphysics, were touting the Void as if it were so much salable real estate. This little demon was impregnated with modern ideas, and one in particular excited his terrible little heart: you must sacrifice your poor, squawking, niggardly individuality-which may be nothing anyway (from an analytic viewpoint) but a persistent infantile megalomania, or (from a Marxian point of view) a stinking little bourgeois property-to historical necessity. And to truth. And truth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion, and not truth. But of course he, Herzog, predictably bucking such trends, had characteristically, obstinately, defiantly, blindly but without sufficient courage or intelligence tried to be a marvelous Herzog, a Herzog who, perhaps clumsily, tried to live out marvelous qualities vaguely comprehended. Granted he had gone too far, beyond his talents and his powers, but this was the cruel difficulty of a man who had strong impulses, even faith, but lacked clear ideas. What if he failed? Did that really mean that there was no faithfulness, no generosity, no sacred quality? Should he have been a plain, unambitious Herzog? No. And Madeleine would never have married such a type. What she had been looking for, high and low, was precisely an ambitious Herzog. In order to trip him, bring him low, knock him sprawling and kick out his brains with a murderous bitch foot. Oh, what a confusion he had made-what a waste of intelligence and feeling! When he thought of the endless anxious tedium of courtship and marriage with all that he had invested in arrangements-merely in practical measures, in trains and planes and hotels and department stores, and banks where he had banked, in hospitals, in doctors and drugs, in debts; and, for himself, the nights of rigid insomnia, the yellow boring afternoons, the trials by sexual combat, and all the horrible egomania of it, he wondered that he had survived at all. He wondered, even, why he should have wanted to survive; Others in his generation wore themselves out, died of strokes, of cancer, willed their own deaths, conceivably. But he, despite all blunders, fucky-knuckles that he was, he must be cunning, tough. He survived.

  And for what? What was he hanging around for? To follow this career of personal relationships until his strength at last gave out? Only to be a smashing success in the private realm, a king of hearts? Amorous Herzog, seeking love, and embracing his Wandas, Zinkas, and Ramonas, one after another? But this is a female pursuit. This hugging and heartbreak is for women. The occupation of a man is in duty, in use, in civility, in politics in the Aristotelian sense. Now then, why am I arriving here, in Vineyard Haven, on a holiday no less! Heartbroken, and gussied up, with my Italian pants and my fountain pens, and my grief-to bother and pester poor Libbie, and exploit her affections, forcing her to pay off because I was so kind and decent when her last husband, Erikson, went off his rocker and tried to stab her and take the gas himself? At which time, yes, I was very helpful. But if she hadn't been so very beautiful, sexual, and obviously attracted to me, would I have been such a willing friend and helper? And it's not much to be pleased with that I bother her now, a bride of a few months, with my troubles. Have I come to collect the quid pro quo? Turn around, Moshe-Hanan, and catch the next ferry back. All you needed was a train ride. It has turned the trick.

  Libbie came down the path to greet him, and gave him a kiss. She was dressed for the evening in an orange or poppy-colored cocktail dress.

  It took Moses an extra moment to determine whether the fragrance he smelled came from the nearby bed of peonies or from her neck and shoulders. She was unaffectedly happy to see him. By fair means or not, he had made a friend of her.

  "How are you!"

  "I'm not going to stay," said Herzog. "It's not right."

  "What are you talking about? You've been traveling for hours. Come inside and meet Arnold. Sit down and have a drink. You are funny."

  She laughed at him, and he was obliged to laugh with her. Sissler came out on the porch, a man in his fifties, untidy and sleepy but cheerful, and began to make welcoming sounds in his deep voice. He had on a pair of large pink slacks with a rubberized waistband.

  "He says he's already on his way back, Arnold. I told you he was funny."

  "You traveled all this way to tell us? Come in- come in. I was going to light a fire. It gets colder in an hour and people are coming to dinner. What about a drink? Scotch or bourbon? Maybe you'd like a swim instead?" Sissler gave him a broad, amiable, wrinkled, black-eyed smile. These eyes were small and there were spaces between his teeth; he was bald, his back hair was thick and projected like one of those large tree mushrooms that grow on the mossy side of a trunk. Libbie had married a comfortable, wise old dog, the kind who always turned out to have large reserves of understanding and humanity. In the brighter light of the seaward side of the house she looked extremely well, happy, her face tanned and smooth. On her mouth she wore poppy-colored lipstick, and gold-mesh jewelry on her arm, a heavy gold chain on her neck. She had aged a little-she must be thirty-eight or thirty-nine, was his guess, but her dark, close-set eyes, which gave her a fluid and merged gaze (she had a delicate, lovely nose), were clearer than he had ever seen them. She was in the time of life when the later action of heredity begins, the blemishes of ancestors appear-a spot, or the deepening of wrinkles, at first increasing a woman's beauty. Death, the artist, very slow, putting in his first touches. Now to Sissler it couldn't matter less.

  He had already accepted this, would rumble on in his Russian accent, and be the same forthright businessman to the day of his death. When that moment came, because of his bunchy back hair, he would have to die lying on his side.

  Ideas that depopulate the world.

  But as Herzog accepted a drink, and heard himself in a clear voice saying thanks, and saw how he sat down in a chintz-covered chair, his psychological reading suggested that it might not be Sissler whose deathbed he saw in this vision, but some other person who had a wife. Maybe it was even himself who was dying in fantasy. He had had a wife-two wives-and been the object of such death-flavored fantasies himself. Now: the first requirement of stability in a human being was that the said human being should really desire to exist. This is what Spinoza says. It is necessary for happiness (felicitas).

  He can't behave well (bene agere), or live well (bene vivere), if he himself doesn't want to live. But if it's also natural, as psychology says, to kill mentally (one thought-murder a day keeps the psychiatrist away), then the desire to exist is not steady enough to support a good life. Do I want to exist, or want to die? But at this social moment he couldn't expect to answer such questions, and he swallowed freezing bourbon from the clinking glass instead. The whisky went down, burning pleasurably in his chest like a tangled string of fire. Below he saw the pock-marked beach, and flaming sunset on the water. The ferry was returning. As the sun went down, its wide hull suddenly filled with electric lights. In the calm sky a helicopter steered toward Hyannis Port, where the Kennedys lived. Big doings there, once. The power of nations. What do we know about it? Moses felt a sharp pang at the thought of the late President. (i wonder what I would say to a President in actual conversation.)

  He smiled a little as he remembered his mother boasting to Aunt Zipporah about him. "What a little tongue it has. Moshele could talk to the President." But at that time the President was Harding. Or was it Coolidge? Meantime the conversation was going on.

  Sissler was trying to make Moses feel at home-I must seem obviously shook up-and Libbie looked concerned.

  "Ah, don't worry about me," said Moses.

  "I'm just a little excited by things." He laughed.

  Libbie and Sissler exchanged a look, but grew easier. "This is a fine house you have. Is it rented?"

  "I own it," said Sissler.

  "Is that so. Wonderful place. Summer only, isn't it? You could winterize it easily."

  "It would cost fifteen grand, or more," said Sissler.

  "That much? I suppose labor and materials are higher on this island."


  "I could do the work myself, sure," said Sissler.

  "But we come here to rest. I understand you're a property owner, too."

  "Ludeyville, Mass.," said Herzog.

  "Where is that?"

  "Berkshires. Near the Connecticut corner of the state."

  "Must be a beautiful spot of country."

  "Oh, it's beautiful all right. Too remote, though. Far from everything."

  "What about another drink?"

  Perhaps Sissler thought the liquor would calm him.

  "Moses probably wants to clean up after his trip," said Libbie.

  "I'll show him his room."

  Sissler carried Herzog's valise up.

  "This is a fine old staircase," said Moses.

  "Couldn't duplicate it today for thousands. They put a lot of work into it, for a summer house."

  "Sixty years ago they still had craftsmen," said Sissler. "Take a look at the doors-bird's-eye maple.

  Here's where you are. I think you got everything here-towels, soap. Some neighbors are coming this evening. One single lady. A singer. Miss Elisa Thurnwald. Divorced."

  The room was wide and comfortable, and had a view of the bay. The bluish beacons of the two points, East and West Chop, were lighted.

  "This is a fine spot," said Herzog.

  "Unpack. Make yourself at home. Don't be in any hurry to go. I know you were a good friend to Libbie when she was up against it. She told me how you protected her from that blow too, Erikson. He even tried to stab the poor kid. She didn't have anybody but you to turn to."

  "As a matter of fact, Erikson had nobody else to turn to, either."

  "What's the diff?" Sissler said, with his rugged face a little averted but only so that his small shrewd eyes might see Herzog from the angle required for the fullest consideration. "You stood up for her.

  To me that's everything. Not just because I love the kid, either, but because there's so many creeps in circulation. You got trouble, I can see that. Jumping out of your skin.

  You got a soul-haven't you, Moses." He shook his head, smoking his cigarette with two stained fingers pressed to his mouth, his voice rumbling. "Can't dump the sonofabitch, can we? Terrible handicap, a soul."

  Moses answered in a low voice. "I'm not even sure I've got the thing still."

  "I would say yes. Well..." He turned his wrist to catch the last of the light on his gold watch. "You got time to rest up a little."

  He left, and Moses lay on the bed a while-a good mattress, a clean comforter. He lay for a quarter of an hour without thinking, lips parted, legs and arms extended, breathing quietly as he gazed at the figures of the wallpaper until they were hidden in darkness. When he stood up it was not to wash and dress but to write a farewell note on the maple desk.

  There was stationery in the drawer.

  Have to go back. Not able to stand kindness at this time.

  Feeling, heart, everything in strange condition.

  Unfinished business. Bless you both. And much happiness. Toward end of summer, perhaps, if you will give me a rain check. Gratefully, Moses.

  He stole from the house. The Sisslers were in the kitchen. Sissler was making a clatter with the ice trays. Moses rapidly descended and was out of the screen door with frantic swiftness, softly. He passed through the bushes into the neighboring lot. Up the path, and back to the ferry slip. He took a cab to the airport. All he could get at this hour was a Boston flight. He took it and caught a plane for Idlewild at Boston airport.

  At eleven p. m. he was lying in his own bed, drinking warm milk and eating a peanut-butter sandwich. It had cost him a pretty penny, all of this travel.

  He kept Geraldine Portnoy's letter always on his bed table, and he picked it up now and reread it before he fell asleep. He tried to remember how he had felt when he had first read it, in Chicago, after some delay.

  Dear Mr. Herzog, I am Geraldine Portnoy, Lucas Asphalter's friend. You may remember....

  May remember? Moses had read faster (the script was feminine-progressive-school printing turned cursive and the i's dotted with curious little open circles), trying to swallow the whole letter at once, turning the pages to see whether the gist of the thing was underscored anywhere.

  Actually I took your course in Romantics as Social Philosophers. We differed about Rousseau and Karl Marx. I have come around to your view, that Marx expressed metaphysical hopes for the future of mankind. I took what he said about materialism far too literally.

  My view! It's common, and why does she want to make me dangle like this-why doesn't she get on with it? He had tried again to find the point, but all those circular open dots fell on his vision like snow and masked the message.

  You probably never noticed me, but I liked you, and as a friend of Lucas Asphalter - he just adores you, he says you are just a feast of the most human qualities -I have of course heard a lot about you, growing up in Lucas" old neighborhood, and how you played basketball in the Boys' Brotherhood of the Republic, in the good old Chicago days on Division Street. An uncle of mine by marriage was one of the coaches - Jules Hankin.

  I think I do recall Hankin. He wore a blue cardigan, and parted his hair in the middle.

  I don't want you to get me wrong. I don't want to meddle in your affairs. And I am not an enemy of Madeleine's. I sympathize with her, too. She is so vivacious, intelligent, and such a charmer, and has been so warm and frank with me. For quite a while, I admired her and as a younger woman was very pleased by her confidences.

  Herzog flushed. Her confidences would include his sexual disgrace.

  And as a former student, I was of course intrigued to hear of your private life, but was also surprised by her freedom and willingness to talk, and soon saw she wanted to win me over, for some reason. Lucas warned me to look out for something dicey, but then any intense feeling between members of the same sex is often, and unjustly, under suspicion. My scientific background has taught me to make more cautious generalizations, and resist this creeping psychoanalysis of ordinary conduct. But she did want to win me to her side, although far too subtle to pour it on, as they say. She told me that you had very fine human and intellectual qualities, though neurotic and with an intolerable temper which often frightened her. However, she added, you could be great, and after two bad, loveless marriages perhaps you would devote yourself to the work you were meant to do. Emotional relationships you were not really good at. It was soon obvious that she would never have given herself to a man who lacked distinction of intelligence or feeling. Madeleine said that for the first time in her life she knew clearly what she was doing. Until now it was all confusion and there were even gaps of time she couldn't account for. In marrying you, she was in this mix-up and might have remained so but for a certain break. It is extremely exciting to talk with her, she gives a sense of a significant encounter - with life - a beautiful, brilliant person with a fate of her own. Her experiences are rich, or pregnant....

  What is this? Herzog had thought. Is she going to tell me that Madeleine is going to have a child?

  Gersbach's child! No! How wonderful-what luck for me. If she has a kid out of wedlock, I can petition for Junie's custody. Eagerly, he had devoured the rest of the page, turned over. No, Madeleine was not pregnant. She'd be far too clever to let that happen. She owed her survival to intelligence. It was part of her sickness to be shrewd. She was not pregnant, then. I was not merely a graduate student who helped with the child, but a confidante. Your little girl is greatly attached to me, and I find her a most extraordinary child. Exceptional, really.

  I love Junie with more than the usual affection, oh far more, than one has for the children one meets in this way. I understand the Italians are supposed to be the most child-oriented culture in the West (judge by the figure of the Christ child in Italian painting), but obviously Americans have their own craze about child psychology. Everything is done for children, ostensibly.

  To be fair, I think Madeleine is not bad with little June, basically. She tends to be auth
oritarian. Mr. Gersbach, who has an ambiguous position in this household, is very amusing to the child, on the whole. She calls him Uncle Val, and I often see him giving her a piggyback, or tossing her in the air.

  Here Herzog had set his teeth, angry, scenting danger.

  But I have to report one disagreeable thing, and I talked this over with Lucas. This is that, coming to Harper Avenue the other night, I heard the child crying. She was inside Gersbach's car, and couldn't get out, and the poor little thing was shaking and weeping .1 thought she had shut herself in while playing, but it was after dark, and I didn't understand why she would be outside, alone, at bedtime.

  Herzog's heart had pounded with dangerous thick beats at these words. I had to calm her, and then 1 found out that her Mama and Uncle Val were having a quarrel inside, and Uncle Val had taken her by the hand and led her out to the car, and told her to play a while. He shut her up and went back in the house.

  I can see him mount the stairs while Junie screams in fright. I'll kill him for that-so help me, if I don't! He reread the concluding lines.

  Luke says you have a right to know such things. He was going to phone but I felt it would be upsetting and harmful to hear this over the phone. A letter gives one a chance to consider - think matters over, and reach a more balanced view.

  I don't think Madeleine is a bad mother, actually.

  He was at his letter-writing again in the morning. The little desk at the window was black, rivaling the blackness of his fire escape, those rails dipped in asphalt, a heavy cosmetic coat of black, rails equidistant but appearing according to the rules of perspective. He had letters to write. He was busy, busy, in pursuit of objects he was only now, and dimly, beginning to understand. His first message today, begun half-consciously as he was waking up, was to Monsignor Hilton, the priest who had brought Madeleine into the Church. Sipping his black coffee, Herzog in his cotton paisley robe narrowed his eyes and cleared his throat, already aware of the anger, the pervasive indignation he felt. The Monsignor should know what effect he had on the people he tampered with.

 
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