Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Herzog, alone, looked at the books and theater programs, magazines and pictures. A photograph of Ramona as a little girl stood in a Tiffany frame-seven years old, a wise child leaning on a bank of plush, her ringer pressing on her temple. He remembered the pose. A generation ago it used to get them. Little Einsteins. Prodigious wisdom in children. Pierced ears, a locket, a kiss-me curl, and the kind of early sensuality in tiny girls which he recalled very well.

  Aunt Tamara's clock began to chime. He went into her parlor to look at its old-fashioned porcelain face with long gilt lines, like cat whiskers, and listened to the bright quick notes. Beneath it was the key. To own a clock like this you had to have regular habits-a permanent residence. Raising the window shade of this little European parlor with its framed scenes of Venice and friendly Dutch porcelain inanities, you saw the Empire State Building, the Hudson, the green, silver evening, half of New York lighting up. Thoughtful, he pulled the shade down again. This-this asylum was his for the asking, he believed.

  Then why didn't he ask? Because today's asylum might be the dungeon of tomorrow. To listen lo Ramona, it was all very simple. She said she understood his needs better than he, and she might well be right. Ramona never hesitated to express herself fully, and there was something unreserved, positively operatic about some of her speeches. Opera. Heraldry. She said her feelings for him had depth and maturity and that she had an enormous desire to help him. She told Herzog that he was a better man than he knew-a deep man, beautiful (he could not help wincing when she said this), bat sad, unable to take what his heart really desired, a man tempted by God, longing for grace, but escaping headlong from his salvation, often close at hand. This Herzog, this man of many blessings, for some reason had endured a frigid, middlebrow, castrating female in his bed, given her his name and made her the instrument of creation, and Madeleine had treated him with contempt and cruelty as if to punish him for lowering and cheapening himself, for lying himself into love with her and betraying the promise of his soul. What he really must do, she went on, in this same operatic style-unashamed to be so fluent; he marveled at this-was to pay his debt for the great gifts he had received, his intelligence, his charm, his education, and free himself to pursue the meaning of life, not by disintegration, where he would never find it, but humbly and yet proudly continuing his learned studies. She, Ramona, wanted to add riches to his life and give him what he pursued in the wrong places. This she could do by the art of love, she said-the art of love which was one of the sublime achievements of the spirit. It was love she meant by riches. What he had to learn from her-while there was time; while he was still virile, his powers substantially intact- was how to renew the spirit through the flesh (a precious vessel in which the spirit rested).

  Ramona combless her!-was as florid in these sermons as in her looks. Oh, what a sweet orator she was!

  But where were we? Ah, yes, he was to continue his studies, aiming at the meaning of life. He, Herzog, overtake life's meaning! He laughed into his hands, covering his face.

  But (sobering) he knew that he elicited these speeches by his airs. Why did little Sono cry, "O mon philosophe-mon professeur d'amour!"? Because Herzog behaved like a philosophe who cared only about the very highest things-creative reason, how to render good for evil, and all the wisdom of old books. Because he thought and cared about belief. (without which, human life is simply the raw material of technological transformation, of fashion, salesmanship, industry, politics, finance, experiment, automatism, et cetera, et cetera.

  The whole inventory of disgraces which one is glad to terminate in death.) Yes, he looked like, behaved like, Sono's philosophe.

  And after all, why was he here? He was here because Ramona also took him seriously. She thought she could restore order and sanity to his life, and if she did that it would be logical to marry her. Or, in her style, he would desire to be united with her. And it would be a union that really unified. Tables, beds, parlors, money, laundry and automobile, culture and sex knit into one web. Everything would at last make sense, was what she meant.

  Happiness was an absurd and even harmful idea, unless it was really comprehensive; but in this exceptional and lucky case where each had experienced the worst sorts of morbidity and come through by a miracle, by an instinct for survival and delight which was positively religious- there was simply no other way to talk about her life, said Ramona, except in terms of Magdalene Christianity-comprehensive happiness was possible. In that case, it was a duty; to refuse to answer the accusations against happiness (that it was a monstrous and selfish delusion, an absurdity) was cowardly, a surrender to malignancy, capitulating to the death instinct.

  Here was a man, Herzog, who knew what it was to rise from the dead. And she, Ramona, she knew the bitterness of death and nullity, too.

  Yes, she too! But with him she experienced a real Easter. She knew what Resurrection was. He might look down his conscious nose at sensual delight, but with her, when their clothes were off, he knew what it was. No amount of sublimation could replace that erotic happiness, that knowledge.

  Not even tempted to smile, Moses listened earnestly, bowing his head. Some of it was current university or paperback chatter and some was propaganda for marriage, but, after such debits were entered against her, she was genuine. He sympathized with her, respected her. It was all real enough. She had something genuine at heart.

  When he jeered in private at the Dionysiac revival it was himself he made fun of. Herzog!

  A prince of the erotic Renaissance, in his macho garments! And what about the kids? How would they like a new stepmother? And Ramona, would she take Junie to see Santa Claus?

  "Ah, this is where you are," said Ramona. "Aunt Tamara would be flattered if she knew you were interested in her Czarist museum."

  "These old-time interiors," said Herzog.

  "Isn't it touching?"

  "They drugged you with schmaltz."

  "The old woman is so fond of you."

  "I like her, too."

  "She says you brighten up the house."

  "That I..." He smiled.

  "Why not? You have a tender trusting face. You can't bear to hear that, can you. Why not?"

  "I put the old woman out when I come," he said.

  "You're wrong. She loves these trips. She puts on a hat, and gets dressed up. It's such a thing for her to go to the railroad station. Anyway ..." Ramona's tone changed. "She needs to get away from George Hoberly. He's become her problem now." For a brief instant she was downcast.

  "... Sorry," said Herzog. "Has it been bad lately?"

  "Poor man... I feel so sorry for him. But come, Moses, dinner is all ready and I want you to open the wine." In the dining room she handed him the bottle-Pouilly Fuisse, well chilled-and the French corkscrew. With competent hands and strong purpose, his neck reddening as he exerted himself, he pulled the cork. Ramona had lighted the candles. The table was decorated with spiky red gladiolas in a long dish. On the windowsill the pigeons stirred and grumbled; they fluttered and went to sleep again. "Let me help you to this rice," said Ramona. She took the plate, good bone china with a cobalt rim (the steady spread of luxury into all ranks of society since the fifteenth century, noted by the famous Sombart, inter alia). But Herzog was hungry, and the dinner was delicious.

  (he would become austere hereafter.) Tears of curious, mixed origin came into his eyes as he tasted the shrimp remoulade. "Awfully good-my God, how good!" he said.

  "Haven't you eaten all day?" said Ramona.

  "I haven't seen food like this for some time.

  Prosciutto and Persian melon. What's this?

  Watercress salad. Good Christ!"

  She was pleased. "Well, eat," she said.

  After the shrimp Arnaud and salad, she offered cheese and cold-water biscuits, rum-flavored ice cream, plums from Georgia, and early green grapes. Then brandy and coffee. In the next room, Mohammad al Bakkar kept singing his winding, nasal, insinuating songs to the sounds of wire coat-hangers moved back and forth, a
nd drums, tambourines and mandolins and bagpipes.

  "What have you been doing?" said Ramona.

  "Me? Oh, all kinds of things..."

  "Where did you go on the train? were you running away from me?"

  "Not from you. But I suppose I was running."

  "You're still a little afraid of me, aren't you."

  "I wouldn't say that.... Confused. Trying to be careful."

  "You're used to difficult women. To struggle.

  Perhaps you like it when they give you a bad time."

  "Every treasure is guarded by dragons. That's how you can tell it's valuable.... Do you mind if I unbutton my collar? It seems to be pressing on an artery."

  "But you came right back. Perhaps that was because of me."

  Moses was strongly tempted to lie to her, to say, "Yes, Ramona, it was you." Strict and literal truthfulness was a trivial game and might even be a disagreeable neurotic affliction.

  Ramona had Moses' complete sympathy-a woman in her thirties, successful in business, independent, but still giving such suppers to gentlemen friends. But in times like these, how should a woman steer her heart to fulfillment? In emancipated New York, man and woman, gaudily disguised, like two savages belonging to hostile tribes, confront each other. The man wants to deceive, and then to disengage himself; the woman's strategy is to disarm and detain him. And this is Ramona, a woman who knows how to look after herself. Think how it is with some young thing, raising mascara-ringed eyes to heaven, praying, "Oh, Lord, let no bad man come unto my chubbiness."

  Besides which, Herzog realized that to eat Ramona's shrimp and drink her wine, and then sit in her parlor listening to the straggling lustfulness of Mohammad al Bakkar and his Port Said specialists, thinking such thoughts, was not exactly commendable.

  And Monsignor Hilton, what is priestly celibacy? A more terrible discipline is to go about and visit women, to see what the modern world has made of carnality. How little relevance certain ancient ideas have....

  But at least one thing became clear.

  To look for fulfillment in another, in interpersonal relationships, was a feminine game. And the man who shops from woman to woman, though his heart aches with idealism, with the desire for pure love, has entered the female realm. After Napoleon fell, the ambitious young man carried his power drive into the boudoir. And there the women took command. As Madeleine had done, as Wanda might as easily have done. And what about Ramona? And Herzog, formerly a silly young thing, now becoming a silly old thing, by accepting the design of a private life (approved by those in authority) turned himself into something resembling a concubine. Sono made this entirely clear, with her Oriental ways. He had even joked about it with her, trying to explain how unprofitable visits to her appeared to him at last.

  "Je beche, je seme, mais je ne recolte point."

  He joked-but no, he was no concubine, not at all.

  He was a difficult, aggressive man. As for Sono, she was trying to instruct him, to show how a man should treat a woman. The pride of the peacock, the lust of the goat, and the wrath of the lion are the glory and wisdom of God.

  "Wherever you were going, with your valise, your fundamentally healthy instincts brought you back.

  They're wiser than you," said Ramona.

  "Maybe..." said Herzog. "I am going through a change of outlook."

  "Thank goodness you haven't destroyed your birthright yet."

  "I haven't been really independent. I find I've been working for others, for a number of ladies."

  "If you can conquer your Hebrew puritanism..."

  "Developing the psychology of a runaway slave."

  "It's your own fault. You look for domineering women. I'm trying to tell you that you've met a different type in me."

  "I know I have," he said. "And I think the world of you."

  "I wonder. I don't think you understand." Here she showed some resentment. "About a month ago you told me I ran a sexual circus. As if I were an acrobat of some kind."

  "Why, Ramona, that meant nothing."

  "It implied that I had known too many men."

  "Too many? No, Ramona. I don't look at it that way. If anything, it does a lot for my selfesteem to be able to keep up."

  "Why, the very idea of keeping up betrays you. It makes me angry to hear you say that."

  "I know. You want to put me on a higher level and bring out the Orphic element in me. But I've tried to be a pretty mediocre person, if the truth be told. I've done my job, kept up my end, performed my duty, and waited for the old quid pro quo. What I had coming, naturally, was a sock on the head. I thought I had entered into a secret understanding with life to spare me the worst. A perfectly bourgeois idea. On the side, I was just flirting a little with the transcendent."

  "There's nothing so ordinary about marrying a woman like Madeleine or having a friend like Valentine Gersbach."

  His indignation rose, and he tried to check it.

  Ramona was being considerate, giving him a chance to sound off to release spleen. This was not what he had come for. And anyway he was growing tired of his obsession. Besides, she had troubles of her own. And the poet said that indignation was a kind of joy, but was he right? There is a time to speak and a time to shut up. The only truly interesting side of the matter was the intimate design of the injury, the fact that it was so penetrating, custom-made exactly to your measure. It's fascinating that hatred should be so personal as to be almost loving. The knife and the wound aching for each other. Much of course depends upon the vulnerability of the intended. Some cry out, and some swallow the thrust in silence. About the latter you could write the inner history of mankind. How did Papa feel when he found that Voplonsky was in cahoots with the hijackers? He never said.

  Herzog wondered whether he would succeed in holding all this in, tonight. He hoped he would. But Ramona often encouraged him to give in to it. She not only spread a supper but invited him to sing.

  "I don't think of them as exactly a mediocre pair," she said.

  "I sometimes see all three of us as a comedy team," said Herzog, "with me playing straight man. People say that Gersbach imitates me-my walk, my expressions. He's a second Herzog."

  "Anyway, he convinced Madeleine that he was superior to the original," said Ramona. She lowered her eyes. They moved and then came to rest beneath the lids. By candlelight, he observed this momentary disquiet of her face. Perhaps she thought she had spoken tactlessly.

  "Madeleine's greatest ambition, I think, is to fall in love. This is the deepest part of the joke about her. Then there's her grand style. Her tics.

  To give the bitch her due, she is beautiful. She adores being the center of attention. In one of those fur-trimmed suits she struts in, with her deep color and blue eyes. And when she has an audience and begins spellbinding, there's a kind of flat pass she makes with the palm of her hand, and her nose twitches like a little rudder, and by and by one brow joins in and begins to rise, rise."

  "You make her sound adorable," said Ramona.

  "We lived together on a high level, all of us.

  Except Phoebe. She merely went along."

  "What is she like?"

  "She has attractive features but she looks severe. She comes on like the head nurse."

  "She didn't care for you?"

  "... Her husband was a cripple. He knows how to make the most of it, emotionally, with his lurid sob stuff. She had bought him cheap because he was factory damaged. New and perfect, she could never have afforded such a luxury. He knew and she knew and we knew. Because this is an age of insight. The laws of psychology are known to all educated people.

  Anyway, he was only a one-legged radio announcer but she had him to herself. Then Madeleine and I arrived, and a glamorous life began in Ludeyville."

  "It must have upset her when he began to imitate you."

  "Yes. But if I was going to be swindled the best way was to do the job in my own style. Poetic justice. Philosophical piety describes the style."

  "When did you firs
t notice?"

  "When Mady began to stay away from Ludeyville.

  A few times she holed up in Boston. She said she simply had to be alone and think things over. So she took the kid-just an infant. And I asked Valentine to go and reason with her."

  "And this was when he began to give you those lectures?"

  Herzog tried to smile away the quick-welling rancor whose source had been touched. He might not be able to control it. "They all lectured. Everyone lectured. People legislate continually by means of talk. I have Madeleine's letters from Boston. I have letters from Gersbach, too. All kinds of documents. I even have a bundle of letters written by Madeleine to her mother. They came in the mail."

  "But what did Madeleine say?"

  "She's quite a writer. She writes like Lady Hester Stanhope. First of all, she said I resembled her father in too many ways. That when we were in a room together I seemed to swallow and gulp up all the air and left nothing for her to breathe. I was overbearing, infantile, demanding, sardonic, and a psychosomatic bully."

  "Psychosomatic?"

  "I had pains in my belly to dominate her, and got my way by being sick. They all said that, all three of them. Madeleine had another lecture about the only basis for a marriage. A marriage was a tender relationship resulting from the overflow of feeling, and all the rest of that. She even had a lecture about the right way to perform the conjugal act."

  "Incredible."

  "She must have been describing what she had learned from Gersbach."

  "You don't need to go into it," said Ramona. "I'm sure she made it as painful as possible."

  "In the meantime, I was supposed to wind up this study of mine, and become the Lovejoy of my generation-that's the silly talk of scholarly people, Ramona, I didn't think of it that way. The more Madeleine and Gersbach lectured me, the more I thought that my only purpose was to lead a quiet, regular life. She said this quietness was more of my scheming. She accused me of being on "a meek kick," and said that I was now trying to keep her in line by a new tactic."

 
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