Herzog by Saul Bellow


  Yes, he further wrote, and dressed-up, too. But my vanity will no longer give me much mileage and to tell you the truth I'm not even greatly impressed with my own tortured heart.

  It begins to seem another waste of time.

  Soberly deliberating, Herzog decided it would be better not to accept Ramona's offer. She was thirty-seven or thirty-eight years of age, he shrewdly reckoned and this meant that she was looking for a husband, This, in itself, was not wicked, or even funny. Simple and general human conditions prevailed among the most seemingly sophisticated. Ramona had not learned those erotic monkeyshines in a manual, but in adventure, in confusion, and at times probably with a sinking heart, in brutal and often alien embraces. So now she must yearn for stability. She wanted to give her heart once and for all, and level with a good man, become Herzog's wife and quit being an easy lay. She often had a sober look. Her eyes touched him deeply.

  Never idle, his mind's eye saw Montauk-white beaches, flashing light, glossy breakers, horseshoe crabs perishing in their armor, sea robins and blow-fish. Herzog longed to lie down in his bathing trunks, and warm his troubled belly on the sand. But how could he? To accept too many favors from Ramona was dangerous. He might have to pay with his freedom. I Of course he didn't need that freedom now; he needed a rest. Still, after resting, he might want his freedom again. He wasn't sure of that, either. But it was a possibility.

  A holiday will give me more strength to bring to my neurotic life.

  Still, Herzog considered, he did look terrible, caved-in; he was losing more hair, and this rapid deterioration he considered to be a surrender to Madeleine and Gersbach, her lover, and to all his enemies. He had more enemies and hatreds than anyone could easily guess from his thoughtful expression.

  The night-school term was coming to an end, and Herzog convinced himself that his wisest move was to get away from Ramona too. He decided to go to the Vineyard, but, thinking it a bad thing to be entirely alone, he sent a night letter to a woman in Vineyard Haven, an old friend (they had once considered having an affair but this had never materialized and they were instead tenderly considerate of each other). In the wire he explained the situation and his friend Libbie Vane (libbie Vane-Erikson-Sissler; she had just married for the third time and the house in the Haven belonged to her husband, an industrial chemist) telephoned him promptly, and very emotionally and sincerely invited him to come and stay as long as he liked.

  "Rent me a room near the beach," Herzog requested.

  "Come and stay with us."

  "No, no. I can't do that. Why, you've just gotten married."

  "Oh, Moses-please, don't be so romantic. Sissler and I have been living together three years."

  "Still, it is a honeymoon, isn't it?"

  "Oh, stop this nonsense. I'll be hurt if you don't stay here. We have six bedrooms. You come right out, I've heard what a rough time you've been having."

  In the end-it was inevitable-he accepted. He felt, however, that he was acting badly. By wiring, he had practically forced her to invite him. He had helped Libbie greatly about ten years before, and he would have been more pleased with himself if he had not made her pay off. He knew better than to ask for help. He was making a bore of himself-doing the weak thing, the corrupt thing.

  But at least, he thought, I don't have to make matters worse. I won't bore Libbie with my troubles, or spend the week crying on her bosom.

  I'll take them out to dinner, her and her new husband. You have to fight for your life. That's the chief condition on which you hold it. Then why be halfhearted?

  Ramona is right. Get some light clothes. You can borrow more dough from brother Shura-he likes that, and he knows you'll repay. That's living by the approbative principle-you pay your debts.

  Therefore, he went shopping for clothes. He examined the ads in The New Yorker and Esquire.

  These now showed older men with lined faces as well as young executives and athletes. Then, after shaving more closely than usual and brushing his hair (could he bear to see himself in the brilliant triple mirrors of a clothing store?), he took the bus uptown. Starting at 59th Street, he worked his way down Madison Avenue into the forties and back toward the Plaza on Fifth. Then the gray clouds opened before the piercing sun. The windows glittered and Herzog looked into them, shamefaced and excited. The new styles seemed to him reckless and gaudy-madras coats, shorts with melting bursts of Kandinsky colors, in which middle-aged or paunchy old men would be ludicrous. Better puritan restraint than the exhibition of pitiful puckered knees and varicose veins, pelican bellies and the indecency of haggard faces under sporty caps. Undoubtedly Valentine Gersbach, who had beat him out with Madeleine, surmounting the handicap of a wooden leg, could wear those handsome brilliant candy stripes. Valentine was a dandy. He had a thick face and heavy jaws; Moses thought he somewhat resembled Putzi Hanfstaengl, Hitler's own pianist. But Gersbach had a pair of extraordinary eyes for a red-haired man, brown, deep, hot eyes, full of life. The lashes, too, were vital, ruddy-dark, long and childlike.

  And that hair was bearishly thick. Valentine, furthermore, was exquisitely confident of his appearance. You could see it. He knew he was a terribly handsome man. He expected women-all women-to be mad about him. And many were, weren't they? Including the second Mrs. Herzog.

  "Wear that? Me?" said Herzog to the salesman in a Fifth Avenue shop. But he bought a coat of crimson and white stripes. Then he said over his shoulder to the salesman that in the Old Country his family had worn black gabardines down to the ground.

  From a youthful case of acne, the salesman had a rough skin. His face was red as a carnation, and he had a meat-flavored breath, a dog's breath. He was a trifle rude to Moses, for when he asked his waist size and Moses answered, "Thirty-four," the salesman said, "Don't boast." That had slipped out, and Moses was too gentlemanly to hold it against him. His heart worked somewhat with the painful satisfaction of restraint.

  Eyes lowered, he trod the gray carpet to the fitting room, and there, disrobing and working the new pants up over his shoes, he wrote the fellow a note.

  Dear Mack. Dealing with poor jerks every day.

  Male pride. Effrontery. Conceit. Yourself obliged to be agreeable and winsome. Hard job if you happen to be a grudging, angry fellow. The candor of people in New York! Bless you, you are not nice.

  But in a false situation, as we all are. Must manage some civility. A true situation might well prove unendurable to us all. From civility I now have some pain in my belly. As for gabardines, I realize there are plenty of beards and gabardines just around the corner, in the diamond district. O Lord! he concluded, forgive all these trespasses. Lead me not into Penn Station.

  Dressed in Italian pants, furled at the bottom, and a blazer with slender lapels, red and white, he avoided full exposure in the triple, lighted mirror. His body seemed unaffected by his troubles, survived all blasts.

  It was his face that was devastated, especially about the eyes, so that it made him pale to see himself.

  Preoccupied, the salesman among silent clothes racks did not hear Herzog's footfalls. He was brooding. Slow business. Another small recession. Only Moses was spending today. Money he intended to borrow from his money-making brother.

  Shura was not tight-fisted. Nor was brother Willie, for that matter.

  But Moses found it easier to take it from Shura, also something of a sinner, than from Willie, who was more respectable.

  "The back fit all right?" Herzog turned.

  "Like tailor-made," the salesman said.

  He couldn't have cared less. It was perfectly plain. I can't get his interest, Herzog recognized. Then I'll do without, and screw him, too! I'll decide for myself. It's my move.

  Thus strengthened, he stepped between the mirrors, looking only at the coat. It was satisfactory.

  "Wrap it up," he said. "I'll take the pants, too, but I want them today. Now."

  "Can't do it. The tailor's busy."

  "Today, or it's no dice," said Herzog. "I have to leave town."
r />
  Two can play this hard-nosed game.

  "I'll see if I can get a rush on it," the salesman said.

  He went, and Herzog undid the chased buttons.

  They had used the head of some Roman emperor to adorn the jacket of a pleasure-seeker, he noted. Alone, he put his tongue out at himself and then withdrew from the triple mirror. He remembered how much pleasure it gave Madeleine to try on clothes in shops and how much heart and pride there was in her when she looked at herself, touching, adjusting, her face glowing but severe, too, with the great blue eyes, the vivid bangs, the medallion profile.

  The satisfaction she took in herself was positively plural.-imperial. And she had told Moses during one of their crises that she had had a new look at herself nude before the bathroom mirror.

  "Still young," she said, taking inventory, "young, beautiful, full of life. Why should I waste it all on you?"

  Why, God forbid! Herzog looked for something to write a note with, having left paper and pencil in the dressing room. He jotted on the back of the salesman's pad, A bitch in time breeds contempt.

  Looking through piles of beachwear, now silently laughing at himself as if his heart were swimming upward, Herzog bought a pair of trunks for the Vineyard, and then a rack of old-fashioned straw hats caught his attention and he decided to have one of those too.

  And was he getting all these things, he asked, because old Emmerich had prescribed a rest? Or was he preparing for new shenanigans-did he anticipate another entanglement at the Vineyard? With whom?

  How should he know with whom? Women were plentiful everywhere.

  At home, he tried on his purchases. The bathing trunks were a little tight. But the oval straw hat pleased him, floating on the hair which still grew thickly at the sides. In it he looked like his father's cousin Elias Herzog, the flour salesman who had covered the northern Indiana territory for General Mills back in the twenties. Elias with his earnest Americanized clean-shaven face ate hard-boiled eggs and drank prohibition beer-home-brewed Polish piva. He gave the eggs a neat rap on the rail of the porch and peeled them scrupulously. He wore colorful sleeve garters and a skimmer like this one, set on this same head of hair shared also by his father, Rabbi Sandor-Alexander Herzog, who wore a beautiful beard as well, a radiant, broad-strung beard that hid the outline of his chin and also the velvet collar of his frock coat.

  Herzog's mother had had a weakness for Jews with handsome beards. In her family, too, all the elders had beards that were thick and rich, full of religion.

  She wanted Moses to become a rabbi and he seemed to himself gruesomely unlike a rabbi now in the trunks and straw hat, his face charged with heavy sadness, foolish utter longing of which a religious life might have purged him. That mouth!- heavy with desire and irreconcilable anger, the straight nose sometimes grim, the dark eyes! And his figure!-the long veins winding in the arms and filling in the hanging hands, an ancient system, of greater antiquity than the Jews themselves. The flat-topped hat, a crust of straw, had a red and white band, matching the coat. He removed the tissue paper from the sleeves and put it on, swelling out the stripes. Bare-legged, he looked like a Hindu.

  Consider the lilies of the field, he remembered, they toil not, neither do they spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed...

  He had been eight years old, in the children's ward of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal, when he learned those words. A Christian lady came once a week and had him read aloud from the Bible. He read, Give and it shall be given unto you: good measure, pressed down and shaken together and running over shall men give unto your bosom.

  From the hospital roof hung icicles like the teeth of fish, clear drops burning at their tips. Beside his bed, the goyische lady sat in her long skirts and button shoes. The hatpin projected from the back of her head like a trolley rod. A paste odor came from her clothing. And then she had him read, Suffer the little children to come unto me.

  She seemed to him a good woman. Her face, however, was strained and grim.

  "Where do you live, little boy?"

  "On Napoleon Street."

  Where the Jews live.

  "What does your father do?"

  My father is a bootlegger. He has a still in Point-St. Charles. The spotters are after him.

  He has no money.

  Only of course Moses would never have told her any of this. Even at five he would have known better.

  His mother had instructed him. "You must never say."

  There was a certain wisdom in it, he thought, as if by staggering he could recover his balance, or by admitting a bit of madness come to his senses. And he enjoyed a joke on himself. Now, for instance, he had packed the summer clothes he couldn't afford and was making his getaway from Ramona. He knew how things would turn out if he went to Montauk with her. She would lead him like a tame bear in Easthampton, from cocktail party to cocktail party. He could imagine that-Ramona laughing, talking, her shoulders bare in one of her peasant blouses (they were marvelous, feminine shoulders, he had to admit that), her hair in black curls, her face, her mouth painted; he could smell the perfume. In the depths of a man's being there was something that responded with a quack to such perfume.

  Quack! A sexual reflex that had nothing to do with age or subtlety, wisdom, experience, history, Wissenschaft, Bildung, Wahrheit.

  In sickness or health there came the old quack-quack at the fragrance of perfumed, feminine skin. Yes, Ramona would lead him in his new pants and striped jacket, sipping a martini.... Martinis were poison to Herzog and he couldn't bear small talk. And so he would suck in his belly and stand on aching feet-he, the captive professor, she the mature, successful, laughing, sexual woman. Quack, quack!

  His bag was packed, and he locked the windows and pulled the shades. He knew the apartment would smell mustier than ever when he came back from his bachelor holiday. Two marriages, two children, and he was setting off for a week of carefree rest. It was painful to his instincts, his Jewish family feelings, that his children should be growing up without him. But what could he do about that? To the sea! To the sea!-What sea? It was the bay-between East Chop and West Chop it wasn't sea; the water was quiet.

  He went out, fighting his sadness over this solitary life. His chest expanded, and he caught his breath.

  "For Christ's sake, don't cry, you idiot!

  Live or die, but don't poison everything."

  Why this door should need a police lock he didn't know. Crime was on the increase, but he had nothing worth stealing. Only some excited kid might think he had, and lie in wait, hopped-up, to hit him on the head. Herzog led the metal foot of the lock into its slot in the floor and turned the key. He then checked to be sure he hadn't forgotten his glasses. No, they were in his breast pocket. He had his pens, notebook, checkbook, a piece of kitchen towel he had torn off for his handkerchief, and the plastic container of Furadantin tablets. The tablets were for the infection he had caught in Poland.

  He was cured of it now, but he took an occasional pill just to be on the safe side. That was a frightening moment in Cracow, in the hotel room, when the symptom appeared. He thought, The clap-at last!

  After all these years. At my time of life! His heart sank.

  He went to a British doctor, who scolded him sharply. "What have you been up to?

  Are you married?"

  "No."

  "Well, it isn't a clap. Pull up your trousers. You'll want a shot of penicillin, I suppose. All Americans do. Well, I shan't give it. Take this sulfa. No booze, mind you. Drink tea."

  They are unforgiving about sexual offenses. The fellow was angry, biting, a snotty Limey doctor. And I so vulnerable, heavy with guilt.

  I should have known that a woman like Wanda would not infect me with gonorrhea. She is sincere, loyal, devout toward the body, the flesh. She has the religion of civilized people, which is pleasure, creative and polymorphous pleasure.

  Her skin is subtle, white, silken, animate.

  Dear Wanda, wrote Herzog. But she knew no En
glish and he changed to French.

  Chere Princesse, Je me souviens assez souvent... Je pense a la Marszalkowska, au brouillard.

  Every third-, fourth-, tenth-rate man of the world knew how to woo a woman in French, and so did Herzog. Though he was not the type. The feelings he wanted to express were genuine. She had been extremely kind to him when he was ill, troubled, and what made her kindness even more significant was the radiant, buxom Polish beauty of the woman. She had weighty golden-reddish hair and a slightly tilted nose but with very fine lines, the tip amazingly delicate and shapely for such a fleshy person. Her color was white, but a healthy, strong white. She was dressed, like most women in Warsaw, in black stockings and long slender Italian shoes, but her fur coat was worn to the hide.

  In my grief did I know what I was doing? noted Herzog on a separate page, as he waited for the elevator.

  Providence, he added, takes care of the faithful. I sensed that I would meet such a person. I have had terrific luck.

  "Luck" was many times underscored.

  Herzog had seen her husband. He was a poor, reproachful-looking man, with heart disease. The sole fault Herzog had found with Wanda was that she insisted he meet Zygmunt. Moses had not yet grasped what this meant. Wanda rejected the suggestion of a divorce. She was perfectly satisfied with her marriage. She said it was all any marriage could be.

  Ici tout est gache.

  Une dizaine de jours a Varsovie - pas longtemps.

  If you could call those foggy winter intervals days.

  The sun was shut up in a cold bottle. The soul shut up inside me. Enormous felt curtains kept the drafts out of the hotel lobby. The wooden tables were stained, warped, tea-scalded.

  Her skin was white and remained white through every change of emotion. Her greenish eyes seemed let into her Polish face (nature, the seamstress). A full, soft-bosomed woman, she was too heavy for the stylish tapering Italian shoes she wore. Standing without the heels, in her black hose, her figure was very solid indeed. He missed her. When he took her hand, she said, "Ah, ne toushay pas.

 
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