Herzog by Saul Bellow


  No one judged himself more harshly. When he came out of the saloon he stood wavering in the street, directing traffic, falling among horses and trucks in the slush. The police were tired of throwing him in the drunk tank. They brought him home, to Herzog's hallway, and pushed him in.

  Ravitch, late at night, sang on the freezing stairs in a sobbing voice.

  "Alein, alein, alein, alein Elend vie a shtein Mit die tzen finger - alein"

  Jonah Herzog got out of bed and turned on the light in the kitchen, listening. He wore a Russian sleeping suit of linen with a pleated front, the last of his gentleman's wardrobe from Petersburg. The stove was out, and Moses, in the same bed with Willie and Shura, sat up, the three of them, under the lumpy wads of quilt, looking at their father. He stood under the bulb, which had a spike at the end like a German helmet. The large loose twist of tungsten filament blazed.

  Annoyed and pitying, Father Herzog, with his round head and brown mustache, looked upward. The straight groove between his eyes came and went. He nodded and mused.

  "Alone, alone, alone, alone Solitary as a stone With my ten fingers-alone"

  Mother Herzog spoke from her room, "Yonah- help him in."

  "All right," said Father Herzog, but he waited.

  "Yonah... It's a pity."

  "Pity on us, too," said Father Herzog. "Damn it. You sleep, you're free from misery awhile, and he wakes you up. A Jewish drunkard! He can't even do that right. Why can't he be freilich and cheerful when he drinks, eh? No, he has to cry and tear your heartstrings. Well, curse him." Half laughing, Father Herzog cursed the heartstrings, too. "It's enough that I have to rent a room to a miserable shicker."

  "Also tastir ponecho mimeni I'm broke without a penny.

  Do not hide Thy countenance from us Vich nobody can deny."

  Ravitch, tuneless and persistent, cried in the black, frozen staircase.

  "O'Brien Lo mir trinken a glesele vi-ine Also tastir ponecho mimeni I'm broke without a penny Vich nobody can deny."

  Father Herzog, silent and wry, laughed under his breath.

  "Yonah-I beg you.

  Genug schon."

  "Oh, give him time. Why should I schlepp out my guts."

  "He'll wake the whole street."

  "He'll be covered with vomit, his pants filled."

  But he went. He pitied Ravitch, too, though Ravitch was one of the symbols of his changed condition.

  In Petersburg there were servants. In Russia, Father Herzog had been a gentleman. With forged papers of the First Guild. But many gentlemen lived on forged papers.

  The children still gazed into the empty kitchen. The black cookstove against the wall, extinct; the double gas ring connected by rubber pipe to the meter. A Japanese reed mat protected the wall from cooking stains.

  It amused the boys to hear how their father coaxed drunken Ravitch to his feet. It was family theater. "Jim, landtsman?

  Can you walk? It's freezing. Now, get your crooked feet on the step- schneller, schne-ler."

  He laughed with his bare breath. "Well, I think we'll leave your dreckische pants out here. Phew!" The boys pressed together in the cold, smiling.

  Papa supported him through the kitchen-Ravitch in his filthy drawers, the red face, dropped hands, the bowler, the drunken grief of his closed eyes.

  As for my late unlucky father, J. Herzog, he was not a big man, one of the small-boned Herzogs, finely made, round-headed, keen, nervous, handsome. In his frequent bursts of temper he slapped his sons swiftly with both hands. He did everything quickly, neatly, with skillful Eastern European flourishes: combing his hair, buttoning his shirt, stropping his bone-handled razors, sharpening pencils on the ball of his thumb, holding a loaf of bread to his breast and slicing toward himself, tying parcels with tight little knots, jotting like an artist in his account book. There each canceled page was covered with a carefully drawn X. The Is and 7's carried bars and streamers. They were like pennants in the wind of failure. First Father Herzog failed in Petersburg, where he went through two dowries in one year. He had been importing onions from Egypt.

  Under Pobedonostsev the police caught up with him for illegal residence. He was convicted and sentenced. The account of the trial was published in a Russian journal printed on thick green paper.

  Father Herzog sometimes unfolded it and read aloud to the entire family, translating the proceedings against Ilyona Isakovitch Gerzog.

  He never served his sentence. He got away. Because he was nervy, hasty, obstinate, rebellious. He came to Canada, where his sister Zipporah Yaffe was living.

  In 1913 he bought a piece of land near Valleyfield, Quebec, and failed as a farmer.

  Then he came into town and failed as a baker; failed in the dry-goods business; failed as a jobber; failed as a sack manufacturer in the War, when no one else failed. He failed as a junk dealer. Then he became a marriage broker and failed-too short-tempered and blunt.

  And now he was failing as a bootlegger, on the run from the provincial Liquor Commission. Making a bit of a living.

  In haste and defiantly, with a clear tense face, walking with mingled desperation and high style, a little awkwardly dropping his weight on one heel as he went, his coat, once lined with fox, turned dry and bald, the red hide cracking. This coat sweeping open as he walked, or marched his one-man Jewish march, he was saturated with the odor of the Caporals he smoked as he covered Montreal in his swing- Papineau, Mile-End, Verdun, Lachine, Point St. Charles. He looked for business opportunities-bankruptcies, job lots, mergers, fire sales, produce-to rescue him from illegality. He could calculate percentages mentally at high speed, but he lacked the cheating imagination of a successful businessman. And so he kept a little still in Mile-End, where goats fed in the empty lots. He traveled on the tramcar. He sold a bottle here and there and waited for his main chance. American rum-runners would buy the stuff from you at the border, any amount, spot cash, if you could get it there. Meanwhile he smoked cigarettes on the cold platforms of streetcars.

  The Revenue was trying to catch him. Spotters were after him. On the roads to the border were hijackers.

  On Napoleon Street he had five mouths to feed. Willie and Moses were sickly. Helen studied the piano. Shura was fat, greedy, disobedient, a plotting boy. The rent, back rent, notes due, doctors' bills to pay, and he had no English, no friends, no influence, no trade, no assets but his still-no help in all the world. His sister Zipporah in St.

  Anne was rich, very rich, which only made matters worse.

  Grandfather Herzog was still alive, then. With the instinct of a Herzog for the grand thing, he took refuge in the Winter Palace in 1918 (the Bolsheviks allowed it for a while). The old man wrote long letters in Hebrew. He had lost his precious books in the upheaval. Study was impossible now.

  In the Winter Palace you had to walk up and down all day to find a minyan.

  Of course there was hunger, too. Later, he predicted that the Revolution would fail and tried to acquire Czarist currency, to become a millionaire under the restored Romanoffs. The Herzogs received packets of worthless rubles, and Willie and Moses played with great sums. You held the glorious bills to the light and you saw Peter the Great and Catherine in the watermarked rainbow paper. Grandfather Herzog was in his eighties but still strong. His mind was powerful and his Hebrew calligraphy elegant. The letters were read aloud in Montreal by Father Herzog-accounts of cold, lice, famine, epidemics, the dead. The old man wrote. "Shall I ever see the faces of my children? And who will bury me?" Father Herzog approached the next phrase two or three times, but could not find his full voice. Only a whisper came out. The tears were in his eyes and he suddenly put his hand over his mustached mouth and hurried from the room. Mother Herzog, large-eyed, sat with the children in the primitive kitchen which the sun never entered. It was like a cave with the ancient black stove, the iron sink, the green cupboards, the gas ring.

  Mother Herzog had a way of meeting the present with a partly averted face. She encountered it on the left but sometimes seeme
d to avoid it on the right.

  On this withdrawn side she often had a dreaming look, melancholy, and seemed to be seeing the Old World-her father the famous misnagid, her tragic mother, her brothers living and dead, her sister, and her linens and servants in Petersburg, the dacha in Finland (all founded on Egyptian onions). Now she was cook, washerwoman, seamstress on Napoleon Street in the slum.

  Her hair turned gray, and she lost her teeth, her very fingernails wrinkled. Her hands smelled of the sink.

  Herzog was thinking, however, how she found the strength to spoil her children. She certainly spoiled me.

  Once, at nightfall, she was pulling me on the sled, over crusty ice, the tiny glitter of snow, perhaps four o'clock of a short day in January. Near the grocery we met an old baba in a shawl who said, "Why are you pulling him, daughter!" Mama, dark under the eyes. Her slender cold face. She was breathing hard. She wore the torn seal coat and a red pointed wool cap and thin button boots.

  Clusters of dry fish hung in the shop, a rancid sugar smell, cheese, soap-a terrible dust of nutrition came from the open door. The bell on a coil of wire was bobbing, ringing.

  "Daughter, don't sacrifice your strength to children," said the shawled crone in the freezing dust of the street.

  I wouldn't get off the sled. I pretended not to understand. One of life's hardest jobs, to make a quick understanding slow. I think I succeeded, thought Herzog.

  Mama's brother Mikhail died of typhus in Moscow. I took the letter from the postman and brought it upstairs-the long latchstring ran through loops under the banister. It was washday. The copper boiler steamed the window. She was rinsing and wringing in a tub. When she read the news she gave a cry and fainted. Her lips turned white. Her arm lay in the water, sleeve and all. We two were alone in the house.

  I was terrified when she lay like that, legs spread, her long hair undone, lids brown, mouth bloodless, deathlike. But then she got up and went to lie down. She wept all day. But in the morning she cooked the oatmeal nevertheless. We were up early.

  My ancient times. Remoter than Egypt. No dawn, the foggy winters. In darkness, the bulb was lit. The stove was cold. Papa shook the grates, and raised an ashen dust. The grates grumbled and squealed. The puny shovel clinked underneath. The Caporals gave Papa a bad cough. The chimneys in their helmets sucked in the wind. Then the milkman came in his sleigh. The snow was spoiled and rotten with manure and litter, dead rats, dogs. The milkman in his sheepskin gave the bell a twist. It was brass, like the winding-key of a clock. Helen pulled the latch and went down with a pitcher for the milk. And then Ravitch, hung-over, came from his room, in his heavy sweater, suspenders over the wool to keep it tighter to the body, the bowler on his head, red in the face, his look guilty. He waited to be asked to sit.

  The morning light could not free itself from gloom and frost. Up and down the street, the brick-recessed windows were dark, filled with darkness, and schoolgirls by twos in their black skirts marched toward the convent. And wagons, sledges, drays, the horses shuddering, the air drowned in leaden green, the dung-stained ice, trails of ashes. Moses and his brothers put on their caps and prayed together, "Ma tovu ohaleha Yaakov...."

  "How goodly are thy tents, O Israel."

  Napoleon Street, rotten, toy-like, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather-the bootlegger's boys reciting ancient prayers.

  To this Moses' heart was attached with great power. Here was a wider range of human feelings than he had ever again been able to find. The children of the race, by a never-failing miracle, opened their eyes on one strange world after another, age after age, and uttered the same prayer in each, eagerly loving what they found. What was wrong with Napoleon Street? thought Herzog. All he ever wanted was there. His mother did the wash, and mourned. His father was desperate and frightened, but obstinately fighting. His brother Shura with staring disingenuous eyes was plotting to master the world, to become a millionaire. His brother Willie struggled with asthmatic fits. Trying to breathe he gripped the table and rose on his toes like a cock about to crow.

  His sister Helen had long white gloves which she washed in thick suds. She wore them to her lessons at the conservatory, carrying a leather music roll. Her diploma hung in a frame.

  Mile. Helene Herzog ... avec distinction.

  His soft prim sister who played the piano.

  On a summer night she sat playing and the clear notes went through the window into the street. The square-shouldered piano had a velveteen runner, mossy green as though the lid of the piano were a slab of stone. From the runner hung a ball fringe, like hickory nuts. Moses stood behind Helen, staring at the swirling pages of Haydn and Mozart, wanting to whine like a dog. Oh, the music! thought Herzog. He fought the insidious blight of nostalgia in New York comsoftening, heart-rotting emotions, black spots, sweet for one moment but leaving a dangerous acid residue. Helen played. She wore a middy and a pleated skirt, and her pointed shoes cramped down on the pedals, a proper, vain girl. She frowned while she played-her father's crease appeared between her eyes.

  Frowning as though she performed a dangerous action. The music rang into the street.

  Aunt Zipporah was critical of this music business. Helen was not a genuine musician. She played to move the family. Perhaps to attract a husband. What Aunt Zipporah opposed was Mama's ambition for her children, because she wanted them to be lawyers, gentlemen, rabbis, or performers.

  All branches of the family had the caste madness of yichus.

  No life so barren and subordinate that it didn't have imaginary dignities, honors to come, freedom to advance.

  Zipporah wanted to hold Mama back, Moses concluded, and she blamed Papa's failure in America on these white gloves and piano lessons.

  Zipporah had a strong character. She was witty, grudging, at war with everyone. Her face was flushed and thin, her nose shapely but narrow and grim. She had a critical, damaging, nasal voice. Her hips were large and she walked with wide heavy steps.

  A braid of thick glossy hair hung down her back.

  Now Uncle Yaffe, Zipporah's husband, was quiet-spoken, humorously reserved. He was a small man but strong. His shoulders were wide, and he wore a black beard like King George V. It grew tight and curly on his brown face. The bridge of his nose was dented. His teeth were broad, and one was capped with gold. Moses had smelled the tart flavor of his uncle's breath as they played checkers. Over the board, Uncle Yaffe's broad head with short black twisted hair, a bit bald, was slightly unsteady. He had a mild nervous tremor. Uncle Yaffe, from the past, seemed to find out his nephew at this very instant of time and to look at him with the brown eyes of an intelligent, feeling, satirical animal. His glance glittered shrewdly, and he smiled with twisted satisfaction at the errors of young Moses.

  Affectionately giving me the business.

  In Yaffe's junkyard in St. Anne the ragged cliffs of scrap metal bled rust into the puddles.

  There was sometimes a line of scavengers at the gate.

  Kids, greenhorns, old Irishwomen, or Ukrainians and red-men from the Caughnawaga reservation, came with pushcarts and little wagons, bringing bottles, rags, old plumbing or electrical fixtures, hardware, paper, tires, bones to sell. The old man, in his brown cardigan, stooped, and his strong trembling hands sorted out what he had bought. Without straightening his back he could pitch pieces of scrap where they belonged- iron here, zinc there, copper left, lead right, and Babbitt metal by the shed. He and his sons made money during the War. Aunt Zipporah bought real estate. She collected rents. Moses knew that she carried a bankroll in her bosom.

  He had seen it.

  "Well, you lost nothing by coming to America," Papa said to her.

  Her first reply was to stare sharply and warningly at him. Then she said, "It's no secret how we started out. By labor. Yaffe took a pick and shovel on the CPR until we saved up a little capital. But you! No, you were born in a silk shirt." With a glance at Mama, she went on, "You got used to putting on style, in Petersburg, with servants and coachmen.
I can still see you getting off the train from Halifax, all dressed up among the greeners.

  Gott meiner!

  Ostrich feathers, taffeta skirts!

  Greenhorns mit strauss federn!

  Now forget the feathers, the gloves. Now-was "That seems like a thousand years ago," said Mama.

  "I have forgotten all about servants. I am the servant.

  Die dienst bin ich."

  "Everyone must work. Not suffer your whole life long from a fall. Why must your children go to the conservatory, the Baron de Hirsch school, and all those special frills? Let them go to work, like mine."

  "She doesn't want the children to be common," said Papa.

  "My sons are not common. They know a page of Gemara, too. And don't forget we come from the greatest Hasidic rabbis. Reb Zusya! Herschele Dubrovner! Just remember."

  "No one is saying..." said Mama.

  To haunt the past like this-to love the dead! Moses warned himself not to yield so greatly to this temptation, this peculiar weakness of his character. He was a depressive. Depressives cannot surrender childhood-not even the pains of childhood. He understood the hygiene of the matter. But somehow his heart had come open at this chapter of his life and he didn't have the strength to shut it. So it was again a winter day in St. Anne, in 1923-Aunt Zipporah's kitchen. Zipporah wore a crimson crepe de Chine wrapper. Discernible underneath were voluminous yellow bloomers and a man's undershirt. She sat beside the kitchen oven, her face flushing. Her nasal voice often rose to a barbed little cry of irony, of false dismay, of terrible humor.

 
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