Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Something about an ant-eater...?

  He unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall behind him to the bathroom floor. Then he ran the water in the sink. The crude oval of the basin was smooth and beautiful in the gray light. He touched the almost homogeneous whiteness with his fingertips and breathed in the water odors and the subtle stink rising from the throat of the waste pipe. Unexpected intrusions of beauty. This is what life is. He bent his head under the flowing tap and sighed with shock and then with pleasure.

  Dear M. de Jouvenel, If the aims of political philosophy be as you say to civilize power, to impress the brute, to improve his manners and harness his energy to constructive tasks, I would like to say, he was no longer addressing de Jouvenel, that the sight of James Hoffa on your television show the other night made me realize how terrible a force angry single-mindedness can be. I was sorry for the poor professors on your panel whom he was chewing up. I'll tell you what I would have said to Hoffa. "What makes you think realism must be brutal?"

  Herzog's hands were on the taps; the left now shut off the warm water, the right increased the pressure of the cold. It poured over his scalp and his neck. He was shivering with the extreme violence of thought and feeling.

  At last he straightened his dripping head and wrapped it in the towel, rubbing and shaking his head in an effort to recover some degree of calm. As he was doing this, it occurred to him that this going into the bathroom to pull himself together was one of his habits.

  He seemed to feel that here he was more effective, more master of himself. In fact, he remembered, for a few weeks in Ludeyville he required Madeleine to make love on the bathroom floor. She complied, but he could see when she lay down on the old tiles that she was in a rage. Much good could come of that. This is how the all-powerful human intellect employs itself when it has no real occupation. And now he pictured the November rain dropping from the sky on his half-painted house in Ludeyville. The sumacs spilled the red Chinese paper of their leaves, and in the shivering woods the hunters were banging away at the deer-bang, bang, bang- driving home with dead animals. The gunsmoke was slow to rise from the woods' edge. Moses knew that in her heart his recumbent wife was cursing him.

  He tried to make his lust comical, to show how absurd it all was, easily the most wretched form of human struggle, the very essence of slavery.

  Then suddenly Moses recalled something quite different that had happened at Gersbach's house just outside Barrington about a month later. Gersbach was lighting the Chanukah candles for his little son, Ephraim, garbling the Hebrew blessing, then dancing with the boy. Ephraim was buttoned into his clumsy sleepers, and Valentine, powerful and gimpy, un-undaunted by mutilation-that was his great charm; sulk because he was a cripple? Screw that! He was dancing, pounding, clapping his hands, his flamboyant hair, always brutally barbered at the neck, moving up and down, and he looked at the boy with fanatical tenderness, eyes dark and hot. Whenever that look came over him the ruddy color of his face seemed to be drawn entirely into his brown eyes and it made his cheeks seem almost porous. I might have guessed already, from Mady's look, that spurt of breath that came from her when she laughed spontaneously. That look was deep. Strange.

  A look like a steel binder bent open. She loves that actor.

  Oneself is simply grotesque! Herzog stated it impulsively, though with pain, and his mind immediately looking for formal stability, catching (as he was lathering, clipping the blade into his injector razor) at ideas, of Professor Hocking's latest book whether justice on this earth can or cannot be general, social, but must originate within each heart.

  Subjective monstrosity must be overcome, must be corrected by community, by useful duty. And, as you indicate, private suffering transformed from masochism. But we know this. We know, we know, know it! Creative suffering, as you think... at the core of Christian belief.

  Now what is it? Herzog urged himself to be clearer.

  What really is on my mind? Probably this: shall I put those two on the stand under oath, torture them, hold a blowtorch to their feet? Why? They have a right to each other; they seem even to belong together.

  Why, let them alone. But what about justice?

  -Justice! Look who wants justice! Most of mankind has lived and died without-totally without it.

  People by the billions and for ages sweated, gypped, enslaved, suffocated, bled to death, buried with no more justice than cattle. But Moses E. Herzog, at the top of his lungs, bellowing with pain and anger, has to have justice. It's his quid pro quo, in return for all he has suppressed, his right as an Innocent Party. I love little pussy her coat is so warm, and I'll sit by the fire and give her some food, and pussy will love me because I am good.

  So now his rage is so great and deep, so murderous, bloody, positively rapturous, that his arms and fingers ache to strangle them. So much for his boyish purity of heart. Social organization, for all its clumsiness and evil, has accomplished far more and embodies more good than I do, for at least it sometimes gives justice. I am a mess, and talk about justice. I owe the powers that created me a human life. And where is it! Where is that human life which is my only excuse for surviving! What have I to show for myself? Only this! His face was before him in the blotchy mirror. It was bearded with lather.

  He saw his perplexed, furious eyes and he gave an audible cry.

  My God! Who is this creature? It considers itself human. But what is it? Not human of itself. But has the longing to be human. And like a troubling dream, a persistent vapor. A desire. Where does it all come from? And what is it? And what can it be! Not immortal longing. No, entirely mortal, but human.

  As he was putting on his shirt he made plans to visit his son on Parents' Day. The Trailways Bus for Catskill left the West Side Terminal at seven A. m. and made the trip on the Thruway in less than three hours. He remembered two years ago milling on the dusty playing field with kids and parents, the coarse boards of the barracks, the tired goats and hamsters, leafless bushes, and the spaghetti served on paper plates. By one o'clock he would be utterly beat, and the hours before bus time would be difficult and sad, but he must do everything possible for Marco. As for Daisy, it would spare her a trip.

  She had been having troubles of her own, her old mother having grown senile. Herzog knew of this from many sources, and it affected him strangely to hear that his former mother-in-law, handsome, autocratic, every inch the suffragist and "modern woman" with her pince-nez and abundant gray hair, had lost her self-control. She had got it into her head that Moses had divorced Daisy because she was a streetwalker, carried the yellow ticket-Polina in her delusions became a Russian again. Fifty years in Zanesville, Ohio, melted away when she pleaded with Daisy to stop "going with men." Poor Daisy had to listen to this every morning after she had sent the boy off to school and was herself leaving for work. An utterly steady, reliable woman, responsible to the point of grimness. Daisy was a statistician for the Gallup Poll. For Marco's sake she tried to make the house cheerful, but she had no talent for this, and the parakeets and the plants and goldfish and ay reproductions of Braque and Klee from the Museum of Modern Art seemed to increase its sadness. Similarly, in her neatness, the straight seams of her stockings, her face with its powder and the brows realigned with pencil to give a more spirited expression, Daisy never overcame her heavy-heartedness. After cleaning the bird cage and feeding all her little creatures and watering the plants, she still had to face her senile mother in the entryway. And Polina commanded her to give up this life of shame. Then she began, "Daisy, I beg you." And at last she pleaded on her knees, getting down with difficulty, a broad-hipped old woman, the white braids hanging, her gray head long and slender-much feminine delicacy still in the shape of that head-and the pince-nez swinging on the silk cord.

  "You can't go on like this, my child."

  Daisy tried to raise her from the ground. "All right, Mama. I'll change, I promise."

  "Men are waiting for you, in the street."

  "No, no, Mama."

  "Yes,
men. This is a social evil.

  You'll catch a disease. You'll die a terrible death. You must stop. Moses will come back if you do."

  "All right. Please stand up, Mama. I'll stop."

  "There are other ways to make a living. Please, Daisy, I beg you."

  "No more, Mama. Come, sit down."

  Shaky and clumsy, with awkward haunches and feeble knees, old Polina rose from the floor and Daisy guided her to her chair. "I'll send them all away. Come, Mama. I'll turn on the television. You want to watch the cooking school?

  Dione Lucas, or the Breakfast Club?" The sun came through the venetian blinds. The sputtering, flickering images on the screen looked yellow.

  And gray, genteel Polina, this high-principled old woman, iron at the core, knitted all day before the TV. The neighbors looked in on her.

  Cousin Asya came from the Bronx now and then. On Thursdays, the cleaning woman was there. But Polina, now in her eighties, at last had to be placed in a home for the aged somewhere on Long Island. So this is how the strongest characters end!

  Oh, Daisy, I am very sorry about this.

  I pity *

  One sad thing after another, Herzog thought. His shaved cheeks stinging, he rubbed them with witch hazel, drying his fingers on his shirttails. He took up hat, coat, and necktie, and hurried down the gloomy stairway to the street-the elevator was far too slow. At the hack stand he found a Puerto Rican driver who was touching up his sleek black hair with a pocket comb.

  Moses knotted his tie in the back seat. The cabbie turned around to look. He studied him.

  "Where to, sport?"

  "Downtown."

  "You know, I think I got a coincident to tell you." They ran eastward toward Broadway. The driver was observing him in the mirror as he drove.

  Herzog also bent forward and deciphered the name beside the meter: Teodoro Valdepenas. "Early in the morning," said Valdepenas, "I seen a guy on Lexington Avenue dressed like you, with the exact same model coat. The hat."

  "Did you see his face?"

  "No *the face I didn't see." The taxi rattled into Broadway, and sped toward Wall Street.

  "Where, on Lexington?"

  "Like the sixties."

  "What was the fellow doing?"

  "Kissing a broad in a red dress. That's why I didn't see the face. And what I mean kissing to Was it you?"

  "It must have been me."

  "How do you like that!" Valdepenas slapped the wheel.

  "Boy! Out of millions. I took a guy from La Guardia, over the Triboro and the East River Drive and left him off at Seventy-second and Lexington. I seen you kissing a broad and then I get you two hours afterwards."

  "Like catching the fish that swallowed the queen's ring," said Herzog.

  Valdepenas turned slightly to look at Herzog over his shoulder. "That was a real nice-looking broad. Stacked! Terrific! Your wife?"

  "No, I'm not married. She's not married."

  "Well, boy, you're all right. When I get old I'm going to be doing just like you. Why stop! And believe you me, I stay away from young chicks already.

  You waste your time with a broad under twenty-five. I quit on that type. A woman over thirty-five is just beginning to be serious. That's the kind that puts down the best stuff.... Where are you going?"

  "The City Courthouse."

  "You a lawyer? A cop?"

  "How could I be a detective in this coat?"

  "Hombre, detectives even go in drag now.

  What do I care! Listen to me. I got real burned up at a young chick last month. She just lies on the bed chewing gum and reading a magazine.

  Like comshe's saying "Do me something!" I said, "Listen, Teddy's here. What's this gum?

  Magazines?"' She said, "All right, let's get it over." How's that for an attitude! I said, "In my hack, that's where I hurry. You ought to get a punch in the teeth for talkin" like that."

  And I'll tell you something. She was a no-good lay.

  A broad eighteen don't know even how to shit!"

  Herzog laughed, largely from astonishment.

  "That's right, ain't it?" said Valdepenas. "You ain't no kid."

  "No, I'm not."

  "A woman over forty really appreciates..."

  They were at Broadway and Houston. A boozer, stubble-faced, jaws strong and arrogant, waited with a filthy rag to wipe the windshields of passing cars, holding out his hand for tips. "Look how that bum operates here," said Valdepenas.

  "He smears the glass. The fat guys pay out.

  They shiver in their pupick. They're scared not to.

  I seen these Bowery slobs spit on cars. They better not lay a hand on my hack. I keep a tire tool right here, boy. I'd bust the sonofabitch on the head!"

  On slanting Broadway lay the heavy shadow of summer. Second-hand desks and swivel chairs, old green filing cases were exposed on the sidewalk- aquarium green, dill-pickle green. And now financial New York closed in, ponderous and sunless. Just below was Trinity Church. Herzog remembered that he had promised to show Marco the grave of Alexander Hamilton.

  He had described to him the duel with Burr, the bloody body of Hamilton brought back on a summer morning in the bottom of a boat.

  Marco listened, pale and steady, his freckled Herzog face revealing little. Marco never seemed to wonder at the immense (the appalling!) collection of facts in his father's head. At the aquarium Herzog supplied the classification of fish scales-"the ctenoid, the placoid..." He knew where the coelacanth had been caught, the anatomy of a lobster's stomach. He offered all this to his son-we must stop this, Herzog decided-guilty conduct, an overemotional father, a bad example. I try too hard with him.

  Valdepenas was still talking when Moses paid him.

  He answered cheerfully, but by rote. He had stopped listening. Oratorical lechery, momentarily amusing. "Keep sockin" away, Doc."

  "See you again, Valdepenas."

  He turned to face the vast gray court building.

  Dust swirled on the broad stairway, the stone was worn. Going up, Herzog found a bouquet of violets, dropped from the hand of a woman. Perhaps a bride. Little perfume remained in them, but they made him remember Massachusetts-Ludeyville.

  By now the peonies were wide open, the mock-orange bushes fragrant. Madeleine sprayed the lavatory with syringa deodorant. These violets smelled to him like female tears. He gave them burial in a trashcan, hoping they had not dropped from a disappointed hand. He went through the four-bladed revolving door into the lobby, fishing in his shirt pocket for the folded slip of paper with Wachsel's phone number. It was still too early to call. Simkin and his client hadn't had time enough to get downtown.

  With time on his hands Herzog wandered in the huge dark corridors upstairs where swinging padded doors with small oval windows led into courtrooms. He peered into one of these; the broad mahogany seats looked restful. He entered, respectfully removing his hat and nodding at the magistrate, who took no notice of him. Broad and bald, all face, deep voiced, resting his fist on documents-Mr. Judge.

  The chamber, with ornate ceiling, was immense, the walls buff but somber. When one of the police attendants opened the door behind the bench you saw the bars of the detention cells. Herzog crossed his legs (with a certain style: his elegance never deserted him even when he scratched himself), and, dark-eyed, attentive, averted his face slightly as he prepared to listen, a tendency inherited from his mother.

  Very little seemed at first to be happening. A small group of lawyers and clients almost casually talked things over, arranged details. Raising his voice, the magistrate interrupted.

  "But just a minute, here. Do you say...?"

  "He says..."

  "Let me hear the man himself. Do you say...?"

  "No, sir, I don't."

  The magistrate demanded, "Well what do you mean, then? Counsel, what is this supposed to mean?"

  "My client's plea is still the same-not guilty."

  "I did not..."

  "Mistuh judge, he did," a Negro voice said, without ins
istence.

  "... Dragged this man, drunk, off St.

  Nicholas Avenue, into the cellar of premises at-what is the exact address? With intention to rob." This was the magistrate's overriding basso; he had a broad New York accent.

  From behind, Herzog was now able to make out the defendant in this case. He was the Negro in filthy brown pants. His legs appeared to be trembling with nervous strength. He might have been about to run a race; he even crouched slightly, in the big cocoa-brown pants, as if at the starting line. But about ten feet before him were the shining prison bars. The plaintiff wore a bandage on his head.

  "How much money did you have in your pocket?"

  "Sixty-eight cents, your honor," the bandaged man said.

  "And did he force you to enter the basement?"

  The defendant said, "No, suh."

  "I didn't ask you. Now keep your mouth shut."

  The magistrate was vexed.

  The injured man now turned his bandaged head.

  Herzog saw a black, dry, elderly face, eyes red-rimmed. "No suh. He said he given me a drink."

  "Did you know him?"

  "No, suh, but he was given me a drink."

  "And you went with this stranger to the cellar at- address? Bailiff, where are those papers?"

  Moses now became aware how the magistrate diverted himself and the courtroom loafers with a show of temperament. These were dull routines otherwise.

  "What happened down in the cellar?" He studied the forms the bailiff had passed him.

  "He hit me."

  "Without warning? Where was he standing, behind you?"

  "I couldn't see. The blood started to comin' down.

  In my eyes. I couldn't see."

  Those tense legs desired their freedom. They were ready for flight.

  "And he took the sixty-eight cents?"

  "I grabbed him and started in to holler. Then he give me another lick."

  "What did you hit this man with?"

  "Your honor, my client denies that he struck him," the lawyer said. "They are acquaintances. They were out drinking together."

 
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