Herzog by Saul Bellow

  "Come in the kitchen, will you."

  "Sure..." She didn't want to be surprised talking to him in the front room or overheard by little Ephraim, who was in his bedroom. In the kitchen she shut the door and asked Herzog to sit. The chair her eyes were looking at was beside the refrigerator.

  There he would not be seen from the kitchen window. With a faint smile he sat down. From the extreme composure of her slender face he knew how her heart must be pounding, working perhaps even more violently than his. An orderly person, self-controlled in high degree, clean-the head nurse comshe tried to maintain a businesslike look. She was wearing the amber beads he had brought her from Poland. Herzog buttoned up his jacket to make sure the butt of his gun did not show. The sight of a weapon would certainly frighten her to death.

  "Well, how are you, Phoebe?"

  "We're all right."

  "Comfortably settled? Liking Chicago? Little Ephraim still in the Lab School?"


  "And the Temple? I see that Val taped a program with Rabbi Itzkowitz-what did he call it? "Hasidic Judaism, Martin Buber, I and Thou."

  Still the Buber kick! He's very thick with these rabbis. Maybe he wants to swap wives with a rabbi. He'll work his way round from "I and Thou" to "Me and You"- "You and Me, Kid!" But I suppose you'd draw the line there. You wouldn't go along with everything."

  Phoebe made no answer and remained standing.

  "Maybe you think I'll leave sooner if you don't sit. Come, Phoebe, sit down. I promise you I haven't come to make scenes. I have only one purpose here, in addition to wanting to see an old friend..."

  "We're not really old friends."

  "Not by calendar years. But we were so close out in Ludeyville. That is true. You have to think of duration. Bergsonian duration. We have known each other in duration. Some people are sentenced to certain relationships. Maybe every relationship is either a joy or a sentence."

  "You earned your own sentence, if that's how you want to think about it. We had a quiet life till you and Madeleine descended on Ludeyville and forced yourself on me." Phoebe, her face thin but hot, eyelids unmoving, sat down on the edge of the chair Herzog had drawn forward for her.

  "Good. Say what you think, Phoebe. That's what I want. Sit back. Don't be afraid.

  I'm not looking for trouble. We've got a problem in common."

  Phoebe denied this. She shook her head, with a stubborn look, all too vigorously. "I'm a plain woman. Valentine is from upstate New York."

  "Just a rube. Yes. Knows nothing about fancy vices from the big city. Didn't even know how to dial a number. Had to be led step by step into degeneracy by me-Moses E. Herzog."

  Stiff and hesitant, she turned her Body aside in her abrupt way. Then she came to a decision and turned to him again with the same abruptness. She was a pretty woman, but stiff, very stiff, bony, without self-confidence. "You never understood a thing about him. He fell for you. Adored you. Tried to become an intellectual because he wanted to help you comsaw what a terrible thing you had done in giving up your respectable university position and how reckless you were, rushing out to the country with Madeleine. He thought she was ruining you and tried to set you on the right track again. He read all those books so you'd have somebody to talk to, out in the sticks, Moses. Because you needed help, praise, flattery, support, affection. It never was enough. You wore him out. It nearly killed him trying to back you up."

  "Yes...? What else? Go on," said Herzog.

  "It's still not enough. What do you want from him now?

  What are you here for? More excitement? Are you still greedy for excitement?"

  Herzog no longer smiled. "Some of what you say is right enough, Phoebe. I was certainly floundering in Ludeyville. But you take the wind out of me when you say you were leading a perfectly ordinary life up there in Barrington. Until Mady and I came along with the books and the theatrical glamour, high-level mental life, scattering big-shot ideas and blowing whole ages of history. You were scared by us because we-Mady especially-gave him confidence. As long as he was only a small-time gimpy radio announcer, he might bluff at being a big shot, but you had him where you wanted him. Because he is a bluffer and a screwball, a kind of freak, but yours.

  Then he got bolder. He gave his exhibitionism scope. Quite right, I'm an idiot. You were even right to dislike me, if only because I wouldn't see what was happening and in that way put another burden on you.

  But why didn't you say something? You watched the whole thing going on. It went on for years, and you said nothing. I wouldn't have been so indifferent if I saw the same thing happening to you."

  Phoebe hesitated to speak of this and turned even paler. She said, at last, "It's not my fault that you refuse to understand the system other people live by.

  Your ideas get in the way. Maybe a weak person like me has no choice. I couldn't do anything for you.

  Especially last year. I was seeing a psychiatrist, and he advised me to keep away.

  To keep away from you, most of all from you and all your trouble. He said I wasn't strong enough, and you know it's true-I'm not strong enough."

  Herzog considered this-Phoebe was weak, that was certainly the truth. He decided to get to the point.

  "Why don't you divorce Valentine?" he said.

  "I see no reason why I should." Her voice immediately recovered strength.

  "He's deserted you, hasn't he?"

  "Val? I don't know why you say that! I'm not deserted."

  "Where is he now-this evening? This minute?"

  "Downtown. On business."

  "Oh, come on, don't pull that stuff on me, Phoebe. He's living with Madeleine. Do you deny it?"

  "I most certainly do. I can't imagine how you ever got such a fantastic idea."

  Moses leaned with one arm against the refrigerator as he shifted in his chair and took out a handkerchief-the scrap of kitchen towel from his New York apartment.

  He wiped his face.

  "If you would sue for divorce," he explained, "as you have every right to do, you could name Madeleine for adultery. I'd help raise the money. I'd underwrite the whole cost. I want Junie.

  Don't you see? Together we could nail them. You've let Madeleine drive you here and there. As if you were a nanny goat."

  "That's the old devil in you talking again, Moses."

  Nanny goat was a mistake; he was making her more obstinate. But, anyway, she was going to follow her own line. She'd never share any plan of his.

  "Don't you want me to have custody of June?"

  "I'm indifferent to that."

  "You have your own war with Madeleine, I suppose," he said. "Fighting over the man. A cat fight- a female sex fight. But she'll beat you. Because she's a psychopath. I know you've got reserve strength. But she's a nut, and nuts win. Besides, Valentine doesn't want you to get him."

  "I really don't understand what you're saying."

  "He'll lose his value to Madeleine as soon as you withdraw. After the victory, she'll have to throw him out."

  "Valentine comes home every night. He's never out late. He should be here soon.... When I'm even a little delayed somewhere, why, he gets frantic with worry. He phones all over the city."

  "Perhaps that's just hope," said Moses. "Hope disguised as concern. Don't you know how that is? If you get killed in an accident, he cries and packs up and moves in with Madeleine for good."

  "That's your devil speaking again. My child is going to keep his father. You still want Madeleine, don't you!"

  "Me? Never! All that hysterical stuff is finished. No, I'm glad to be rid of her. I don't even loathe her much any more. And she's welcome to all she chiseled from me. She must have been banking my money all along. Okay! Let her keep it with my blessing. Bless the bitch! Good luck and good-by. I bless her. I wish her a busy, useful, pleasant, dramatic life.

  Including love.

  The best people fall in love, and she's one of the best, therefore she loves this fellow. They both love.

  She's not good e
nough to bring up the kid, though...."

  If he were a wild pig, and those bangs of hers a protective hedge-Phoebe's brown eyes were as vigilant as that. And yet Moses was sorry for her. They bullied her-Gersbach; Madeleine through Gersbach. But Phoebe herself meant to win this contest. It must be inconceivable to her that one should set such modest, such minimal goals-table, market, laundry-child-and still lose the struggle. Life couldn't be as indecent as that. Could it? Another hypothesis: sexlessness was her strength; she wielded the authority of the superego. Still another: she acknowledged the creative depth of modern degeneracy, all the luxuriant vices of emancipated swingers, and thus accepted her situation as a poor, neurotic, dry, unfortunate, mud-stuck, middle-class woman. To her, Gersbach was no ordinary man, and because of his richness of character, his spiritual-erotic drive, or God knows what foot-smelling metaphysics, he required two wives or more. Maybe these two women lent his piece of orange-tufted flesh to each other for widely different needs. For three-legged copulation. For domestic peace.

  "Phoebe," he said. "Admitting you're weak-but how weak are you? Excuse me.... I find this pretty funny. You have to deny everything, and keep up a perfect appearance. Can't you admit even a tiny bit?"

  "What good would that do you?" she asked sharply. "And also, what are you prepared to do for me?"

  "I? I'd help..." he began. But he checked himself. It was true, he couldn't offer much. He really was useless to her. With Gersbach she could still be a wife. He came home. She cooked, ironed, shopped, signed checks. Without him, she could not exist, cook, make beds. The trance would break.

  Then what?

  "Why do you come to me, if you want custody of your daughter? Either do something by yourself or forget it. Let me alone, now, Moses."

  This, too, was perfectly just. Silent, he stared hard at her. The early and native tendency of his mind, lately acting without inhibitions, found significance in small bloodless marks on her face. As if death had tried her with his teeth and found her still unripe.

  "Well, thank you for this talk, Phoebe. I'm going." He stood up. There was a softer kindliness in Herzog's expression, not often seen. Rather awkwardly he took Phoebe's hand, and she could not move fast enough to avoid his lips. He drew her closer and kissed her on the head. "You're right. This was an unnecessary visit." She freed her fingers.

  "Good-by, Moses." She spoke without looking at him. He would not get more from her than she was able to spare. "... You've been treated like dirt. That's true. But it's all over. You should get away. Just get away from this now."

  The door was shut.

  Crumbs of decency - all that we paupers can spare one another. No wonder "personal" life is a humiliation, and to be an individual contemptible. The historical process, putting clothes on our backs, shoes on the feet, meat in the mouth, does infinitely more for us by the indifferent method than anyone does by intention, Herzog wrote in the rented Falcon.

  And since these good commodities are the gifts of anonymous planning and labor, what intentional goodness can achieve (when the good are amateurs) becomes the question. Especially if, in the interests of health, our benevolence and love demand exercise, the creature being emotional, passionate, expressive, a relating animal. A creature of deep peculiarities, a web of feeling intricacies and ideas now approaching a level of organization and automatism where he can hope to be free from human dependency. People are practicing their future condition already. My emotional type is archaic. Belongs to the agricultural or pastoral stages...

  Herzog could not say what the significance of such generalities might be. He was only vastly excited- in a streaming state-and intended mostly to restore order by turning to his habit of thoughtfulness. Blood had burst into his psyche, and for the time being he was either free or crazy. But then he realized that he did not need to perform elaborate abstract intellectual work-work he had always thrown himself into as if it were the struggle for survival. But not thinking is not necessarily fatal. Did I really believe that I would die when thinking stopped? Now to fear such a thing-that's really crazy.

  He went to spend the night with Lucas Asphalter, telephoning from a sidewalk booth to invite himself over. "I won't be in the way, will I? Have you got anybody there with you? No? I want you to do me a special favor. I can't phone Madeleine to ask to see the child. She hangs up on me as soon as she recognizes my voice. Will you call and arrange for me to pick up June tomorrow?"

  "Why, of course," said Asphalter. "I'll do it now and have the answer for you when you get here. Did you just blow in, on impulse? Unplanned?"

  "Thank you, Luke. Please do it now."

  He left the booth reflecting that he really must rest tonight, try to get some sleep. At the same time, he hesitated somewhat to lie down and shut his eyes; tomorrow he might not be able to recover his state of simple, free, intense realization. He therefore drove slowly, stopping at Walgreen's, where he bought a bottle of Cutty Sark for Luke and playthings for June- a toy periscope through which she could look over the sofa, around corners, a beach ball you inflated with your breath. He even found time to send a wire to Ramona from the yellow Western Union office at Blackstone and 53rd.

  Chicago business two days was his message.

  Much love.

  Trust her, she'd find comfort while he was away, not be despondent in "desertion" as he would have been-his childish disorder, that infantile terror of death that had bent and buckled his life into these curious shapes. Having discovered that everyone must be indulgent with bungling child-men, pure hearts in the burlap of innocence, and willingly accepting the necessary quota of consequent lies, he had set himself up with his emotional goodies-truth, friendship, devotion to children (the regular American worship of kids), and potato love. So much we know now. But this- even this-is not the whole story, either. It only begins to approach the start of true consciousness. The necessary premise is that a man is somehow more than his "characteristics," all the emotions, strivings, tastes, and constructions which it pleases him to call "My Life." We have ground to hope that a Life is something more than such a cloud of particles, mere facticity. Go through what is comprehensible and you conclude that only the incomprehensible gives any light. This was by no means a "general idea" with him now. It was far more substantial than anything he saw in this intensely lighted telegraph office. It all seemed to him exceptionally clear. What made it clear? Something at the very end of the line. Was that thing Death? But death was not the incomprehensible accepted by his heart. No, far from it.

  He stopped to gaze at the fine hand beating its way over the face of the clock, the yellow furniture of another era-no wonder large corporations raked in such profits; high charges, old equipment, no competitors, now that Postal Telegraph was knocked out. They certainly got more mileage out of these yellow desks than Father Herzog did out of the same kind of furniture on Cherry Street. That was across from the cat-house. When the madame didn't pay them off the cops threw the whores' beds out of the second-story windows. The women shrieked Negro curses as they were pushed into the wagon. Father Herzog, the businessman, musing at these aliens of vice and brutality, police and barbarous obese women, stood among such tables-standard second-hand equipment acquired in warehouse sales. Here my ancestral fortune was founded.

  In front of Asphalter's house he locked the Falcon for the night, leaving Junie's gifts in the trunk. He felt certain she would love the periscope. There was much to be seen in that house on Harper Avenue. Let the child find life. The plainer the better, perhaps.

  He was met on the staircase by Asphalter.

  "I've been waiting for you."

  "Is something wrong?" said Herzog.

  "No, no, don't worry. I'm picking June up at noon tomorrow. She goes to a play school, half-days."

  "Wonderful," Herzog said. "No trouble?"

  "With Madeleine? None at all. She doesn't want to see you. Otherwise, you can visit with your little girl to your heart's content."

  "She doesn't want me to come with a co
urt order.

  Legally, she's in a dubious position, with that crook in the house. Well, let's have a look at you." They entered the apartment where the light was better.

  "You've grown a bit of a beard, Luke."

  Nervously and shyly Asphalter touched his chin, looking away. He said, "I'm brazening it out."

  "Compensation for the sudden unfortunate baldness?" said Herzog.

  "Fighting a depression," said Asphalter. "Thought a change of image might be good... Excuse my pad."

  Asphalter had always lived in such graduate-student filth. Herzog looked about.

  "If I ever have another windfall I'll buy you some bookshelves, Luke. About time you got rid of these old crates. This scientific literature is heavy stuff. But look, you've got clean sheets on the studio couch for me. This is very kind of you, Luke."

  "You're an old friend."

  "Thanks," said Herzog. To his surprise he found difficulty in speaking. A swift rush of feeling, out of nowhere, caught his throat. His eyes filled up. The potato love, he announced to himself. It's here. To advert to his temperament, call things by the correct name, restored his control.

  Self-correction refreshed him. "Luke, did you get my letter."

  "Letter? Did you send me one? I sent you a letter."

  "Never saw it. What was it about?"

  "About a job. Remember Elias Tuberman?"

  "The sociologist who married that gym teacher?"

  "Don't joke. He's general editor of Stone's Encyclopedia, and has a million to spend on revision. I'm in charge of the biology. He's looking for you to take over in history."


  "He said he read your book on Romanticism and Christianity over again. Didn't think too highly of it in the fifties when it came out, but must have been blind. It's a monument, he says."

  Herzog looked grave. He began to make up several answers but abandoned them all. "I don't know whether I'm still a scholar. When I left Daisy, apparently I quit that, too."

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