Herzog by Saul Bellow


  "I know," said Herzog, "she's going through a long crisis-finding herself. And I know I have a bad tone, sometimes. I've gone over this ground with Edvig. But Sunday night..."

  "Are you sure you didn't make a pass?"

  "No. It so happens we had intercourse the night before."

  Gersbach seemed extremely angry. He gazed at Moses with burning ruddy-dark eyes and said, "I didn't ask you that. My question was only about Sunday night. You've got to learn what the score is, God damn it! If you don't level with me, I can't do a frigging thing for you."

  "Why shouldn't I level with you?" Moses was astonished by this vehemence, by Gersbach's fierce, glowing look.

  "You don't. You're damn evasive."

  Moses considered the charge under Gersbach's intense red-brown gaze. He had the eyes of a prophet, a Shofat, yes, a judge in Israel, a king. A mysterious person, Valentine Gersbach. "We had intercourse the night before. But as soon as it was done she turned on the light, picked up one of those dusty Russian folios, put it on her chest, and started to read away. As I was leaving her body, she was reaching for the book. Not a kiss. Not a last touch.

  Only her nose, twitching."

  Valentine gave a faint smile. "Maybe you should sleep separately."

  "I could move into the kid's room, I suppose.

  But June is restless as it is. She wanders around at night in her Denton sleepers. I wake up and find her by my bed. Often wet. She's feeling the strain."

  "Now knock it off, about the kid. Don't use her in this."

  Herzog bowed his head. He felt threatened by tears.

  Gersbach sighed and walked along his wall slowly, bending and straightening like a gondolier. "I explained to you last week..." he said.

  "You'd better tell me once more. I'm in a state," said Herzog.

  "Now you listen to me. We'll go over the ground again."

  Grief greatly damaged-it positively wounded- Herzog's handsome face. Anyone he had ever injured by his conceit might now feel revenged to see how ravaged he looked. The change was almost ludicrous. And the lectures Gersbach read him-those were so spirited, so vehement, gross, they were ludicrous, too, a parody of the intellectual's desire for higher meaning, depth, quality. Moses sat by the window in raw sunlight, listening. The drapery with gilt-grooved rods lay on the table with planks and books. "One thing you can be sure, bruder," said Valentine. "I have no ax to grind. In this thing, I just have no prejudice." Valentine loved to use Yiddish expressions, to misuse them, rather.

  Herzog's Yiddish background was genteel. He heard with instinctive snobbery Valentine's butcher's, teamster's, commoner's accent, and he put himself down for it-My God! those ancient family prejudices, absurdities from a lost world.

  "Let's cut out all the shtick," said Gersbach. "Let's say you're a crumb.

  Let's say even you're a criminal. There's nothing-nothing!-you could do to shake my friendship. That's no shit, and you know it! I can take what you've done to me."

  Moses, astonished again, said, "What have I done to you?"

  "Hell with that.

  Hob es in drerd.

  I know Mady is a bitch. And maybe you think I never wanted to kick Phoebe in the ass.

  That klippa!

  But that's the female nature." He shook his abundant hair into place. It had fiery-dark depths. At the back it was brutally barbered.

  "You've taken care of her for some time, okay, I know. But if she's got a disgusting father and a kvetsch of a mother, what else should a man do? And expect nothing in return."

  "Well, of course. But I spent twenty grand in about a year. Everything I inherited. Now we've got this rotten hole on Lake Park with the I. c. trains passing all night. The pipes stink. The house is all trash and garbage and Russian books and the kid's unwashed clothes. And there I am, returning Coke bottles and vacuuming, burning paper and picking up veal bones."

  "The bitch is testing you. You're an important professor, invited to conferences, with an international correspondence. She wants you to admit her importance. You're a jerimmter mensch."

  Moses, to save his soul, could not let this pass.

  He said quietly, "Berimmter."

  "Fe - be, who cares. Maybe it's not so much your reputation as your egotism. You could be a real mensch.

  You've got it in you. But you're effing it up with all this egotistical shit. It's a big deal-such a valuable person dying for love. Grief. It's a lot of bull!"

  Dealing with Valentine was like dealing with a king. He had a thick grip. He might have held a scepter.

  He was a king, an emotional king, and the depth of his heart was his kingdom. He appropriated all the emotions about him, as if by divine or spiritual right.

  He could do more with them, and therefore he simply took them over. He was a big man, too big for anything but the truth. (again, the truth!) Herzog had a weakness for grandeur, and even bogus grandeur (was it ever entirely bogus?).

  They went out to clear their heads in the fresh winter air. Gersbach in his great storm coat, belted, bareheaded, exhaling vapor, kicking through the snow with the all-battering leg. Moses held down the brim of his dead-green velours hat. His eyes couldn't bear the glitter.

  Valentine spoke as a man who had risen from terrible defeat, the survivor of sufferings few could comprehend. His father had died of sclerosis. He'd get it, too, and expected to die of it. He spoke of death majestically-there was no other word for it-his eyes amazingly spirited, large, rich, keen, or, thought Herzog, like the broth of his soul, hot and shining.

  "Why when I lost my leg," said Gersbach.

  "Seven years old, in Saratoga Springs, running after the balloon man; he blew his little fifel.

  When I took that short cut through the freight yards, crawling under cars. Lucky the brakeman found me as soon as the wheel took off my leg. Wrapped me in his coat and rushed me to the hospital. When I came to, my nose was bleeding. Alone in the room." Moses listened, white, the frost did not change his color. "I leaned over," Gersbach went on, as if relating a miracle. "A drop of blood fell on the floor, and as it splashed I saw a little mouse under the bed who seemed to be staring at the splash. It backed away, it moved its tail and whiskers. And the room was just full of bright sunlight...." (there are storms on the sun itself, but here all is peaceful and temperate, thought Moses.) "It was a little world, underneath the bed.

  Then I realized that my leg was gone."

  Valentine would have denied that the tears in his eyes were for himself. No, curse that, he'd have said.

  Not for him. They were for that little kid. There were stories about himself, too, that Moses had told a hundred times, so he couldn't complain of Gersbach's repetitiveness. Each man has his own batch of poems. But Gersbach almost always cried, and it was strange, because his long curling coppery lashes stuck together; he was tender but he looked rough, his face broad and rugged, heavy-bristled, and his chin positively brutal. And Moses recognized that under his own rules the man who had suffered more was more special, and he conceded willingly that Gersbach had suffered harder, that his agony under the wheels of the boxcar must have been far deeper than anything Moses had ever suffered. Gersbach's tormented face was stony white, pierced by the radiant bristles of his red beard. His lower lip had almost disappeared beneath the upper. His great, his hot sorrow!

  Molten sorrow!

  Dr. Edvig, Herzog wrote, Your opinion, repeated many times, is that Madeleine has a deeply religious nature.

  At the time of her conversion, before we were married, I went to church with her more than once. I clearly remember... In New York...

  At her insistence. One morning when Herzog brought her to the church door in a cab she said he had to come in. He must. She said no relationship between them was possible if he didn't respect her faith. "But I don't know anything about churches," said Moses.

  She got out of the cab and went up the stairs quickly, expecting that he would follow. He paid the driver and caught up with her. She pushed the swinging doo
r open with her shoulder. She put her hand in the font and crossed herself, as if she'd been doing it all her life. She'd learned that in the movies, probably. But the look of terrible eagerness and twisted perplexity and appeal on her face-where did that come from? Madeleine in her gray suit with the squirrel collar, her large hat, hurried forward on high heels. He followed slowly, holding his salt-and-pepper topcoat at the neck as he took off his hat. Madeleine's body seemed gathered upward in the breast and shoulders, and her face was red with excitement. Her hair was pulled back severely under the hat but escaped in wisps to form sidelocks. The church was a new building-small, cold, dark, the varnish shining hard on the oak pews, and blots of flame standing motionless near the altar. Madeleine genuflected in the aisle.

  Only it was more than genuflection. She sank, she cast herself down, she wanted to spread herself on the floor and press her heart to the boards-he recognized that. Shading his face on both sides, like a horse in blinders, he sat in the pew. What was he doing here? He was a husband, a father. He was married, he was a Jew. Why was he in church?

  The bells tinged. The priest, quick and arid, rattled off the Latin. In the responses, Madeleine's high clear voice led the rest. She crossed herself.

  She genuflected in the aisle. And then they were in the street again and her face had recovered its normal color. She smiled and said, "Let's go to a nice place for breakfast."

  Moses told the cabbie to go to the Plaza.

  "But I'm not dressed for it," she said.

  "In that case I'll take you to Steinberg's Dairy, which I prefer anyway."

  But Madeleine was putting on lipstick, and fluffing out her blouse, and checking her hat. How lovely she could be! Her face was gay and round, pink, the blue of her eyes was clear. Very different from the terrifying menstrual ice of her rages, the look of the murderess. The doorman ran down from his rococo shelter in front of the Plaza. The wind was blowing hard. She swept into the lobby. Palms and pink-toned carpets, gilding, footmen...

  I don't quite understand what you mean by "religious." A religious woman may find she doesn't love her lover or her husband. But what if she should hate him? What if she should wish continually for his death? What if she should wish it most fervently when they were making love? What if in the act of love he should see that wish shining in her blue eyes like a maiden's prayer? Now, I am not simple-minded, Dr. Edvig. I often wish I were. It hardly does much good to have a complex mind without actually being a philosopher. I don't expect a religious woman to be lovable, a saintly pussycat. But I would like to know how you decided that she is deeply religious.

  Somehow I got into a religious competition. You and Madeleine and Valentine Gersbach all talking religion to me - so I tried it out. To see how it would feel to act with humility. As though such idiotic passivity or masochistic crawling or cowardice were humility, or obedience, not terrible decadence. Loathsome! O, patient Griselda Herzog! I put up the storm windows as an act of love, and left my child well provided, paying the rent and the fuel and the phone and insurance, and packing my valise. As soon as 1 was gone, Madeleine, your saint, sent my picture to the cops. If I ever set foot on the porch again to see my daughter, she was going to call the squad car. She had a warrant ready. The kid was brought to me, and taken home, by Valentine Gersbach, who also gave me advice and consolation, religion. He brought me books (by Martin Buber). He commanded me to study them. I sat reading I and Thou, Between God and Man, The Prophetic Faith in a nervous fever. Then we discussed them.

  I'm sure you know the views of Buber. It is wrong to turn a man (a subject) into a thing (an object). By means of spiritual dialogue, the lit relationship becomes an I-Thou relationship. God comes and goes in man's soul. And men come and go in each other's souls. Sometimes they come and go in each other's beds, too. You have dialogue with a man. You have intercourse with his wife. You hold the poor fellow's hand. You look into his eyes. You give him consolation. All the while, you rearrange his life.

  You even make out his budget for years to come. You deprive him of his daughter. And somehow it is all mysteriously translated into religious depth. And finally your suffering is greater than his, too, because you are the greater sinner. And so you've got him, coming and going. You told me my hostile suspicions of Gersbach were unfounded, even, you hinted, paranoid.

  Did you know he was Madeleine's lover? Did she tell you? No, or you wouldn't have said that. She had good reason to fear being followed by a private investigator. There was nothing at all neurotic about it. Madeleine, your patient, told you what she liked. You knew nothing. You know nothing. She snowed you completely. And you fell in love with her yourself, didn't you? Just as she planned.

  She wanted you to help her dump me. She would have done it in any case. She found you, however, a useful instrument. As for me, I was your patient....

  Dear Governor Stevenson, Herzog wrote, gripping his seat in the hurtling train, Just a word with you, friend. I supported you in 1952.

  Like many others I thought this country might be ready for its great age in the world and intelligence at last assert itself in public affairs - a little more of Emerson's American Scholar, the intellectuals coming into their own. But the instinct of the people was to reject mentality and its images, ideas, perhaps mistrusting them as foreign. It preferred to put its trust in visible goods. So things go on as before with those who think a great deal and effect nothing, and those who think nothing evidently doing it all. You might as well be working for them, I suppose. I am sure the Coriolanus bit was painful, kissing the asses of the voters, especially in cold states like New Hampshire. Perhaps you did contribute something useful in the last decade, showing up the old-fashioned self-intensity of the "humanist," the look of the "intelligent man" grieving at the loss of his private life, sacrificed to public service. Bah! The general won because he expressed low-grade universal potato love.

  Well, Herzog, what do you want? An angel from the skies? This train would run him over.

  Dear Ramona, You mustn't think because I've taken a powder, briefly, that I don't care for you. I do! 1 feel you close about me, much of the time. And last week, at that party, when I saw you across the room in your hat with flowers, your hair crowded down close to your bright cheeks, I had a glimpse of what it might be like to love you.

  He exclaimed mentally, Marry me! Be my wife! End my troubles!-and was staggered by his rashness, his weakness, and by the characteristic nature of such an outburst, for he saw how very neurotic and typical it was. We must be what we are. That is necessity. And what are we? Well, here he was trying to hold on to Ramona as he ran from her. And thinking that he was binding her, he bound himself, and the culmination of this clever goofiness might be to entrap himself. Self-development, self-realization, happiness-these were the titles under which these lunacies occurred. Ah, poor fellow!- and Herzog momentarily joined the objective world in looking down on himself. He too could smile at Herzog and despise him. But there still remained the fact. I am Herzog. I have to be that man. There is no one else to do it. After smiling, he must return to his own Self and see the thing through. But there was a brainstorm for you-the third Mrs. Herzog! This was what infantile fixations did to you, early traumata, which a man could not molt and leave empty on the bushes like a cicada. No true individual has existed yet, able to live, able to die. Only diseased, tragic, or dismal and ludicrous fools who sometimes hoped to achieve some ideal by fiat, by their great desire for it. But usually by bullying all mankind into believing them.

  From many points of view, Ramona truly was a desirable wife. She was understanding. Educated.

  Well situated in New York. Money. And sexually, a natural masterpiece. What breasts! Lovely ample shoulders. The belly deep. Legs brief and a little bowed but for that very reason especially attractive. It was all there.

  Only he was not through with love and hate elsewhere.

  Herzog had unfinished business.

  Dear Zinka, I dreamed about you last week. In my dream we were taking a
walk in Ljubljana, and I had to get my ticket for Trieste. I was sorry to leave. But it was better for you that I should.

  It was snowing. Actually, it did snow, not only in the dream. Even when I got to Venice. This year I covered half the world, and saw people in such numbers - it seems to me I saw everybody but the dead.

  Whom perhaps I was looking for.

  Dear Mr. Nehru, I think I have a most important thing to tell you. Dear Mr. King, The Negroes of Alabama filled me with admiration.

  White America is in danger of being de-politicalized. Let us hope this example by Negroes will penetrate the hypnotic trance of the majority. The political question in modern democracies is one of the reality of public questions.

  Should all of these become matters of fantasy the old political order is ended. I for one wish to go on record recognizing the moral dignity of your group. Not the Powells, who want to be as corrupt as white demagogues, nor the Muslims building on hate.

  Dear Commissioner Wilson - I sat next to you at the Narcotics Conference last year - Herzog, a stocky fellow, dark eyes, scar on his neck, grizzled, in an Ivy League suit (selected by his wife), a bad cut (far too youthful for my figure).

  I wonder if you will allow me to make a few observations on your police force? It's not the fault of any single person that civil order can't be maintained in a community. But I am concerned. I have a small daughter who lives near Jackson Park, and you know as well as I do the parks are not properly policed. Gangs of hoodlums make it worth your life to go in. Dear Mr. Alderman, Must the Army have its Nike missile site on the Point? Perfectly futile, I believe, obsolete, and taking up space.

  Plenty of other sites in the city. Why not move this useless junk to some blighted area?

  Quickly, quickly, more! The train rushed over the landscape. It swooped past New Haven. It ran with all its might toward Rhode Island. Herzog, now barely looking through the tinted, immovable, sealed window felt his eager, flying spirit streaming out, speaking, piercing, making clear judgments, uttering final explanations, necessary words only. He was in a whirling ecstasy. He felt at the same time that his judgments exposed the boundless, baseless bossiness and willfulness, the nagging embedded in his mental constitution.

 
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