Herzog by Saul Bellow


  She was saying, "We can't live together any more."

  Her speech continued for several minutes. Her sentences were well formed. This speech had been rehearsed and it seemed also that he had been waiting for the performance to begin.

  Theirs was not a marriage that could last. Madeleine had never loved him. She was telling him that. "It's painful to have to say I never loved you. I never will love you, either," she said. "So there's no point in going on."

  Herzog said, "I do love you, Madeleine."

  Step by step, Madeleine rose in distinction, in brilliance, in insight. Her color grew very rich, and her brows, and that Byzantine nose of hers, rose, moved; her blue eyes gained by the flush that kept deepening, rising from her chest and her throat.

  She was in an ecstasy of consciousness. It occurred to Herzog that she had beaten him so badly, her pride was so fully satisfied, that there was an overflow of strength into her intelligence. He realized that he was witnessing one of the very greatest moments of her life.

  "You should hold on to that feeling," she said. "I believe it's true. You do love me. But I think you also understand what a humiliation it is to me to admit defeat in this marriage. I've put all I had into it. I'm crushed by this."

  Crushed? She had never looked more glorious. There was an element of theater in those looks, but much more of passion.

  And Herzog, a solid figure of a man, if pale and suffering, lying on his sofa in the lengthening evening of a New York spring, in the background the trembling energy of the city, a sense and flavor of river water, a stripe of beautifying and dramatic filth contributed by New Jersey to the sunset, Herzog in the coop of his privacy and still strong in the body (his health was really a sort of miracle; he had done his best to be sick) pictured what might have happened if instead of listening so intensely and thoughtfully he had hit Madeleine in the face. What if he had knocked her down, clutched her hair, dragged her screaming and fighting around the room, flogged her until her buttocks bled. What if he had! He should have torn her clothes, ripped off her necklace, brought his fists down on her head. He rejected this mental violence, sighing. He was afraid he was really given in secret to this sort of brutality.

  But suppose even that he had told her to leave the house. After all, it was his house. If she couldn't live with him, why didn't she leave? The scandal? There was no need to be driven away by a little scandal. It would have been painful, grotesque, but a scandal was after all a sort of service to the community. Only it had never entered Herzog's mind, in that parlor of flashing bottles, to stand his ground. He still thought perhaps that he could win by the appeal of passivity, of personality, win on the ground of being, after all, Moses-Moses Elkanah Herzog-a good man, and Madeleine's particular benefactor. He had done everything for her-everything!

  "Have you discussed this decision with Doctor Edvig?" he said. "What does he think?"

  "What difference could his opinion make to me? He can't tell me what to do. He can only help me understand.... I went to a lawyer," she said.

  "Which lawyer?"

  "Well, Sandor Himmelstein. Because he is a buddy of yours. He says you can stay with him until you make your new arrangements."

  The conversation was over, and Herzog returned to the storm windows in the shadow and green damp of the back yard-to his obscure system of idiosyncrasies.

  A person of irregular tendencies, he practiced the art of circling among random facts to swoop down on the essentials. He often expected to take the essentials by surprise, by an amusing stratagem. But nothing of the sort happened as he maneuvered the rattling glass, standing among the frost-scorched drooping tomato vines tied to their stakes with strips of rag. The plant scent was strong. He continued with the windows because he'; couldn't allow himself to feel crippled. He dreaded the depths of feeling he would eventually have to face, when he could no longer call upon his eccentricities for relief.

  In his posture of collapse on the sofa, arms abandoned over his head and legs stretched away, lying with no more style than a chimpanzee, his eyes with greater than normal radiance watched his own work in the garden with detachment, as if he were looking through the front end of a telescope at a tiny clear image.

  That suffering joker.

  Two points therefore: He knew his scribbling, his letter-writing, was ridiculous. It was involuntary.

  His eccentricities had him in their power.

  There is someone inside me. I am in his grip.

  When I speak of him I feel him in my head, pounding for order. He will ruin me.

  It has been reported, he wrote, that several teams of Russian Cosmonauts have been lost; disintegrated, we must assume. One was heard calling "SOS world SOS." Soviet confirmation has been withheld.

  Dear Mama, As to why I haven't visited your grave in so long...

  Dear Wanda, Dear Zinka, Dear Libbie, Dear Ramona, Dear Sono, I need help in the worst way. I am afraid of falling apart. Dear Edvig, the fact is that madness also has been denied me. I don't know why I should write to you at all. Dear Mr. President, Internal Revenue regulations will turn us into a nation of bookkeepers. The life of every citizen is becoming a business. This, it seems to me, is one of the worst interpretations of the meaning of human life history has ever seen. Man's life is not a business.

  And how shall I sign this? thought Moses. Indignant citizen? Indignation is so wearing that one should reserve it for the main injustice.

  Dear Daisy, he wrote to his first wife, I know it's my turn to visit Marco in camp on Parents'

  Day but this year I'm afraid my presence might disturb him. I have been writing to him, and keeping up with his activities. It is unfortunately true, however, that he blames me for the breakup with Madeleine and feels I have deserted also his little half-sister. He is too young to understand the difference between the two divorces.

  Here Herzog asked himself whether it would be appropriate to discuss the matter further with Daisy and, picturing to himself her handsome and angry face as she read his as yet unwritten letter, he decided against this. He continued, I think it would be best for Marco not to see me. I have been sick - under the doctor's care.

  He noted with distaste his own trick of appealing for sympathy. A personality had its own ways. A mind might observe them without approval. Herzog did not care for his own personality, and at the moment there was apparently nothing he could do about its impulses.

  Rebuilding my health and strength gradually comz a person of sound positive principles, modern and liberal, news of his progress (if true) should please her. As the victim of those impulses she must be looking in the paper for his obituary.

  The strength of Herzog's constitution worked obstinately against his hypochondria. Early in June, when the general revival of life troubles many people, the new roses, even in shop windows, reminding them of their own failures, of sterility and death, Herzog went to have a medical checkup. He paid a visit to an elderly refugee, Dr.

  Emmerich, on the West Side, facing Central Park. A frowzy doorman with an odor of old age about him, wearing a cap from a Balkan campaign half a century gone, let him into the crumbling vault of the lobby. Herzog undressed in the examining room-a troubled, dire green; the dark walls seemed swollen with the disease of old buildings in New York. He was not a big man but he was sturdily built, his muscles developed by the hard work he had done in the country. He was vain of his muscles, the breadth and strength of his hands, the smoothness of his skin, but he saw through this too, and he feared being caught in the part of the aging, conceited handsome man.

  Old fool, he called himself, glancing away from the small mirror, the graying hair, the wrinkles of amusement and bitterness. Through the slats of the blind he looked instead at the brown rocks of the part, speckled with mica, and at the optimistic leaping green of June. It would tire soon, as leaves broadened and New York deposited its soot on the sum-men It was, however, especially beautiful now, vivid in all particulars-the twigs, the small darts and subtly swelling shapes of gre
en. Beauty is not a human invention.

  Dr. Emmerich, stooped but energetic, examined him, sounded his chest and back, flashed the light in his eyes, took his blood, felt his prostate gland, wired him for the electrocardiograph.

  "Well, you are a healthy man-not twenty-one, but strong."

  Herzog heard this with satisfaction, of course, but still he was faintly unhappy about it. He had been hoping for some definite sickness which would send him to a hospital for a while. He would not have to look after himself. His brothers, who had given up on him, more or less, would rally to him then and his sister Helen might come to take care of him. The family would meet his expenses and pay for Marco and June. That was out, now. Apart from the little infection he had caught in Poland, his health was sound, and even that infection, now cured, had been nonspecific. It might have been due to his mental state, to depression and fatigue, not to Wanda. For one horrible day he had thought it was gonorrhea. He must write to Wanda, he thought as he pulled his shirt-tails forward, buttoned his sleeves.

  Chere Wanda, he began, Bonnes nouvelles. T'en seras contente.

  It was another of his shady love affairs in French.

  For what other reason had he ground away at his Frazer and Squair in high school, and read Rousseau and de Maistre in college? His achievements were not only scholarly but sexual. And were those achievements? It was his pride that must be satisfied. His flesh got what was left over.

  "Then what is the matter with you?" said Dr.

  Emmerich. An old man, hair grizzled like his own, face narrow and witty, looked up into his eyes. Herzog believed he understood his message.

  The doctor was telling him that in this decaying office he examined the truly weak, the desperately sick, stricken women, dying men. Then what did Herzog want with him? "You seem very excited," Emmerich said.

  "Yes, that's it. I am excited."

  "Do you want Miltown? Snakeroot? Do you have insomnia?"

  "Not seriously," said Herzog. "My thoughts are shooting out all over the place."

  "Do you want me to recommend a psychiatrist?"

  "No, I've had all the psychiatry I can use."

  "Then what about a holiday? Take a young lady to the country, the seashore. Do you still have the place in Massachusetts?"

  "If I want to reopen it."

  "Does your friend still live up there? The radio announcer. What is the name of the big fellow with red hair, with the wooden leg?"

  "Valentine Gersbach is his name. No, he moved to Chicago when I-when we did."

  "He's a very amusing man."

  "Yes. V."

  "I heard of your divorce-who told me? I am sorry about it."

  Looking for happiness - ought to be prepared for bad results.

  Emmerich put on his Ben Franklin eyeglasses and wrote a few words on the file card. "The child is with Madeleine in Chicago, I suppose," said the doctor.

  "Yes-was Herzog tried to get Emmerich to reveal his opinion of Madeleine. She had been his patient, too.

  But Emmerich would say nothing. Of course not; a doctor must not discuss his patients. Still, an opinion might be construed out of the glances he gave Moses.

  "She's a violent, hysterical woman," he told Emmerich. He saw from the old man's lips that he was about to answer; but then Emmerich decided to say nothing, and Moses, who had an odd habit of completing people's sentences for them, made a mental note) about his own perplexing personality.

  A strange heart. I myself can't account for it.

  He now saw that he had come to Emmerich to accuse Madeleine, or simply to talk about her with someone who knew her and could take a realistic view of her.

  "But you must have other women," said Emmerich.

  "Isn't there somebody? Do you have to eat dinner alone tonight?"

  Herzog had Ramona. She was a lovely woman, but with: her too there were problems, of course-there were bound to be problems. Ramona was a businesswoman, she owned a flower shop on Lexington Avenue.

  She was not young-probably in her thirties; she wouldn't tell Moses her exact age-but she was extremely attractive, slightly foreign, welleducated. When she inherited the business she was getting her M. a. at Columbia in art history. In fact, she was enrolled in Herzog's evening course. In principle, he opposed affairs with students, even with students like Ramona Donsell, who were obviously made for them.

  Doing all the things a wild man does, he noted, while remaining all the while an earnest person.

  In frightful earnest.

  Of course it was just this earnestness that attracted Ramona. Ideas excited her. She loved to talk. She was an excellent cook, too, and knew how to prepare shrimp Arnaud, which she served with Pouilly Fuisse. Herzog had supper with her several nights a week. In the cab passing from the drab lecture hall to Ramona's large West Side apartment, she had said she wanted him to feel how her heart was beating. He reached for her wrist, to take her pulse, but she said, "We are not young children, Professor," and put his hand elsewhere.

  Within a few days Ramona was saying that this was no ordinary affair. She recognized, she said, that Moses was in a peculiar state, but there was something about him so dear, so loving, so healthy, and basically so steady-as if, having survived so many horrors, he had been purged of neurotic nonsense- that perhaps it had been simply a question of the right woman, all along. Her interest in him quickly became serious, and he consequently began to worry about her, to brood. He said to her a few days after his visit to Emmerich that the doctor had advised him to take a holiday. Ramona then said, "Of course you need a holiday. Why don't you go to Montauk? I have a house there, and I could come out weekends. Perhaps we could stay together all of July."

  "I didn't know you owned a house," said Herzog.

  "It was up for sale a few years ago, and it was really too big for me, alone, but I had just divorced Harold, and I needed a diversion."

  She showed him colored slides of the cottage. With his eye to the viewer, he said, "It's very pretty. AH those flowers." But he felt heavy-hearted-dreadful.

  "One can have a marvelous time there. And you really ought to get some cheerful summer clothes. Why do you wear such drab things? You still have a youthful figure."

  "I lost weight last winter, in Poland and Italy."

  "Nonsense-why talk like that! You know you're a good-looking man. And you even take pride in being one. In Argentina they'd call you macho commasculine. You like to come on meek and tame, and cover up the devil that's in you. Why put that little devil down? Why not make friends with him-well, why not?"

  Instead of answering, he wrote mentally, Dear Ramona - Very dear Ramona. I like you very much - dear to me, a true friend. It might even go farther.

  But why is it that I, a lecturer, can't bear to be lectured? I think your wisdom gets me. Because you have the complete wisdom. Perhaps to excess. I do not like to refuse correction. I have a lot to be corrected about. Almost everything. And I know good luck when I see it....

  This was the literal truth, every word of it. He did like Ramona.

  She came from Buenos Aires. Her background was international-Spanish, French, Russian, Polish, and Jewish. She had gone to school in Switzerland and still Spoke with a slight accent, full of charm. She was short but had a full, substantial figure, a good round seat, firm breasts (all these things mattered to Herzog; he might think himself a moralist but the shape of a woman's breasts mattered greatly). Ramona was unsure of her chin but had confidence in her lovely throat, and so she held her head fairly high.

  She walked with quick efficiency, rapping her heels in energetic Castilian style. Herzog was intoxicated by this clatter. She entered a room provocatively, swaggering slightly, one hand touching her thigh, as though she carried a knife in her garter belt. It seemed to be the fashion in Madrid, and it delighted Ramona to come on playfully in the role of a tough Spanish broad- una navaja en la liga; she taught him the expression. He thought often of that imaginary knife when he watched her in her under-things, which were extravag
ant and black, a strapless contrivance called the Merry Widow that drew in the waist and trailed red ribbons below. Her thighs were short, but deep and white. The skin darkened where it was compressed by the elastic garment. And silky tags hung down, and garter buckles. Her eyes were brown, sensitive and shrewd, erotic and calculating. She knew what she was up to. The warm odor, the downy arms, the fine bust and excellent white teeth and slightly bowed legs-they all worked. Moses, suffering, suffered in style. His luck never entirely deserted him. Perhaps he was luckier than he knew. Ramona tried to tell him so. "That bitch did you a favor," she said. "You'll be far better off."

  Moses! he wrote, winning as he weeps, weeping as he wins.

  Evidently can't believe in victories.

  Hitch your agony to a star.

  But at the silent moment at which he faced Ramona he wrote, incapable of replying except by mental letter, You are a great comfort to me. We are dealing with elements more or less stable, more or less controllable, more or less mad. It's true. I have a wild spirit in me though I look meek and mild.

  You think that sexual pleasure is all this spirit wants, and since we are giving him that sexual pleasure, then why shouldn't everything be well?

  Then he realized suddenly that Ramona had made herself into a sort of sexual professional (or priestess were. He was used to dealing with vile amateurs lately. I didn't know that I could make out with a true sack artist.

  But is that the secret goal of my vague pilgrimage? Do I see myself to be after long blundering an unrecognized son of Sodom and Dionysus-an Orphic type? (ramona enjoyed speaking of Orphic types.) A petit-bourgeois Dionysian?

  He noted: Foo to all those categories!

  "Perhaps I will buy some summer clothes," he answered Ramona.

  I do like fine apparel, he went on. I used to rub my patent-leather shoes with butter, in early childhood. I overheard my Russian mother calling me "Krasavitz." And when I became a gloomy young student, with a soft handsome face, wasting my time in arrogant looks, I thought a great deal about trousers and shirts. It was only later, as an academic, that I became dowdy. I bought a gaudy vest in the Burlington Arcade last winter, and a pair of Swiss boots of the type I see now the Village fairies have adopted. Heartsore?

 
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