Herzog by Saul Bellow


  C'est dangeray." But she didn't mean it at all. (how he doted on his memories! What a funny sensual bird he was! Queer for recollections, perhaps? But why use harsh words. He was what he was.)

  Still, he had been continually aware of drab Poland, in all directions freezing, drab, and ruddy gray, the stones still smelling of war-time murders.

  He thought he scented blood. He went many times to visit the ruins of the ghetto. Wanda was his guide.

  He shook his head. But what could he do? He pressed the elevator button again, this time with the corner of his Gladstone bag. He heard the sound of smooth motion in the shaft-greased tracks, power, efficient black machinery.

  Gueri de cette petite maladie.

  He ought not to have mentioned it to Wanda, for she was simply shocked and hurt.

  Pas grave du tout, he wrote. He had made her cry.

  The elevator stopped and he ended, J'embrasse ces petites mains, amie.

  How do you say blond little cushioned knuckles in French?

  IN the cab through hot streets where brick and brownstone buildings were crowded, Herzog held the strap and his large eyes were fixed on the sights of New York. The square shapes were vivid, not inert, they gave him a sense of fateful motion, almost of intimacy. Somehow he felt himself part of it all-in the rooms, in the stores, cellars-and at the same time he sensed the danger of these multiple excitements. But he'd be all right.

  He was over-stimulated. He had to calm down these overstrained galloping nerves, put out this murky fire inside. He yearned for the Atlantic comthe sand, the brine flavor, the therapy of cold water.

  He knew he would think better, clearer thoughts after bathing in the sea. His mother had believed in the good effects of bathing. But she had died so young.

  He could not allow himself to die yet. The children needed him.

  His duty was to live. To be sane, and to live, and to look after the kids. This was why he was running from the city now, overheated, eyes smarting. He was getting away from all burdens, practical questions, away also from Ramona. There were times when you wanted to creep into hiding, like an animal. Although he didn't know what lay ahead except the confining train which would impose rest on him (you can't run in a train) through Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, as far as Woods Hole, his reasoning was sound.

  Seashores are good for madmen-provided they're not too mad. He was all ready. The glad rags were in the bag under his feet, and the straw hat with the red and white band? It was on his head.

  But all at once, the seat of the cab heating in the sun, he was aware that his angry spirit had stolen forward again, and that he was about to write letters.

  Dear Smithers, he began.

  The other day at lunch - those bureaucratic lunches which are a horror to me; my hindquarters become paralyzed, my blood fills up with adrenalin; my heart! I try to look right and proper but my face turns dead with boredom, my fantasy spills soup and gravy on everybody, and I want to scream out or faint away- we were asked to suggest topics for new lecture courses and I said what about a series on marriage. I might as well have said "Currants" or "Gooseberries."

  Smithers is extremely happy with his lot.

  Birth is very chancy. Who knows what may happen?

  But his lot was to be Smithers and that was tremendous luck. He looks like Thomas E.

  Dewey. The same gap between the front teeth, the neat mustache.

  Look, Smithers, I do have a good idea for a new course. You organization men have to depend on the likes of me. The people who come to evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. Their great need, their hunger, is for good sense, clarity, truth-even an atom of it. People are dying - it is no metaphor - for lack of something real to carry home when day is done. See how willingly they are to accept the wildest nonsense.

  O Smithers, my whiskered brother! what a responsibility we bear, in this fat country of ours! Think what America could mean to the world. Then see what it is. What a breed it might have produced. But look at us-at you, at me. Read the paper, if you can bear to.

  But the cab had passed 30th Street and there was a cigar store on the corner which Herzog had entered a year ago to buy a carton of Virginia Rounds for his mother-in-law, Tennie, who lived a block away. He remembered going into the phone booth to tell her he was coming up. It was dark in there, and the patterned tin lining was worn black in places.

  Dear Tennie, Perhaps we'll have a talk when I get back from the seashore. The message you sent through Lawyer Simkin that you didn't understand why I no longer came to see you is, to say the least hard to figure. I know your life has been tough. You have no husband.

  Tennie and Pontritter were divorced. The old impresario lived on 57th Street, where he ran a school for actors, and Tennie had her own two rooms on 31/, which looked like a stage set and were filled with mementos of her ex-husband's triumphs.

  All the posters were dominated by his name, PONTRITTER DIRECTS EUGENE O'NEILL, CHEKHOV Though no longer man and wife, they had a relationship still. Pontritter took Tennie riding in his Thunder-bird. They attended openings, went to dinner together. She was a slender woman of fifty-five, somewhat taller than Pon. But he was burly, masterful, there was a certain peevish power and intelligence in his dark face. He liked Spanish costumes, and when Herzog last saw him he was wearing white duck trousers of bull-fighter's cut and alpargatas. Powerful, isolated threads of coarse white grew from his tanned scalp. Madeleine had inherited his eyes.

  No husband. No daughter, Herzog wrote. But he began again, Dear Tennie, I went to see Simkin about a certain matter, and he said to me, "Your mother-in-law's feelings are hurt."

  Simkin, sitting in his office, occupied a grand Sykes chair, beneath enormous rows of law books.

  A man is born to be orphaned, and to leave orphans after him, but a chair like that chair, if he can afford it, is a great comfort. Simkin was not so much sitting as lying in this seat. With his large thick back and small thighs, his head shaggy and aggressive and his hands folded small and timid on his belly, he spoke to Herzog in a diffident, almost meek tone.

  He called him "Professor" but not mockingly.

  Though Simkin was a clever lawyer, very rich, he respected Herzog. He had a weakness for confused high-minded people, for people with moral impulses like Moses. Hopeless! Very likely he looked at Moses and saw a grieving childish man, trying to keep his dignity. He noted the book on Herzog's knee, for Herzog typically carried a book to read on the subway or in the bus. What was it that day, Simmel on religion? Teilhard de Chardin? Whitehead? It's been years since I was really able to concentrate. Anyway, there was Simkin, short but also burly, eyes wreathed with twisting hairs, looking at him. In conversation his voice was very small, meek, almost faint, but when he answered his secretary's signal and switched on the intercom, it suddenly expanded. He said loudly and sternly, "Yah?"

  "Mr. Dienstag on the phone."

  "Who? That schmuck? I'm waiting for that affidavit. Tell him plaintiff will kick his ass if he can't produce it. He better get it this afternoon, that ludicrous shmegeggy!" Amplified, his tones were oceanic. Then he switched off, and said with resumed meekness to Moses, "Vei, vei! I get so tired of these divorces. What a situation!

  It gets more corrupt. Ten years ago I thought I could still keep up with it all. I felt I was worldly enough for it- realistic, cynical. But I was wrong. It's too much. This shnook of a chiropodist-what a hellcat he married. First she said she didn't want children, then she did, didn't, did. Finally, she threw her diaphragm in his face. Went to the bank. Took thirty grand of joint money from the vault. Said he tried to push her in front of a car. Fought with his mother about a ring, furs, a chicken, God knows. And then the husband found letters to her from another fellow."

  Simkin rubbed his cunning, imposing head with small hands. Then he showed his small regular teeth, iron-hard, as though about to smile, but this was a reflective preliminary. He gave a compassionate sigh. "You know, Professor, Tennie's hurt by your s
ilence."

  "I suppose so. But I can't bring myself to go there yet."

  "Sweet woman. And what a family of hellers!

  I'm just passing the message on, because she asked me."

  "Yes."

  "Very decent, Tennie..."

  "I know. She knitted me a scarf. It took a year. I got it in the mail about a month ago. I should acknowledge it."

  "Yes, why don't you? She's no enemy."

  Simkin liked him; Herzog didn't doubt that. But as a practical realist a man like Simkin had to perform exercises, and a certain amount of malice kept him in condition. A fellow like Moses Herzog, a little soft-headed or impractical but ambitious mentally, somewhat arrogant, too, a pampered, futile fellow whose wife had just been taken away from him under funny circumstances (far funnier than the case of the chiropodist, which made Simkin bring his little hands together with a small cry of mock horror)- this Moses was irresistible to a man like Simkin who loved to pity and to poke fun at the same time. He was a Reality-Instructor. Many such. I bring them out. Himmelstein is another, but cruel. It's the cruelty that gets me, not the realism. Of course Simkin knew all about Madeleine's affair with Valentine Gersbach, and what he didn't know his friends Pont-ritter and Tennie would tell him.

  Tennie had led a bohemian life for thirty-five years, following her husband as if she had married a grocer not a theatrical genius, and she remained a kindly, elder-sister sort of woman, with long legs. But the legs went bad, and her dyed hair turned stiff and quill-like. She wore butterfly-shaped eyeglasses, and "abstract" jewelry.

  What if I did come to see you? asked Herzog.

  Then I'd sit in your parlor being nice, while bursting with the wrongs your daughter did me. The same wrongs you have accepted from Pontritter, and forgiven him.

  She prepares the old man's income-tax returns for him. Keeps all his records, washes his socks. Last time, I saw his socks drying on the radiator in her bathroom. And she had been telling me how happy she was now that she was divorced-free to go her own way and develop her own personality.

  I'm sorry for you, Tennie.

  But that beautiful masterful daughter of yours came to your apartment with Valentine, didn't she, and sent you with your little granddaughter to the zoo while they made love in your bed. He with the gushing red hair, and she with the blue eyes, beneath. What am I supposed to do now-come and sit and talk about plays and restaurants? Tennie would tell him about that Greek place on Tenth Avenue. She already had told him half a dozen times. "A friend"

  (pontritter himself, of course) "took me to dinner at the Marathon. It was really so different.

  You know, the Greek people cook ground meat and rice in grape leaves, with very interesting spices. Anybody who feels like it can dance solo. The Greek people are very uninhibited. You should see those fat men take off their shoes and dance in front of the whole crowd."

  Tennie spoke with a girlish sweetness and affection to him, obscurely fond of him. Her teeth were like the awkward second teeth of a seven-year-old child.

  Oh, yes, thought Herzog. Her condition is worse than mine. Divorced at fifty-five, still showing off her legs, unaware they now are gaunt. And diabetic. And the menopause. And abused by her daughter. If in self-defense, Tennie has a bit of wickedness, hypocrisy, and cunning of her own, how can you blame her? Of course she gave us, or lent-it was sometimes a loan and sometimes a wedding present comt hand-wrought Mexican silver cutlery, and she wants it back. That's why she sent word through Simkin about her hurt feelings. She doesn't want to lose her silver. It's not exactly cynical, either. She wants to be friends, and she wants the silver too. It's her treasure.

  It's in the vault, in Pittsfield.

  Too heavy to lug to Chicago. I'll return it, of course. By and by.

  I never could hang on to valuables-silver, gold.

  With me, money is not a medium. I am money's medium. It passes through me-taxes, insurance, mortgage, child support, rent, legal fees.

  All this dignified blundering costs plenty. If I married Ramona, it would be easier, perhaps.

  The cab was held up by trucks in the garment district. The electric machines thundered in the lofts and the whole street quivered. It sounded as though cloth were being torn, not sewn. The street was plunged, drowned in these waves of thunder. Through it a Negro pushed a wagon of ladies' coats. He had a beautiful beard and blew a gilt toy trumpet.

  You couldn't hear him.

  Then the traffic opened and the cab rattled in low gear and jerked into second. "For Christ's sake, let's make time," the driver said. They made a sweeping turn into Park Avenue and Herzog clutched the broken window handle. It wouldn't open. But if it opened dust would pour in. They were demolishing and raising buildings. The Avenue was filled with concrete-mixing trucks, smells of wet sand and powdery gray cement. Crashing, stamping pile-driving below, and, higher, structural steel, interminably and hungrily going up into the cooler, more delicate blue. Orange beams hung from the cranes like straws. But down in the street where the buses were spurting the poisonous exhaust of cheap fuel, and the cars were crammed together, it was stifling, grinding, the racket of machinery and the desperately purposeful crowds comhorrible! He had to get out to the seashore where he could breathe. He ought to have booked a flight. But he had had enough of planes last winter, especially on the Polish airline. The machines were old.

  He took off from Warsaw airport in the front seat of a two-engine LOT plane, bracing his feet on the bulkhead before him and holding his hat.

  There were no seat belts. The wings were dented, the cowls scorched. There were mail pouches and crates sliding behind. They flew through angry spinning snow clouds over white Polish forests, fields, pits, factories, rivers dogging their banks, in, out, in, and a terrain of white and brown diagrams.

  Anyway a holiday should begin with a train ride, as it had when he was a kid in Montreal. The whole family took the streetcar to the Grand Trunk Station with a basket (frail, splintering wood) of pears, overripe, a bargain bought by Jonah Herzog at the Rachel Street Market, the fruit spotty, ready for wasps, just about to decay, but marvelously fragrant. And inside the train on the worn green bristle of the seats Father Herzog sat peeling the fruit with a Russian pearl-handled knife. He peeled and twirled and cut with European efficiency.

  Meanwhile, the locomotive cried and the iron-studded cars began to move. Sun and girders divided the soot geometrically. By the factory walls the grimy weeds grew. A smell of malt came from the breweries.

  The train crossed the St. Lawrence. Moses pressed the pedal and through the stained funnel of the toilet he saw the river frothing. Then he stood at the window. The water shone and curved on great slabs of rock, spinning into foam at the Lachine Rapids, where it sucked and rumbled. On the other shore was Caughnawaga, where the Indians lived in shacks raised on stilts. Then came the burnt summer fields. The windows were open. The echo of the train came back from the straw like a voice through a beard. The engine sowed cinders and soot over the fiery flowers and the hairy knobs of weed.

  But that was forty years behind him. Now the train was ribbed for speed, a segmented tube of brilliant steel.

  There were no pears, no Willie, no Shura, no Helen, no Mother. Leaving the cab, he thought how his mother would moisten her handkerchief at her mouth and rub his face clean. He had no business to recall this, he knew, and turned toward Grand Central in his straw hat. He was of the mature generation now, and life was his to do something with, if he could. But he had not forgotten the odor of his mother's saliva on the handkerchief that summer morning in the squat hollow Canadian station, the black iron and the sublime brass. All children have cheeks and all mothers spittle to wipe them tenderly. These things either matter or they do not matter. It depends upon the universe, what it is. These acute memories are probably symptoms of disorder. To him, perpetual thought of death was a sin. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.

  In the crowds of Grand Central Station, Herzog in spite of all
his efforts to do what was best could not remain rational. He felt it all slipping away from him in the subterranean roar of engines, voices, and feet and in the galleries with lights like drops of fat in yellow broth and the strong suffocating fragrance of underground New York. His collar grew wet and the sweat ran from his armpits down his ribs as he bought the ticket, and then he picked up a copy of the Times, and was about to get a bar of Cadbury's Caramello, but he denied himself that, thinking of the money he had spent on new clothes which would not fit if he ate carbohydrates. It would give the victory to the other side to let himself grow fat, jowly, sullen, with broad hips and a belly, and breathing hard.

  Ramona wouldn't like it either, and what Ramona liked mattered considerably. He seriously considered marrying her, notwithstanding that he seemed, just now, to be buying a ticket to escape from her. But this was in her best interests, too, if he was so confused-both visionary and muddy as he felt now, feverish, damaged, angry, quarrelsome, and shaky. He was going to phone her shop, but in his change there was only one nickel left, no dimes. He would have to break a bill, and he didn't want candy or gum. Then he thought of wiring her and saw that he would seem weak if he sent a telegram.

  On the sultry platform of Grand Central he opened the bulky Times with its cut shreds at the edges, having set the valise on his feet. The hushed electric trucks were rushing by with mail bags, and he stared at the news with a peculiar effort. It was a hostile broth of black print Moonraceberlin Khrushchwarn-committeegalacti c Xray Phouma.

  He saw twenty paces away the white soft face and independent look of a woman in a shining black straw hat which held her head in depth and eyes that even in the signal-dotted obscurity reached him with a force she could never be aware of. Those eyes might be blue, perhaps green, even gray-he would never know.

  But they were bitch eyes, that was certain. They expressed a sort of female arrogance which had an immediate sexual power over him; he experienced it again that very moment-a round face, the clear gaze of pale bitch eyes, a pair of proud legs.

 
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