_____Moses Elkanah Herzog has ex-wives named Daisy and Madeleine, children named Marco and June, brothers named Shura and Willie, a sister named Helen, an arch-enemy named Valentine Gersbach, a psychiatrist named Dr. Edvig, a lawyer named Sandor Himmelstein, a physician named Dr. Emmerich, and girlfriends named Wanda, Zinka, Libbie, Ramona, and Sono. And when we first meet him he is deciding that if he's going crazy, it's all right.
When we begin, he is in the house he owns in the Berkshires, eating beans from the can and sleeping on a bare mattress. He is also writing letters that he carries around with him in a valise: "He had carried this valise from New York to Martha's Vineyard, but returned from the Vineyard immediately; two days later he flew to Chicago, and from Chicago he went to a village in western Massachusetts." And there he is questioning whether the rumor spread by Madeleine and Valentine that "his sanity had collapsed" is true.
We flash back to spring, when he is giving lectures on "The Roots of Romanticism" to night-school adult-education classes in New York City. But sometimes he interrupts his lectures to write things down as his class waits in silence for as long as five minutes.
At first there was no pattern to the notes he made. They were fragments -- nonsense syllables, exclamations, twisted proverbs and quotations or, in the Yiddish of his long-dead mother, Trepverter -- retorts that came too late, when you were already on your way down the stairs.(Trepverter, literally "staircase words," is also known as esprit de l'escalier, or staircase wit.) Herzog's terse little notes make me imagine what he might be like in the age of Twitter. He fears that they are "a symptom of disintegration."
We now learn that he is -- or thinks himself to be -- "a formerly handsome man," and that he wrote a brilliant Ph.D. thesis on The State of Nature in 17th and 18th Century English and French Political Philosophy and a book, Romanticism and Christianity. He feels guilt over his treatment of his first wife, Daisy, though "Madeleine, his second, had tried to do him in." He is "a loving but bad father" to his children, "an ungrateful child" to his parents, "affectionate but remote" to his siblings. "With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness, dull. With power, passive. With his own soul, evasive." He is, in short, a mess.
And one of his chief problems is that he lost Madeleine to Valentine Gersbach, a radio announcer with "a thick chin, flaming copper hair that literally gushed from his head" and "a wooden leg" on which he walks "gracefully bending and straightening like a gondolier." Herzog had worked to please her, quitting an academic position, using the twenty thousand dollars he inherited from his father to buy a house in the apparently fictional Berkshire town of Ludeyville, and then closing it up and moving to Chicago where he even found a job for Valentine. And then she decided she wanted a divorce after all.
Madeleine is evidently no prize:
Only a week before she demanded a divorce, she had his things cleaned and pressed, but on the day he left the house, she flung them all into a carton which she then dumped down the cellar stairs. She said she needed more closet space.She presents her demand for a divorce with "a certain theatrical genius," which she evidently inherited from her father, "a famous impresario -- sometimes called the American Stanislavsky," whom she hated. But Herzog's relationship with her was peculiarly masochistic: "There was a flavor of subjugation in his love for Madeleine. Since she was domineering, and since he loved her, he had to accept the flavor he was given." She informs him that she is humiliated "to admit defeat in this marriage. I've put all I had into it. I'm crushed by this?" And he thinks, "Crushed? She had never looked more glorious."
"Dr. Edvig, the Chicago psychiatrist who treated both Herzogs, agreed that perhaps it was best for Moses to leave town," so he borrows money from his brother Shura and goes to Europe, where he lectures in Copenhagen, Warsaw, Cracow, Berlin, Belgrade, Istanbul, and Jerusalem. In Poland he has an affair with a woman named Wanda, but also contracts a disease that he thinks is gonorrhea, but isn't. When he returns to Chicago, Madeleine regards his behavior as "so strange and to her mind so menacing" that she sends word through Gersbach for him to stay away, and gives a picture of him to the police with instructions that he should be arrested if he shows up in the neighborhood.
Herzog now wonders "what might have happened if instead of listening so intensely and thoughtfully" on the day she announced she wanted a divorce, "he had hit Madeleine in the face." But he rejects "this mental violence, sighing. He was afraid he was really given in secret to this sort of brutality." She had also told him she had seen a lawyer, who turns out to be Herzog's friend, Sandor Himmelstein. "He says you can stay with him until you make your new arrangements."
And so he spends his time writing letters, for example:
Dear Mr. President, Internal Revenue regulations will turn us into a nation of bookkeepers. The life of every citizen is becoming a business. This, it seems to me, is one of the worst interpretations of the meaning of human life history has ever seen. Man's life is not a business.He also writes Daisy explaining that he won't be seeing Marco at camp on Parents' Day because the boy apparently blames him for breaking up with Madeleine and deserting his half-sister. He also claims to have been sick and under a doctor's care. "Herzog did not care for his own personality, and at the moment there was apparently nothing he could do about its impulses."
In June, "when the general revival of life troubles many people, the new roses, even in shop windows, reminding them of their own failures, of sterility and death, Herzog went to have a medical checkup." Dr. Emmerich, "an elderly refugee," tells him his health is fine. "He had been hoping for some definite sickness which would send him to a hospital for a while. He would not have to look after himself." His brothers and his sister, Helen, would take care of him. But even the infection he contracted in Poland had turned out to be easily curable.
Dr. Emmerich, who treated "the truly weak, the desperately sick, stricken women, dying men," is puzzled by Herzog's reaction to the news that he is all right. He offers him Miltown, a tranquilizer much prescribed in the 1950s, or snakeroot, the source of reserpine, an anti-anxiety drug, and offers to refer him to a psychiatrist. Herzog shrugs off the suggestions, and the doctor continues to ask him about "the big fellow with red hair, with the wooden leg" and to commiserate about Herzog's divorce. In turn, Herzog tries to get the doctor to talk about Madeleine, who had been his patient too, but the doctor deflects the questions, even after Herzog says, "She's a violent, hysterical woman." He suggests that Herzog see other women: "Do you have to eat dinner alone tonight?"
So Herzog thinks of Ramona Donsell, a woman in her thirties who had been a student in his class. She owns a flower shop on Lexington Avenue. "She come from Buenos Aires. Her background was international -- Spanish, French, Russian, Polish, and Jewish. She had gone to school in Switzerland and still spoke with a slight accent, full of charm." She has firm breasts, which matters to Herzog greatly. On the other hand, "She was thirty-seven or thirty-eight years of age, he shrewdly reckoned, and this mean that she was looking for a husband."
So he decides on a trip to the Vineyard and gets in touch with "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)." She invites him to stay with them and he accepts, then goes shopping for clothes "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?)." But he is afraid that he will look ridiculous in the "reckless and gaudy" new styles.
So Herzog buys "a coat of crimson and white stripes" in a Fifth Avenue shop. But he gets crosswise with the salesman, who has "dog's breath" and when Herzog tells him his waist is thirty-four says, "Don't boast." And the triple mirror still intimidates him, especially when he recalls Madeleine standing nude in front of the bathroom mirror: "'Still young,' she said, taking inventory, 'young, beautiful, full of life. Why should I waste it all on you.'"
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.
He buys swim trunks and a straw hat, which makes him look like "his father's cousin Elias Herzog, the flour salesman who had entered the northern Indiana territory for General Mills in the twenties." And he is off on a memory trip, recalling when he was eight years old and in the hospital in Montreal, where a Christian woman read aloud to him from the Bible.
"Where do you live, little boy?"He now packs his new summer clothes and makes "his getaway from Ramona." He also packs "the plastic container of Furadantin tablets." (Generic nitrofurantoin, an antibiotic for urinary tract infections.) Although he is cured of the infection he caught in Poland, he still "took an occasional pill just to be on the safe side." And he remembers the disapproving British doctor who treated him in Cracow. He thinks of writing in French to Wanda: "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 insisted on his meeting her husband, "a poor, reproachful-looking man, with heart disease." Wanda had been Herzog's guide in Poland.
"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."
Still, he had been continually aware of drab Poland, in all directions freezing, drab, and ruddy gray; the stones still smellling of war-time murders. He thought he scented blood. He went many times to visit the ruins of the ghetto.He regrets telling her about the infection, and now wants to write that he is cured: "Guéri de cette peite maladie. He ought not to have mentioned it to Wanda, for she was simply shocked and hurt.... He had made her cry."