Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Please, Ramona, Moses wanted to say-you're lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch-everything.

  But these lectures! For the love of God, Ramona, shut it up. But she went on. Herzog looked up at the ceiling. The spiders had the moldings under intensive cultivation, like the banks of the Rhine. Instead of grapes, encapsulated bugs hung in clusters.

  I brought all this on myself by telling Ramona the story of my life-how I rose from humble origins to complete disaster. But a man who has made so many mistakes can't afford to ignore the corrections of his friends. Friends like Sandor, that humped rat. Or like Valentine, the moral megalomaniac and prophet in Israel. To all such, one is well advised to listen. Scolding is better than nothing. At least it's company.

  Ramona paused, and Herzog said, "It's true-I have a lot to learn."

  But I am diligent. I work at it and show steady improvement. I expect to be in great shape on my deathbed. The good die young, but I have been spared to build myself up so that I may end my life as good as gold. The senior dead will be proud of me.... I will join the Y. m. c. a. of the immortals. Only, in this very hour, I may be missing eternity.

  "Are you listening?" said Ramona.

  "Of course."

  "What did I just say."

  "That I have to trust my instincts more."

  "I said I wanted you to come to dinner."

  "Oh."

  "If only I were a bitch! Then you'd hang on every word."

  "But I was going to ask you... to come to an Italian restaurant." He was clumsily inventing. At times he was cruelly absent-minded.

  "I've shopped already," said Ramona.

  "But how, if that snooping Miss Schwartz with the blue spectacles saw me running away in Grand Central...?"

  "Did I expect you? I figured you had to go to New Haven for the day-to the Yale library, or some other place.... Please come. Join me for dinner. I'll have to eat alone if you don't."

  "Why, where's your aunt?"

  Ramona had her father's elderly sister living with her.

  "She's gone to visit the cousins in Hartford."

  "Ah-I see." He thought that old Aunt Tamara must be well used to taking these trips on short notice.

  "My aunt understands such things," said Ramona.

  "Besides, she likes you so much."

  And she thinks I'm a fine new prospect.

  Besides, one must make sacrifices for a husbandless niece who has a troubled love life. Just before meeting Herzog, Ramona had broken off with an assistant television producer named George Hoberly who was hard hit, in a pitiable state-close to hysteria. As Ramona explained it, old Aunt Tamara was Hoberly's great sympathizer-advised him, consoled him as well as an old woman could. At the same time, she was almost as excited about Herzog as Ramona herself.

  Meditating on Aunt Tamara, Moses thought he now could better understand Aunt Zelda. The female passion for secrecy and double games. For we must eat our fruit from the wily serpent's jaws.

  Still, Herzog observed that Ramona had genuine family feeling, and of this he approved. She seemed really fond of her aunt. Tamara was the daughter of a Polish Czarist official something-or-other (what harm could there be in making him a general?). Ramona said about her, "She is very jeune fille Russe" coman excellent description. Aunt Tamara was docile, girlish, sensitive, impulsive.

  Whenever she spoke of Papa and Mama and her teachers and the Conservatoire her dry breast filled, and the collarbones stood out tightly. She seemed still to be trying to decide whether to have a concert career against her Papa's wishes. Herzog, listening with serious looks, could not establish whether she had given a recital at the Salle Gaveau or wanted to give a recital. Old women from Eastern Europe with dyed hair and senseless cameo brooches had easy access to his affections.

  "Well, then, are you coming or not?" said Ramona.

  "Why are you so hard to pin down?"

  "I shouldn't go out-I have a lot to do-letters to write."

  "What letters! You're such a mystery man. What are these important letters? Business? Perhaps you should discuss it with me, if it is business. Or a lawyer, if you don't trust me. But you have to eat, anyway. Or perhaps you don't eat when you're alone."

  "Of course I do."

  "Well, then?"

  "Okay," said Herzog. "Expect me soon.

  I'll bring a bottle of wine."

  "No, no! Don't do that. I've got some on ice."

  He put down the phone. She was emphatic about the wine. Perhaps he had given the impression that he was a little stingy. Or else he had awakened a feeling of protectiveness in her, an effect he often produced. He wondered at times whether he didn't belong to a class of people secretly convinced they had an arrangement with fate; in return for docility or ingenuous good will they were to be shielded from the worst brutalities of life. Herzog's mouth formed a soft but twisted smile as he considered whether he really had inwardly decided years ago to set up a deal-a psychic offer-meekness in exchange for preferential treatment. Such a bargain was feminine, or, extended to trees, animals, childlike.

  None of these self-judgments had any terror for him; no percentage now in quarreling with what one was. There was the thing-the composite, the mystical achievement of natural forces and his own spirit. He opened the paisley Hong Kong robe and looked at his naked body. He was no child. And the house in Ludeyville, a disaster in every other way, had kept him fit. Wrestling with that old ruin in an effort to recover his legacy made his arms muscular. Extended the lease of narcissism a little while. Gave him strength to carry a heavy-buttocked woman to the bed. Oh, yes-still in fleeting moments the young and glossy stud-such as he really had never been. There were more faithful worshipers of Eros than Moses Elkanah Herzog.

  But why was Ramona so firm about wine? Maybe she was afraid he'd turn up with California sauterne. Or, no, she believed in the aphrodisiac power of her own brand. That might be it. Or else he harped more on the subject of money than he knew. A last possibility was that she wanted to surround him with luxuries.

  Glancing at his watch, Herzog, with an appearance of efficiency or purpose, failed, anyway, to fix the time in his mind. What he did observe, stooping to the window to get an angle over roofs and walls, was that the sky was reddening. He was astonished that a whole day had been spent scrawling a few letters. And what ridiculous, angry letters!

  The spite and frenzy in them! Zelda! Sandor!

  Why write to them at all? And the Monsignor!

  Between the lines of Herzog's letter the Monsignor would only see a mad, reasoning face, just as Moses saw the brick of those walls between these rods caked in asphalt black. Endless repetition threatens sanity.

  Suppose that I am absolutely right and the Monsignor, for instance, absolutely wrong. If I am right, the problem of the world's coherence, and all responsibility for it, becomes mine. How will it make out when Moses E. Herzog has his way?

  No, why should I take that on myself? The Church has universal understanding. This I consider a harmful, Prussian delusion. Readiness to answer all questions is the infallible sign of stupidity. Did Valentine Gersbach ever admit ignorance of any matter? He was a regular Goethe. He finished all your sentences, rephrased all your thoughts, explained everything.

  ... I want you to know, Monsignor, that I am not writing with the purpose of exposing Madeleine, or to attack you.

  Herzog tore up the letter. Untrue! He despised the Monsignor, wanted to murder Madeleine. Yes, he was capable of killing her. And yet, while filled with horrible rage, he was able also to shave and dress, to be the citizen on the town for an evening of pleasure, groomed, scented, and his face sweetened for kisses. He did not flinch from these criminal fantasies. It's the certainty of punishment that stops me, Herzog thought.

  Time to clean up. He turned from the desk and the deepening light of the afternoon and dropping the robe entered the bathroom and turned on the water in the basin. He drank, in the obscurity of the cool tiled room. New York has the sweetest water in the world, for a met
ropolis. Then he began to soap his face. He could look forward to a good dinner. Ramona knew how to cook, and how to set a table. There would be candles, linen napkins, flowers.

  Perhaps the flowers were being rushed from the shop now, in evening traffic. On the windowsill of Ramona's dining room pigeons roosted. You heard wings flapping in the airshaft. As for the menu, on a summer evening like this she'd probably prepare vichyssoise, then shrimp Arnaud-New Orleans style. White asparagus. A cool dessert.

  Rum-flavored ice cream with raisins?

  Brie and cold-water biscuits? He was judging by previous dinners. Coffee. Brandy. And, all the time, Egyptian music on the phonograph in the adjoining room-Mohammad al Bakkar playing "Port Said" with zithers, drums, and tambourines. In that room was a Chinese rug, the light of the green lamp deep and quiet. Here also she had fresh flowers. If I had to work all day in a flower shop, I wouldn't want to be pursued by the smell of flowers at night. On the coffee table she had art books and international magazines.

  Paris, Rio, Rome, all were represented.

  Invariably, also, the latest presents from Ramona's admirers were displayed. Herzog always read the little cards. For what other reason did she leave them? George Hoberly for whom she was cooking shrimp Arnaud last spring still sent her gloves, books, theater tickets, opera glasses. You could trace his love-crazed wanderings up and down New York by the labels. Ramona said he didn't know what he was doing. Herzog was sorry for him.

  The bluish-green carpet, the Moorish knickknacks and arabesques, the wide comfortable sofa-bed, the Tiffany lamp with glass like plumage, the deep armchairs by the windows, the downtown view of Broadway and Columbus Circle. And after dinner, when they were settling down here with coffee and brandy, Ramona would ask whether he wouldn't like to take off his shoes. Why not? A free foot on a summer night eases the heart. And by and by, going by precedents, she'd ask why he was so abstracted- was he thinking of his children? Then he'd say... he was shaving now, scarcely glancing in the mirror, finding the stubble with his fingertips... he'd say that he was no longer so worried about Marco. The boy had a firm character. He was one of the more stable breed of Herzogs. Ramona then would give him level-headed advice about his little daughter. Moses would say how could he abandon her to those psychopaths?

  Could she doubt that they were psychopaths? Did she want to look again at the letter from Geraldine-the frightful letter that told what they were doing? And there would follow another discussion of Madeleine, Zelda, Valentine Gersbach, Sandor Himmelstein, the Monsignor, Dr. Edvig, Phoebe Gersbach.

  Against his will, like an addict struggling to kick the habit, he would tell again how he was swindled, conned, manipulated, his savings taken, driven into debt, his trust betrayed by wife, friend, physician. If ever Herzog knew the loathsomeness of a particular existence, knew that the whole was required to redeem every separate spirit, it was then, in his terrible passion, which he tried, impossibly, to share, telling his story. Then, in the midst of it, the realization would come over him that he had no right to tell, to inflict it, that his craving for confirmation, for help, for justification, was useless. Worse, it was unclean. (for some reason the French word suited him better, and he said "Immonde!" and again, more loudly, "C'est immonde!")

  However, Ramona would tenderly sympathize with him.

  No doubt she genuinely pitied him, though the injured are, for primitive reasons, unattractive and even ludicrous. In a spiritually confused age, however, a man who could feel as he did might claim a certain distinction. He was beginning to see that his particular brand of short-sightedness, lack of realism, and apparent ingenuousness conferred a high status on him. For Ramona it evidently surrounded him with glamour. And provided that he remain macho she would listen with glistening eyes, with more sympathy, and more, and more. She transformed his miseries into sexual excitement and, to give credit where it was due, turned his grief in a useful direction. Cannot agree with Hobbes that where there is no overawing power men have no pleasure (voluptas) in keeping company but instead (molestia) a great deal of grief. There is always an overawing power, namely, one's terror. To set aside these theoretical considerations, however, when he was done, having drunk four or five glasses of Armagnac from the Venetian decanter, far above the Puerto Rican disorders of the street, it would be Ramona's turn. You treat me right, I treat you right.

  He continued shaving, like a blind man, by touch and by sound, the sound of bristle and blade.

  Ramona was highly experienced at entertaining gentlemen. The shrimp, wine, flowers, lights, perfumes, the rituals of undressing, the Egyptian music whining and clanging, bespoke practice, and he regretted that she'd had to live this way, but it flattered him, also. Ramona was astonished that any woman should find fault with Moses. He told her that he was often a flat failure with Madeleine. It might be the release of his angry feeling against Mady that improved his performance. At this Ramona looked severe.

  "I don't know-it might be me comh you considered that?" she said. "Poor Moses-unless you're having a bad time with a woman you can't believe you're being serious."

  Moses rinsed his face with pleasant witch hazel, a brimming handful, and blew upon his cheeks from the corners of his mouth. He tuned in Polish dance music on the small transistor radio on the glass shelf over the sink, and powdered his feet.

  Then he gave in for a while to the impulse to dance and leap on the soiled tiles, some of which came free from the grout and had to be kicked under the tub. It was one of his oddities in solitude to break out in song and dance, to do queer things out of keeping with his customary earnestness. He danced out the number until the Polish commercial-"Ochyne-pynch-ochyne, Pynch Avenue, Flushing." He mimicked the announcer in the ivory yellow gloom of the tile bathroom-the water closet, as he anachronistically called it.

  He was ready to go for another polka when he discovered, breathing hard, that the sweat was rolling down his sides, and that another dance would make a shower necessary. He didn't have the time or patience for that.

  He couldn't bear the thought of drying himself-one of those killing chores he had always hated.

  He put on clean drawers, socks. In stocking feet he trod the toes of his shoes to bring out a dull shine. Ramona did not like his taste in shoes.

  Before the window of the Bally shop on Madison Avenue she pointed at a pair of ankle-high Spanish boots and said, "That's what you need-those vicious-looking black things." Smiling, she looked upward so that he was confronted by the brightness of her eyes. She had marvelous, slightly curved white teeth. Her lips would part and close over these significant teeth, and she had a short, curved, French nose, small and fine; hazel eyes; thick vivid black hair. The weight of her face was mainly in the lower part. A slight defect, in Herzog's view. Nothing serious.

  "You want me to dress up like a flamenco dancer?" said Herzog.

  "You ought to use a little imagination about clothes-encourage certain aspects of your character."

  You would think-Herzog smiled broadly-he was a piece of human capital badly invested. To her surprise, perhaps, he agreed with her. Almost cheerfully, he agreed. Strength, intelligence, feeling, opportunity had been wasted on him. What he could not see, however, was that such Spanish shoes- which, by the way, greatly appealed to his childish taste-would improve his character. And we must improve. Must!

  He put on trousers. Not the Italian pants: they'd be uncomfortable after dinner. One of the new poplin shirts was next. He removed all the pins. Then he put on the madras jacket. He bent down to see what he could see of the harbor through the small opening of the bathroom window. Nothing in particular. Only a sense of water bounding the overbuilt island. It was a movement of orientation that he was making, like the glance at his watch which did not tell him the time. And next came his specific self, an apparition in the square mirror. How did he look? Oh, terrific-you look exquisite, Moses! Smashing! The primitive self-attachment of the human creature, that sweet instinct for the self, so deep, so old it may have a cellul
ar origin. As he breathed, he was aware of it, quiet but far-reaching, all through his system, a pleasing hunger in his remotest nerves.

  Dear Professor Haldane...

  No, that was not Herzog's man at this moment.

  Dear Father Teilhard de Chardin, I have tried to understand your notion of the inward aspect of the elements.

  That sense organs, even rudimentary sense organs, could not evolve from molecules described by mechanists as inert. Thus matter itself should perhaps be studied as evolving consciousness... is the carbon molecule lined with thought?

  His shaven face, muttering in the mirror-great shadows under the eyes. That's okay, he thought; if the light's not too bright, you're still a grand-looking man. For a while yet, you can get women. All but that bitch, Madeleine, whose face looks either beautiful or haggy. Go, then-Ramona will feed you, give you wine, remove your shoes, natter you, smooth down your hackles, kiss you, pinch your lip with her teeth. Then uncover the bed, turn down the lights, and go into the essentials....

  He was half elegant, half slovenly. That had always been his style. If he knotted his tie with care, his shoelaces dragged. His brother Shura, immaculate in his tailored clothes, manicured and barbered at the Palmer House, said this was done on purpose. Once it had perhaps been his boyish defiance, but by now it was an established part of the daily comedy of Moses E. Herzog. Ramona often said, "You're not a true, puritanical American. You have a talent for sensuality. Your mouth gives you away." Herzog could not help putting his fingers to his lips when it was mentioned. But then he laughed the whole thing off. What remained to bother him was that she did not recognize him as an American. That hurt! What else was he? In the Service his mates had also considered him a foreigner. The Chicagoans questioned him suspiciously. "What's on State and Lake?

  How far west is Austin Avenue?" Most of them seemed to come from the suburbs. Moses knew the city much better than they, but even this was turned against him.

  "Ah, you just memorized everything. You're a spy. That proves. One of them smart Jews. Come clean, Mose-they're gonna drop you by parachute comright?" No, he became a communications officer, discharged for asthma. Choked by fog, in the Gulf of Mexico, on maneuvers, losing contact owing to his hoarseness. Except that the whole fleet heard him groan, "We're lost! Fucked!"

 
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