Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Then she remembered that Mama's brother Mikhail was dead, and she said, "Well-about your brother- what was the matter?"

  "We don't know," said Papa. "Who can imagine what a black year they're making back home."

  (it was always in der heim, Herzog reminded himself.) "A mob broke into his house. Cut open everything, looking for valuta.

  Afterward, he caught typhus, or God knows what."

  Mama's hand was over her eyes, as though she were shading them. She said nothing.

  "I remember what a fine man he was," said Uncle Yaffe. "May he have a lichtigen Gan-Eden."

  Aunt Zipporah, who believed in the power of curses, said, "Curse those Bolsheviks. They want to make the world horav.

  May their hands and feet wither. But where are Mikhail's wife and children?"

  "No one knows. The letter came from a cousin- Shperling, who saw Mikhail in the hospital.

  He barely recognized him."

  Zipporah said a few more pious things, and then in a more normal manner she added, "Well, he was an active fellow. Had plenty of money, in his time. Who knows what a fortune he brought back from South Africa."

  "He shared with us," said Mama. "My brother had an open hand."

  "It came easily," said Zipporah. "It's not as if he had to work hard for it."

  "How do you know?" said Father Herzog. "Don't let your tongue run away with you, my sister."

  But Zipporah couldn't be restrained now. "He made money out of those miserable black Kaffirs!

  Who knows how! So you had a dacha in Shevalovo.

  Yaffe was away in the service, in the Kavkaz. I had a sick child to nurse. And you, Yonah, were running around Petersburg spending two dowries.

  Yes! You lost the first ten thousand rubles in a month.

  He gave you another ten. I can't say what else he was doing, with Tartars, gypsies, whores, eating horsemeat, and God only knows what abominations went on."

  "What kind of malice is in you?" said Father Herzog, angry.

  "I have nothing against Mikhail. He never harmed me," Zipporah said. "But he was a brother who gave, so I am a sister who doesn't give."

  "No one said it," Father Herzog said. "But if the shoe fits, you can wear it."

  Engrossed, unmoving in his chair, Herzog listened to the dead at their dead quarrels.

  "What do you expect?" said Zipporah. "With four children, if I started to give, and indulged your bad habits, it would be endless. It's not my fault you're a pauper here."

  "I am a pauper in America, that's true.

  Look at me, I haven't got a copper to bless my naked skin. I couldn't pay for my own shroud."

  "Blame your own weak nature," said Zipporah.

  "A z du host a schwachen natur, wer is dir schuldig?

  You can't stand alone. You leaned on Sarah's brother, and now you want to lean on me. Yaffe served in the Kavkaz.

  A finsternish!

  It was too cold for dogs to howl. Alone, he came to America and sent for me. But you-you want alle sieben glicken.

  You travel in style, with ostrich feathers. You're an edel-mensch.

  Get your bands dirty? Not you."

  "It's true. I didn't shovel manure in der heim.

  That happened in the land of Columbus. But I did it. I learned to harness a horse. At three o'clock in the morning, twenty below in the stable."

  Zipporah waved this aside. "And now, with your still?

  You had to escape from the Czar's police. And now the Revenue? And you have to have a partner, a goniff."

  "Voplonsky is an honest man."

  "Who-that German?"

  Voplonsky was a Polish blacksmith. She called him a German because of his pointed military mustaches and the German cut of his overcoat. It hung to the ground. "What have you in common with a blacksmith? You, a descendant of Herschel Dubrovner! And he, a Polisher schmid with red whiskers! A rat! A rat with pointed red whiskers and long crooked teeth and reeking of scorched hoof! Bah! Your partner. Wait and see what he does to you."

  "I'm not easy to take in."

  "No? Didn't Lazansky swindle you? He gave it to you in the real Turkish style. And didn't he beat your bones also?"

  That was Lazansky, in the bakery, a giant teamster from the Ukraine. A huge ignorant man, an amhoretz who didn't know enough Hebrew to bless his bread, he sat on his narrow green delivery wagon, ponderous, growling "Garrap" to his little nag and flicking with the whip. His gross voice rolled like a bowling ball. The horse trotted along the bank of the Lachine Canal. The wagon was lettered LAZANSKY----PATISSERIES DE CHOK Father Herzog said, "Yes, it's true he beat me."

  He had come to borrow money from Zipporah and Yaffe. He did not want to be drawn into a quarrel. She had certainly guessed the purpose of this visit and was trying to make him angry so that she might refuse him more easily.

  "Ai!" said Zipporah. A brilliantly shrewd woman, her many gifts were cramped in this little Canadian village. "You think you can make a fortune out of swindlers, thieves, and gangsters. You? You're a gentle creature. I don't know why you didn't stay in the Yeshivah.

  You wanted to be a gilded little gentleman. I know these hooligans and razboiniks.

  They don't have skins, teeth, fingers like you but hides, fangs, claws. You can never keep up with these teamsters and butchers. Can you shoot a man?"

  Father Herzog was silent.

  "If, God forbid, you had to shoot..." cried Zipporah. "Could you even hit someone on the head?

  Come! Think it over. Answer me, gazlan.

  Could you give a blow on the head?"

  Here Mother Herzog seemed to agree.

  "I'm no weakling," said Father Herzog, with his energetic face and brown mustache. But of course, thought Herzog, all of Papa's violence went into the drama of his life, into family strife, and sentiment.

  "They'll take what they like from you, those kite" said Zipporah. "Now, isn't it time you used your head? You do have one- klug bist du.

  Make a legitimate living. Let your Helen and your Shura go to work. Sell the piano. Cut expenses."

  "Why shouldn't the children study if they have intelligence, talent," said Mother Herzog.

  "If they're smart, all the better for my brother," said Zipporah. "It's too hard for him-wearing himself out for spoiled princes and princesses."

  She had Papa on her side, then. His craving for help was deep, bottomless.

  "Not that I don't love the children," said Zipporah.

  "Come here, little Moses, and sit on your old tante's knee. What a dear little yingele."

  Moses on the bloomers of his aunt's lap-her red hands held him at the belly. She smiled with harsh affection and kissed his neck. "Born in my arms, this child." Then she looked at brother Shura, who stood beside his mother. He had thick, blocky legs and his face was freckled. "And you?" said Zipporah to him.

  "What's wrong?" said Shura, frightened and offended.

  "Not too young to bring in a dollar."

  Papa glared at Shura.

  "Don't I help?" said Shura. "Deliver bottles? Paste labels?"

  Papa had forged labels. He would say cheerfully, "Well, children, what shall it be-White Horse?

  Johnnie Walker?" Then we'd all call out our favorites. The paste pot was on the table.

  In secret, Mother Herzog touched Shura's hand when Zipporah turned her eyes on him. Moses saw. Breathless Willie was scampering outside with his cousins, building a snow fort, squeaking and throwing snowballs. The sun came lower and lower. Ribbons of red from the horizon wound over the ridges of glazed snow. In the blue shadow of the fence, the goats were feeding. They belonged to the seltzer man next door. Zipporah's chickens were about to roost. Visiting us in Montreal, she sometimes brought a fresh egg. One egg. One of the children might be sick. A fresh egg had a world of power.

  Nervous and critical, with awkward feet and heavy hips, she mounted the stairs on Napoleon Street, a stormy woman, a daughter of Fate.

  Quickly and nervously she kissed her fingertips and
touched the mezuzah. Entering, she inspected Mama's housekeeping. "Is everybody well?" she said. "I brought the children an egg." She opened her big bag and took out the present, wrapped in a piece of Yiddish newspaper (der Kanader Adler).

  A visit from Tante Zipporah was like a military inspection. Afterwards, Mama laughed and often ended by crying, "Why is she my enemy! What does she want? I have no strength to fight her." The antagonism, as Mama felt it, was mystical-a matter of souls. Mama's mind was archaic, filled with old legends, with angels and demons.

  Of course Zipporah, that realist, was right to refuse Father Herzog. He wanted to run bootleg whisky to the border, and get into the big time. He and Voplonsky borrowed from moneylenders, and loaded a truck with cases. But they never reached Rouses Point. They were hijacked, beaten up, and left in a ditch. Father Herzog took the worse beating because he resisted. The hijackers tore his clothes, knocked out one of his teeth, and trampled him.

  He and Voplonsky the blacksmith returned to Montreal on foot. He stopped at Voplonsky's shop to clean up, but there was not much he could do about his swollen bloody eye. He had a gap in his teeth. His coat was torn and his shirt and undergarment were bloodstained.

  That was how he entered the dark kitchen on Napoleon Street. We were all there. It was gloomy March, and anyway the light seldom reached that room. It was like a cavern. We were like cave dwellers.

  "Sarah!" he said. "Children!" He showed his cut face. He spread his arms so we could see his tatters, and the white of his body under them. Then he turned his pockets inside out-empty. As he did this, he began to cry, and the children standing about him all cried. It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him-a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes, he was a king to us. My heart was suffocated by this horror. T thought I would die of it. Whom did I ever love as I loved them?

  Then Father Herzog told his story.

  "They were waiting for us. The road was blocked. They dragged us from the truck. They took everything."

  "Why did you fight?" said Mother Herzog.

  "Everything we had... all I borrowed!"

  "They might have killed you."

  "They had handkerchiefs over their faces. I thought I recognized..."

  Mama was incredulous.

  "Landtsleit?

  Impossible. No Jews could do this to a Jew."

  "No?" cried Papa. "Why not! Who says not!

  Why shouldn't they!"

  "Not Jews! Never!" Mama said. "Never. Never!

  They couldn't have the heart. Never!"

  "Children-don't cry. And poor Voplonsky-he could barely creep into bed."

  "Yonah," said Mama, "you must give up this whole thing."

  "How will we live? We have to live."

  He began to tell the story of his life, from childhood to this day. He wept as he told it.

  Put out at four years old to study, away from home. Eaten by lice. Half starved in the Yeshivah as a boy. He shaved, became a modern European. He worked in Kremenchug for his aunt as a young man. He had a fool's paradise in Petersburg for ten years, on forged papers. Then he sat in prison with common criminals. Escaped to America.

  Starved. Cleaned stables. Begged. Lived in fear.

  A baal-chov comalw a debtor. Shadowed by the police. Taking in drunken boarders. His wife a servant. And this was what he brought home to his children. This was what he could show them-his rags, his bruises.

  Herzog, wrapped in his cheap paisley robe, brooded with clouded eyes. Under his bare feet was a small strip of carpet. His elbows rested on the fragile desk and his head hung down. He had written only a few lines to Nachman.

  I suppose, he was thinking, that we heard this tale of the Herzogs ten times a year. Sometimes Mama told it, sometimes he. So we had a great schooling in grief. I still know these cries of the soul. They lie in the breast, and in the throat. The mouth wants to open wide and let them out. But all these are antiquities-yes, Jewish antiquities originating in the Bible, in a Biblical sense of personal experience and destiny. What happened during the War abolished Father Herzog's claim to exceptional suffering. We are on a more brutal standard now, a new terminal standard, indifferent to persons. Part of the program of destruction into which the human spirit has poured itself with energy, even with joy. These personal histories, old tales from old times that may not be worth remembering. I remember. I must. But who else-to whom can this matter? So many millions-multitudes-go down in terrible pain.

  And, at that, moral suffering is denied, these days.

  Personalities are good only for comic relief.

  But I am still a slave to Papa's pain. The way Father Herzog spoke of himself! That could make one laugh. His I had such dignity.

  "You must give it up," Mama cried. "You must!"

  "What should I do, then! Work for the burial society? Like a man of seventy? Only fit to sit at deathbeds?

  I?

  Wash corpses?

  I?

  Or should I go to the cemetery and wheedle mourners for a nickel? To say El malai rachamim. I?

  Let the earth open and swallow me up!"

  "Come, Yonah," said Mama in her earnest persuasive way. "I'll put a compress on your eye. Come, lie down."

  "How can I?"

  "No, you must."

  "How will the children eat?"

  "Come-you must lie down awhile. Take off that shirt."

  She sat by the bed, silent. He lay in the gray room, on the iron bedstead, covered with the worn red Russian blanket-his handsome forehead, his level nose, the brown mustache. As he had from that dark corridor, Moses now contemplated those two figures.

  Nachman, he began again to write, but stopped. How was he to reach Nachman with a letter? He would do better to advertise in the Village Voice.

  But, then, to whom would he send the other letters he was drafting?

  He concluded that Nachman's wife was dead. Yes, that must be it. That slender, thin-legged girl with the dark brows that rose high and recurved again beside her eyes, and the wide mouth which curved down at the corners-she had committed suicide, and Nachman ran away because (who could blame him) he would have had to tell Moses all about it. Poor thing, poor thing-she too must be in the cemetery.

  THE telephone rang-five, eight, ten peals.

  Herzog looked at his watch. The time astonished him-nearly six o'clock. Where had the day gone? The phone went on ringing, drilling away at him. He didn't want to pick it up. But there were two children, after all-he was a father, and he must answer. He reached for the instrument, therefore, and heard Ramona-the cheerful voice of Ramona calling him to a life of pleasure on the thrilling wires of New York. And not simple pleasure but metaphysical, transcendent pleasure- pleasure which answered the riddle of human existence. That was Ramona-no mere sensualist, but a theoretician, almost a priestess, in her Spanish costumes adapted to American needs, and her flowers, her really beautiful teeth, her red cheeks, and her thick, kinky, exciting black hair.

  "Hello-Moses? What number is this?"

  "This is the Armenian Relief."

  "Oh, Moses! It's you!"

  "I'm the only man you know old enough to remember the Armenian Relief."

  "Last time you said it was the City Morgue. You must be feeling more cheerful. This is Ramona...."

  "Of course." Who else has the voice that lifts so light from height to height with foreign charm. "The Spanish lady."

  "La navaja en la liga."

  "Why, Ramona, I never felt less threatened by knives."

  "You sound positively high."

  "I haven't spoken to a soul all day."

  "I meant to call you, but the shop was very busy. Where were you yesterday?"

  "Yesterday? Where was I-let me see...."

  "I thought you took a powder."

  "Me? How could that be?"

  "You mean, you wouldn't run out on me?" Run out on fragrant, sexual, high-minded Ramona? Never in a million years. Ramona had passed through the hell of profligacy and attaine
d the seriousness of pleasure. For when will we civilized beings become really serious? said Kierkegaard. Only when we have known hell through and through. Without this, hedonism and frivolity will diffuse hell through all our days. Ramona, however, does not believe in any sin but the sin against the body, for her the true and only temple of the spirit.

  "But you did leave town yesterday," said Ramona.

  "How do you know-are you having me tailed by a private eye?"

  "Miss Schwartz saw you in Grand Central with a valise in your hand."

  "Who? That little Miss Schwartz, in your shop?"

  "That's right."

  "Well, what do you know..." Herzog would not discuss it further.

  Ramona said, "Perhaps some lovely woman scared you on the train, and you turned back to your Ramona."

  "Oh..." said Herzog.

  Her theme was her power to make him happy. Thinking of Ramona with her intoxicating eyes and robust breasts, her short but gentle legs, her Carmen airs, thievishly seductive, her skill in the sack (defeating invisible rivals), he felt she did not exaggerate. The facts supported her claim.

  "Well, were you running away?" she said.

  "Why should I? You're a marvelous woman, Ramona."

  "In that case you're being very odd, Moses."

  "Well, I suppose I am one of the odder beasts."

  "But I know better than to be proud and demanding.

  Life has taught me to be humble."

  Moses shut his eyes and raised his brows. Here we go.

  "Perhaps you feel a natural superiority because of your education."

  "Education! But I don't know anything..."

  "Your accomplishments. You're in Who's Who.

  I'm only a merchant-a petit-bourgeois type."

  "You don't really believe this. Ramona."

  "Then why do you keep aloof, and make me chase you?

  I realize you want to play the field. After great disappointments, I've done it myself, for ego-reinforcement."

  "A high-minded intellectual ninny, square ..."

  "Who?"

  "Myself, I mean."

  She went on. "But as one recovers self-confidence, one learns the simple strength of simple desires."

 
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