By Charles Matthews

Thursday, December 23, 2010

2. Herzog, by Saul Bellow, pp. 31-72

Herzog (Penguin Classics)From In the cab through hot streets ... through ... As for me, I was your patient ....
Herzog is in a cab, on the way to the train station, in flight from Ramona toward his friend Libbie on Martha's Vineyard.
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.
This snippet of the novel captures Bellow's narrative technique concisely: It is third person, but it is always telling us what is in Herzog's head, what he is seeing, thinking, and especially remembering. It is Joycean associative narrative without the conundrums thrown up by stream-of-consciousness technique. Partly this is because Herzog himself is an analyzer, always explaining himself to himself, as if he were a character in a novel being read by someone else. His Joycean counterpart, Leopold Bloom, is freer, less persistently self-conscious, less concerned about making himself understood.

In this passage, he moves, as he typically does, from the present (the consciousness of heading toward a destination) to the future (the effect of bathing in the sea) to the past (his mother) to the present (why he can't die), always in the name of self-justification. And as usual, he begins writing (this time in his head, but sometimes on paper) one of his letters. This one is to Smithers, who seems to be an academic colleague on some committee, or perhaps his department head. Smithers looks like Thomas E. Dewey, the failed presidential candidate who symbolizes political mediocrity, which provokes Herzog to a reflection on America itself: "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 papers, if you can bear to."

He passes a store that reminds him of his ex-mother-in-law, Tennie, who is divorced from Madeleine's father, Pontritter, the celebrated impresario, whom Herzog last saw "wearing white duck trousers of bull-fighter's cut and alpargatas" -- the canvas and rope-soled shoes also known as espadrilles. Herzog's lawyer, Simkin, has told him that Tennie's feelings were hurt because he hasn't been to see her. "Of course Simkin knew all about Madeleine's affair with Valentine Gersbach, and what he didn't know his friends Pontritter and Tennie would tell him." Herzog is reluctant to see Tennie, he explains in the letter he imagines writing her, because it would mean having to be polite "while bursting with the wrongs your daughter did me. the same wrongs you have accepted from Pontritter, and forgiven him." He is certain that Madeleine sent Tennie to the zoo with June, their daughter, while Madeleine and Gersbach made love in Tennie's bed. He has a cruel vision of Tennie, "Divorced at fifty-five, still showing off her legs, unaware they now are gaunt. And diabetic, And the menopause. And abused by her daughter." He also knows that Tennie wants back the wedding present of Mexican silver cutlery that she gave them. He intends to return it:
I could never hold 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. 
He has circled back to the reason for his flight from the city.

Stuck in traffic, he thinks back forty years to when his family took a streetcar to the train station in Montreal "with a basket (frail, splintering wood) of pears, overripe, a bargain bought by Jonah Herzog at the Rachel Street Market." He recalls the moment in vivid detail, including his mother moistening a handkerchief to wipe the dirt from his face.
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 plow over the bones of the dead. 
In Grand Central he buys the Times but refuses himself a candy bar: "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," even though he is "buying a ticket to escape from her." He feels confused, "both visionary and muddy ..., feverish, damaged, angry, quarrelsome, and shaky." He notices a woman in the crowd with "bitch eyes" that "expressed a sort of female arrogance which had an immediate sexual power over him."

Is it the sex or the power that makes him think of writing to his Aunt Zelda? Her husband, Herman Umschand, has "former underworld acquaintances," and Herzog is flattered that Herman accepts him, a mere effete intellectual: "A politician in the Cook County Democratic organization who knew the Syndicate, the Juice men, the Policy kings, Cosa Nostra, and all the hoods, still found me good company, heimisch, and took me along to the races, the hockey games." But his divorce and his cuckoldry has lowered his status with Zelda and Herman, especially the humiliating fact that Herzog had found a house for Gersbach and his wife and a private school for their son. He believes that Zelda conspired with Madeleine, that she arranged for Herman to get him out of the house by taking him to a hockey game that he remembers vividly:
In the rink the players mixed like hornets -- swift, padded, yellow, black, red, rushing, slashing, whirling over the ice. Above the rink the tobacco smoke lay like a cloud of flash powder, explosive. Over the p.a. system the management begged the spectators not to throw pennies to catch the blades of the skaters.
And he fears that amid all this violent, masculine action, Herman knew that while they were at the game, Madeleine and Gersbach were cuckolding Herzog. He breaks out in a sweat in the air-conditioned train car.

He remembers being met in Chicago after his stay in Europe by Gersbach, "still my dearest friend as recently as that," who was holding Herzog's daughter in his arms. There was a blizzard, and the next day Herzog, staying in a motel, phoned Madeleine but she hung up on him, and unable to make contact with anyone else, he rode the bus out to the suburbs to see Zelda. He realized that she had taken Madeleine's side, and argued that Madeleine had poisoned her mind against him. Madeleine had complained that he was too wrapped up in the book he was writing: "that project of yours," Zelda called it, "that study of whatchamajig."
Herzog tried to explain what it was about -- that his study was supposed to have ended with a new angle on the modern condition, showing how life could be lived by renewing universal connections; overturning the last of the Romantic errors about the uniqueness of the Self; revising the old Western, Faustian ideology; investigating the social meaning of Nothingness.
Zelda countered that his obsession with his work had made a "prisoner" of Madeleine, sticking her with all the household duties, and that he had complained that the baby's crying disturbed him while he was working. He replied, "Yes, I was stupid -- a blockhead. But that was one of the problems I was working on, you see, that people can be free now but the freedom doesn't have any content."

And then Zelda delivered a knockout punch. "Zelda considered him for a moment as though to see whether he was strong enough to take it, and said, 'You were selfish.'" And he realized that Madeleine had told her about his problem with premature ejaculation. The accusation was unanswerable: "He couldn't invite her upstairs for a demonstration or produce affidavits from Wanda or Zinka."

In the train Herzog writes, "Will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood." He begins another letter, this one to his friend Lucas Asphalter, who has recently been the subject of a "human interest" item in the New York Post. A zoologist, Asphalter gave mouth-to-mouth respiration to one of his monkeys, Rocco, to try to save his life. Herzog is disgusted, partly because the monkey had died of tuberculosis and he fears Asphalter had contracted it, but also because of the peculiar celebrity the item had given to his friend, who had been the one who revealed to him Madeleine's affair with Gersbach. And the monkey, Rocco, had been present when Asphalter delivered the news: "All the while, the large brown monkey, with arms folded over his chest, and red, dry eyes, was looking on, silently disseminating his grimness." Asphalter had learned of the affair from one of his lab assistants, Geraldine Portnoy, who was a baby-sitter for Madeleine. Geraldine had written Herzog a letter, which Asphalter gave him.

On the train, Herzog wonders why he hadn't cried when Asphalter told him, and recalls that "Gersbach was a frequent weeper of distinguished emotional power" who had tears in his eyes "when Herzog landed at O'Hare and hugged his little daughter." He begins other letters: to Professor Byzhkovski in Warsaw about his study of the American Occupation of West Germany, to a Reverend Beasley about the problems of "Bowery bums" who trash his church, to the credit department of Marshall Field about the charges Madeleine has run up on his account,\ and to astronomer Fred Hoyle about "the Gold-Pore theory" (which is apparently a reference to a theory by Thomas Gold that Hoyle discusses in a chapter in his 1955 book Frontiers of Astronomy). Hoyle's book has evidently inspired cosmic thoughts in Herzog:
Astronomers made it all sound as though the gases were shaken up inside a flask. Then after many billions of years, light-years, this childlike but far from innocent creature, a straw hat on his head, and a heart in his breast, part pure, part wicked, who would try to form his own shaky picture of this magnificent web.
Then he begins a letter to the follower of Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, in which he talks about the problem of poverty based on his recently seeing the Satyajit Ray movie Pather Panchali. "He too had a daughter, and his mother too had been a poor woman. He had slept on sheets made of flour sacks. The best type for the purpose was Ceresota." He thinks of giving the house in the Berkshires to Bhave's movement, but can't imagine what they would do with it, and besides, he would have to pay off the mortgage before donating it.

He starts more letters: to his cousin Asher in Beersheba about a photograph of Asher's father in a Czarist uniform, to the president (presumably LBJ) about tax legislation, to Martin Heidegger about "the fall into the quotidian" ("When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?") and to a U.S. Public Health Service official named Emmett Strawforth about atomic fallout: "Recently Dr. Teller argued that the new fashion of tight pants, by raising body temperatures, could affect the gonads more than fallout. People greatly respected in their generation often turn out to dangerous lunatics."  He then decides to convert his letter to Strawforth into a letter to the editor, mentioning that he had known Strawforth at school and had played ping-pong with him: "He had a white buttocky face with a few moles, and fat curling thumbs that put a cheating spin on the ball." And somehow he is distracted into recalling the nursery rhymes he used to sing to June and Marco.

The conductor interrupts to punch his ticket, and Herzog decides instead to write to his psychiatrist in Chicago, Dr. Edvig. Madeleine had insisted that he see a psychiatrist, and he writes to Edvig:
I was allowed to choose my own psychiatrist. Naturally I picked one who had written on Barth, Tillich, Brunner, etc. Especially as Madeleine, though Jewish, had had a Christian phase as a Catholic convert and I hoped you might help me to understand her. Instead, you went for her yourself.
Edvig had told Madeleine that Herzog was "a reactive-depressive," but not insane, but Herzog said that she still thought he was insane. Edvig asked when she left the church, but Herzog wasn't sure that she had: "last Ash Wednesday she had the soot on her forehead." When he questioned her about it, "She tried to pass it off as one of my delusions, or something. But it was no delusion. It was a spot. I swear it was at least half a spot." And he writes Edvig, "By degrees, and I don't quite know how it happened, Madeleine became the principal figure in the analysis, and dominated it as she dominated me. And came to dominate you.... Because of the unusual facts of the case you said you had to interview her. By and by you were deep in discussions of religion with her. And finally, you were treating her, too."

She also accused Herzog of having her followed by a private detective. "She began this accusation with the slightly British diction he had learned to recognize as a sure sign of trouble." Edvig called it a "paranoid episode," but was unwilling to tell Herzog that he thought she was insane. And Herzog began to pity her: "Toward the sick, Moses was always especially compassionate." Then expensive things began to be delivered that she couldn't remember buying. "In ten days she ran up a twelve-hundred-dollar bill.... She did things in style, even when unbalanced. As he sent them back, Moses felt very tender toward her. Edvig predicted that she would never lapse into a true psychosis, but would have such spells for the rest of her life."

Pursuing a Ph.D. in Russian history, she begins reading old Russian religious texts in bed, and when Herzog protested, she attacked him, hitting "him in the face, too clumsily to hurt him." She accused him of "forcing her back into housework" whenever he complained that the house was dirty. Because Edvig responded to his complaints about Madeleine with professional detachment, Herzog turned to Valentine Gersbach for "a feeling reaction." But when he rang the doorbell, "he had to face the coldness (he couldn't understand it) of Phoebe Gersbach, who answered. She was looking very gaunt, dry, pale, strained ... of course, Phoebe knew her husband was sleeping with Madeleine." Herzog, however, thought it was because "she blamed him for aggravating Valentine's ambitions -- Gersbach the public figure, Gersbach the poet, the television-intellectual, lecturing at the Hadassah on Martin Buber. Herzog himself had introduced him to cultural Chicago."

He told Gersbach about the "wall of books" that Madeleine had built in their bed, but when he mentioned that he and Madeleine had had intercourse the night before the fight over the books, "Gersbach seemed extremely angry." Then he suggests that they sleep separately. "Dealing with Valentine was like dealing with a king," Herzog reflects. But then, "Herzog had a weakness for grandeur, and even bogus grandeur (was it ever entirely bogus?)" Gersbach tells him about the accident in the freight yards when he was seven that cost him his leg. "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."

Herzog remembers Madeleine's ostentatious manner when he went to church with her before they were married. In his letter to Edvig he writes:
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 I was gone, Madeleine, your saint, sent my picture to the cops.
Madeleine, he concludes, completely fooled Edvig: "She snowed you completely. And you fell in love with her yourself, didn't you? Just as she planned.... She found you ... a useful instrument."

No comments:

Post a Comment