Herzog by Saul Bellow


  "How curious! What were you supposed to be doing?"

  "She thought I had married her in order to be "saved," and now I wanted to kill her because she wasn't doing the job. She said she loved me, but couldn't do what I demanded, because this was so fantastic, and so she was going to Boston one more time to think it all through and find a way to save this marriage."

  "I see."

  "About a week later, Gersbach came to the house to pick up some of her things. She had phoned him from Boston. She needed her clothes. And money. He and I took a long walk in the woods. It was early autumn-sunny, dusty, marvelous ... melancholy. I helped him over the rough ground. He poles Ms way along, with that leg...."

  "As you told me. Like a gondolier. And what did he say?"

  "He said he didn't know how the fuck he would survive this terrible trouble between the two people he loved most in the world. He repeated that-the two people who meant more to him than wife and child. It was tearing him to pieces. His faith in things was going to be smashed."

  Ramona laughed, and Herzog joined her.

  "And then?"

  "Then?" said Herzog. He remembered the tremor in Gersbach's dark-red powerful face which seemed at first brutal, the face of a butcher, until you came to understand the depth and subtlety of his feelings. "Then we went back to the house and Gersbach packed her things. And what he had mainly come for-her diaphragm."

  "You don't mean it!"

  "Of course I mean it."

  "But you seem to accept it...."

  "What I accept is that my idiocy inspired them, and sent them to greater heights of perversity."

  "Didn't you ask her what this meant?"

  "I did. She said I had lost my right to an answer. It was more of the same from me-pettiness. Then I asked her whether Valentine had become her lover."

  "And what kind of answer did you get?"

  Ramona's curiosity was greatly excited.

  "That I didn't understand what Gersbach had given me-the kind of love, the kind of feeling. I said, "But he took the thing from the medicine chest." And she said, "Yes, and he stays overnight with June and me when he comes to Boston, but he's the brother I never had, and that's all." I hesitated to accept this, so she added, "Now don't be a fool, Moses. You know how coarse he is.

  He's not my type at all. Our intimacy is a different kind altogether. Why, when he uses the toilet in our little Boston apartment it fills up with his stink.

  I know the smell of his shit. Do you think I could give myself to a man whose shit smells like that!" That was her answer."

  "How frightful, Moses! Is that what she said?

  What a strange woman. She's a strange, strange creature."

  "Well, it shows how much we know about one another, Ramona. Madeleine wasn't just a wife, but an education. A good, steady, hopeful, rational, diligent, dignified, childish person like Herzog who thinks human life is a subject, like any other subject, has to be taught a lesson. And certainly anyone who takes dignity seriously, old-fashioned individual dignity, is bound to get the business. Maybe dignity was imported from France. Louis Quatorze. Theater.

  Command. Authority. Anger. Forgiveness.

  Majeste.

  The plebeian, bourgeois ambition was to inherit this.

  It all belongs in the museum now."

  "But I thought Madeleine herself was always so dignified."

  "Not always. She could turn against her own pretensions.

  And don't forget, Valentine is a great personality, too. Modern consciousness has this great need to explode its own postures. It teaches the truth of the creature. It throws shit on all pretensions and fictions. A man like Gersbach can be gay. Innocent. Sadistic. Dancing around.

  Instinctive. Heartless. Hugging his friends.

  Feeble-minded. Laughing at jokes. Deep, too.

  Exclaiming "I love you!" or "This I believe."

  And while moved by these "beliefs" he steals you blind. He makes realities nobody can understand. A radio-astronomer will sooner understand what's happening in space ten billion light years away than what Gersbach is fabricating in his brain."

  "You're far too excited about it," said Ramona.

  "My advice is to forget them both. How long did this stupidity go on?"

  "Years. Several years, anyway. Madeleine and I got together again, a while after this. And then she and Valentine ran my life for me. I didn't know a thing about it. All the decisions were made by them- where I lived, where I worked, how much rent I paid.

  Even my mental problems were set by them. They gave me my homework. And when they decided that I had to go, they worked out all the details-property settlement, alimony, child support. I'm sure Valentine thought he acted in my best interests. He must have held Madeleine back.

  He knows he's a good man. He understands, and when you understand you suffer more. You have higher responsibilities, responsibilities that come with suffering. I couldn't take care of my wife, poor fish. He took care of her. I wasn't fit to bring up my own daughter. He has to do it for me, out of friendship, out of pity and sheer greatness of soul. He even agrees that Madeleine is a psychopath."

  "No, you can't mean it!"

  "I do. "The poor crazy bitch," he'd say.

  "My heart goes out to that cracked broad!" his "So he's mysterious, too. What a strange pair!" she said.

  "Of course he is," said Herzog. "Moses," said Ramona. "Let's stop talking about this, please. I feel there's something wrong in it....

  Wrong for us. Now come..."

  "You haven't heard it all. There's Geraldine's letter, telling how they mistreat the kid."

  "I know. I've read it. Moses, no more."

  "But... Yes, you're right," said Herzog.

  "Okay, I'll stop it right now. I'll help you clear the table."

  "There's no need to."

  "I'll wash the dishes."

  "No, you certainly will not wash dishes. You're a guest here. I intend to put them all in the sink, for tomorrow."

  He thought, I prefer to accept as a motive not the thing I fully understand but the thing I partly understand.

  Utter clarity of explanation to me is false.

  However, I must take care of June.

  "No, no, Ramona, there's something about washing dishes that calms me. Now and then, anyway." He fixed the drain, put in soap powder, ran the water, hung his coat on the knob of a cupboard, tucked up his sleeves. He refused the apron Ramona offered. "I'm an old hand. I won't splash."

  As even Ramona's fingers were sexual, Herzog wanted to see how she would do ordinary tasks. But the kitchen towel in her hands as she dried the glasses and silver looked natural. So she was not simply pretending to be a homebody. Herzog had at times wondered whether it wasn't Aunt Tamara who prepared the shrimp remoulade before she slipped out The answer was no. Ramona did her own cooking.

  "You should be thinking about your future," said Ramona.

  "What are you planning to do next year?"

  "I can pick up a job of some sort."

  "Where?"

  "I can't decide whether to be near my son Marco, in the east, or go back to Chicago to keep an eye on June."

  "Listen, Moses, it's no disgrace to be practical. Is it a point of honor or something, not to think clearly? You want to win by; sacrificing yourself? It doesn't work, as you ought to know by now.

  Chicago would be a mistake. You'd only suffer."

  "Perhaps, and suffering is another bad habit."

  "Are you joking?"

  "Not at all," he said.

  "It's hard to imagine a more masochistic situation.

  Everybody in Chicago knows your story by now. You'd be in the middle of it. Fighting, arguing, getting hurt. That's too humiliating for a man like you. You don't respect yourself enough. Do you want to be torn to pieces? Is that what you're offering to do for little June?"

  "No, no. What good is that? But can I turn the child over to those two? You read what Geraldine said."

  He knew that letter by
heart, and was prepared to recite it.

  "Still, you can't take the child from her mother."

  "She's my kind. She has my genes. She's a Herzog. They're mentally alien types."

  He grew tense again. Ramona tried to draw him away from this subject.

  "Didn't you tell me that your friend Gersbach has become a kind of figure in Chicago?"

  "Yes, yes. He started out in educational radio, and now he's all over the place. On committees, in the papers. He gives lectures to the Hadassah... readings of his poems. In the Temples. He's joining the Standard Club.

  He's on television! Fantastic! He was such a provincial character, he thought there was only one railroad station in Chicago. And now he's turned out to be a terrific operator-covers the city in his Lincoln Continental, wearing a tweed coat of a sort of salmon-puke color."

  "You're getting into a state just thinking about it," said Ramona. "Your eyes get feverish."

  "Gersbach hired a hall, did I tell you?"

  "No."

  "He sold tickets to a reading of his poems. My friend Asphalter told me about it. Five dollars for the front seats, three bucks at the back of the hall. Reading a poem about his grandfather who was a street sweeper, he broke down and cried.

  Nobody could get out. The hall was locked."

  Ramona could not help laughing.

  "Ha-ha!" Herzog let out the water, wringing the rag, sprinkling scouring powder. He scrubbed and rinsed the sink. Ramona brought him a slice of lemon for the fishy smell. He squeezed it over his hands. "Gersbach!"

  "Still," said Ramona earnestly. "You ought to get back to your scholarly work."

  "I don't know. I feel I'm stuck with it. But what else is there for me to do?"

  "You only say that because you're agitated. You'll think differently when you're calm."

  "Maybe."

  She led the way to her room. "Shall I play more of that Egyptian music? It has a good effect." She went to the machine. "And why don't you take your shoes off, Moses. I know you like to remove them in this weather."

  "It does relieve my feet. I think I will.

  They're already unlaced."

  The moon was high over the Hudson. Distorted by window glass, distorted by summer air, appearing bent by its own white power, it floated also in the currents of the river. The narrow rooftops below were pale, long figures of constriction beneath the moon. Ramona turned the record over, and now a woman was singing to the music of al Bakkar's band "Viens, viens dans mes bras - je te donne du chocolat."

  Sitting on the hassock beside him, Ramona took his hand. "But what they tried to make you believe," she said. "It just isn't true."

  This was what he was aching to hear from her. "What do you mean?"

  "I know something about men. As soon as I saw you I realized how much of you was unused. Erotically.

  Untouched, even."

  "I've been a terrible flop at times. A total flop."

  "There are some men who should be protected.. by law, if necessary."

  "Like fish and game?"

  "I am not really joking," she said. He saw plainly, clearly, how kind she was. She felt for him. She knew he was in pain, and what the pain was, and she offered the consolation he had evidently come for. "They tried to make you feel that you were old and finished. But let me explain one fact.

  An old man smells old. Any woman can tell you. When an old man takes a woman in his arms she can smell a stale, dusty kind of thing, like old clothes that need an airing. If the woman has let things go as far as that, and doesn't want to humiliate him when she finds that he really is quite old (people do disguise themselves and it's hard to guess), she will probably go on with it. And that is so awful!

  But Moses, you are chemically youthful." She put her bare arms about his neck. "Your skin has a delicious odor.... What does Madeleine know. She's nothing but a packaged beauty."

  He thought what a fine achievement he had made of Ms life that-aging, vain, terribly narcissistic, suffering without proper dignity-he was taking comfort from someone who really didn't have too much of it to spare him. He had seen her when she was tired, upset and weak, when the shadows came over her eyes, when the fit of her skirt was wrong and she had cold hands, cold lips parted on her teeth, when she was lying on her sofa, a woman of short frame, very full, but after all, a tired, short woman whose breath had the ashen flavor of fatigue. The story then told itself-struggles and disappointments; an elaborate system of theory and eloquence at the bottom of which lay the simple facts of need, a woman's need. She senses that I am for the family. For I am a family type, and she wants me for her family. Her idea of family behavior appeals to me. She was brushing his lips back and forth with hers. She was leading him (somewhat aggressively) away from hatred and fanatical infighting. Her head thrown back, she breathed quickly with excitement, skill, purpose. She began to bite his lip and he drew back, but only from surprise. She held fast to his lip, taking in more of it, and the result was a leap of sexual excitement in Herzog. She was unbuttoning his shirt. Her hand was on his skin. She also reached behind, turning on the hassock, to undo the back of her blouse with the other hand. They held each other. He began to stroke her hair. The scent of lipstick and the odor of flesh came from her mouth. But suddenly they interrupted their kissing. The phone was ringing.

  "Oh, lord!" said Ramona. "Lord, lord!"

  "Are you going to answer?"

  "No, it's George Hoberly. He must have seen you arrive, and he wants to spoil things for us. We mustn't allow him to...."

  "I'm not in favor of it," said Herzog.

  She turned over the phone and silenced it with the switch at the base. "He had me in tears again, yesterday."

  "He wanted to give you a sports car, last I heard."

  "Now he's urging me to take him to Europe. I mean, he wants me to show him Europe."

  "I didn't know he had that sort of money."

  "He doesn't. He'd have to borrow. It would cost ten thousand dollars, staying at the Grand Hotels."

  "I wonder what he's trying to get across?"

  "What do you mean?" Ramona found something suspect in Herzog's tone.

  "Nothing... nothing. Only that he thinks you have the sort of money a tour like that would take."

  "Money has nothing to do with it. There's simply nothing more in the relationship."

  "What was there to begin with?"

  "I thought there was something...." Her hazel eyes gave him an odd look; they reproved him; or, more in sadness, asked him why he wanted to say such queer things. "Do you want to make an issue of this?"

  "What's he doing in the street?"

  "It's not my fault."

  "He made his great pitch for you, and failed, so now he thinks he's under a curse and wants to kill himself. He'd be better off at home, on his sofa, drinking a can of beer, watching Perry Mason."

  "You're too severe," said Ramona. "Maybe you think I'm giving him up for you and it makes you uneasy. You feel you're pushing him out and will have to be his replacement."

  Herzog paused, reflecting, and leaned back in his chair. "Perhaps," he said. "But I think it's that while in New York I am the man inside, in Chicago the man in the street is me."

  "But you're not in the least like George Hoberly," said Ramona with that musical lift he very much liked to hear. Her voice, when it was drawn up from her breast, and changed its tone in her throat-that gave Moses great pleasure. Another man might not react to its intended sensuality, but he did. "I took pity on George. For that reason it could never be anything but a temporary relationship. But you- you aren't the kind of man a woman feels sorry for. You aren't weak, whatever else. You have strength...."

  Herzog nodded. Once more he was being lectured. And he didn't really mind it. That he needed straightening out was only too obvious. And who had more right than a woman who gave him asylum, shrimp, wine, music, flowers, sympathy, gave him room, so to speak, in her soul, and finally the embrace of her body? We must help one another.

 
In this irrational world, where mercy, compassion, heart (even if a little fringed with self-interest), all rare things-hard-won in many human battles fought by rare minorities, victories whose results should never be taken for granted, for they were seldom reliable in anyone- rare things, were often debunked, renounced, repudiated by every generation of skeptics.- Reason itself, logic, urged you to kneel and give thanks for every small sign of true kindness. The music played. Surrounded by summer flowers and articles of beauty, even luxury, under the soft green lamp, Ramona spoke to him earnestly-he looked affectionately at her warm face, its ripe color. Beyond, hot New York; an illuminated night which did not need the power of the moon. The Oriental rug and its flowing designs held out the hope that great perplexities might be resolved.

  He held Ramona's soft cool arm in his fingers. His shirt was open on his chest. He was smiling, nodding a little as he listened to her. Much of what she said was perfectly right. She was a clever woman and, even better, a dear woman. She had a good heart. And she had on black lace underpants. He knew she did.

  "You have great capacity for life," she was saying.

  "And you're a very loving man. But you must try to break away from grudges. They'll eat you up."

  "I think that's true."

  "I know you think I theorize too much. But I've taken more than one beating myself-a terrible marriage, and a whole series of bad relationships. Look comy have the strength to recover, and it's sinful not to use it. Use it now."

  "I see what you mean."

  "Maybe it's biology," said Ramona. "You have a powerful system. You know what? The woman in the bakery told me yesterday I was looking so changed commy complexion, my eyes, she said. "Miss Don-sell, you must be in love." And I realized it was because of you."

  "You do look changed," said Moses.

  "Prettier?"

  "Lovely," he said.

  Her color deepened still more. She took his hand and placed it inside her blouse, looking steadily at him, eyes growing fluid. Bless the girl! What pleasure she gave him. All her ways satisfied him-her French-Russian-Argentine-Jewish ways.

  "Let's take off your shoes, too," he said.

  Ramona turned out all the lights except the green lamp by the bed. She whispered, "I'll be right back."

 
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