By Charles Matthews

Sunday, December 26, 2010

4. Herzog, by Saul Bellow, pp. 112-163

Herzog (Penguin Classics)From He was at his letter writing again in in the morning.... through ... Poor thing, poor thing -- she too must be in the cemetery.
Today's correspondence starts with a letter to the priest, Monsignor Hilton, who presided over Madeleine's conversion to Catholicism shortly after she graduated from Radcliffe. Herzog recalls commuting from Philadelphia to see her three or four times a week. He was separated from Daisy but not yet divorced, and for a while lived with Sono Oguki. "Herzog smiled at this earlier avatar of his life, at Herzog the victim, Herzog the would-be lover, Herzog the man on whom the world depended for certain intellectual work, to change history, to influence the development of civilization."

He sought the approval of Madeleine's parents, the impresario Fitz Pontritter and Tennie, who was divorcing Pontritter but told him, "I had to stand by Fitz. He was blacklisted for years. I couldn't be disloyal. After all, he is a great artist ..." She was manipulating him into marrying Madeleine, who was working at Fordham and concerned about confessing about having sex with him -- "the worn, unshaven, sinful Jew, endangering her reputation.... She had been a Catholic for only three months, and already because of Herzog she couldn't be confessed, not by Monsignor, anyway."

Herzog thinks he's being played by Madeleine: "He thought difficulty was the whole object. She wanted Moses and the Monsignor to struggle over her. It heightened the sexual excitement. He fought her apostasy in the sack. And certainly the Monsignor made female converts with his burning eyes." She is also pleading with him to persuade Daisy to give him a divorce so they can get married. She is rebelling against the bohemianism -- the "grotesque nightmare" -- of her childhood, calling her parents "insane."
Probably so, Herzog mentally agreed. But now Madeleine wants white Christmases and Easter bunnies and to live perhaps in one of those streets of brick, semi-detached parochial houses in the dull wilderness of Queens borough, fussing over Communion dresses, with a steady Irish husband who sweeps up the crumbs at the biscuit factory.
She tells him that she was sexually assaulted by a man and "My fourteenth year is blacked out."  
But when all was said and done, Madeleine didn't marry in the Church, nor did she baptize her daughter. Catholicism went the way of zithers and tarot cards, bread-baking and Russian civilization. And life in the country. 
By moving to the country with Madeleine, Herzog was repeating the experience he had with Daisy, with whom he spent "a freezing winter in eastern Connecticut while he was writing Romanticism and Christianity." He read Rousseau and practiced the oboe that had been left him by his roommate in Chicago: "the sad music must have oppressed Daisy even more than the months of cold fog. Perhaps Marco's character had been affected by the experience, too; at times he showed a streak of melancholy." But he was sure it would be different with Madeleine, whom he married after she left the church and he persuaded Daisy to give him a divorce.

He bought the house in Ludeyville when Madeleine was pregnant, and then spent a year of do-it-yourself labor keeping it from falling down. But he encountered a kind of writer's block and spent a lot of time playing the oboe when he could have been working. Madeleine escaped from the music and went shopping, and they quarreled over how much she spent and how little work he was doing. "You're no better than any other kind of addict -- sick with abstractions. Curse Hegel, anyway, and this crappy old house. It needs four servants, and you want me to do all the work." She rejects the idea that he saved her from her bohemian parents and the priests and that "I took you away from Daisy and your son, and your Japanese screw."

He flirts with self-pity:
The progress of civilization -- indeed, the survival of civilization -- depended on the successes of Moses E. Herzog. And in treating him as she did, Madeleine injured a great project. This was, in the eyes of Moses E. Herzog, what was so grotesque and deplorable about the experience of Moses E. Herzog.
He contemplates a photograph of Madeleine in a riding costume at age twelve:
In jodhpurs, boots, and bowler she had the hauteur of the female child who knows it won't be long before she is nubile and has the power to hurt. This is mental politics. The strength to do evil is sovereignty. She knew more at twelve than I did at forty. 
Where Madeleine is slovenly and ambitious, Daisy was organized and dutiful:
Daisy was a country girl, a Buckeye who grew up near Zanesville. She was childishly systematic about things.... Stability, symmetry, order, containment were Daisy's strengths.... By my irregularity and turbulence of spirit I brought out the very worst in Daisy. I caused the seams of her stockings to be so straight, and the buttons to be buttoned symmetrically.... She took Moses' word for it that he was seriously occupied. Of course a wife's duty was to stand by this puzzling and often disagreeable Herzog.
He turns from his thoughts about his wives to his intellectual pursuits -- in other words, from one field of failed endeavor to another. He begins drafting a letter to one of his critics, a Dr. Mossbach, about the conservative classicist critic T.E. Hulme's "definition of Romanticism as 'spilt religion.'" But after wrangling with that for a while, he "abandoned this theme with characteristic abruptness," and begins a letter to Nachman, whom he first knew "nearly forty years ago -- playmates on Napoleon Street. The Montreal slums." He has recently seen Nachman on the street in New York, but "The stooped poet took one look at Moses and ran away."

Herzog and Nachman had also seen each other in Paris after the war, when Nachman came to him in distress because the father of his girlfriend, Laura, with whom Nachman had been wandering around Europe, had arrived and taken Laura home. Nachman needed to borrow money to follow her back to America. Herzog thinks that Nachman's recent flight from him was owing to the guilt he felt for never repaying the loan. He had seen Nachman again some years later when Laura had attempted suicide for a third time, and Herzog accompanied him to the asylum on Long Island. Nachman blamed Laura's instability on her family: "The bourgeois world of Westchester! Wedding announcements, linens, charge accounts, that was what her father and mother expected of her." He promised then that he would repay Herzog's loan.
"This is a crude world of finery and excrement. A proud, lazy civilization that worships its own boorishness. You and I were brought up in the old poverty. I don't know how American you've become since the old days in Canada -- you've lived here a long time. But I will never worship the fat gods." 
And recalling this sends Herzog back in time: "it was the child with his fresh face, the smiling gap in his front teeth, buttoned blouse and the short pants that was real, not this gaunt apparition of crazy lecturing Nachman." In this conversation on the bus on the way back to Manhattan from the asylum, fifteen years ago, Nachman mentioned Herzog's mother's kindness to his Uncle Ravitch. And now Herzog recalls Ravitch, who had boarded with his family back in 1922.

Ravitch worked in a fruit store. "The project of his life was to send for his family, a wife and two children who were still in Russia. He's have to find them first, for they were lost during the Revolution." But Ravitch's alcoholism gets the better of him. Herzog recalls Ravitch coming home drunk one night and his father, Jonah Herzog, going out to get him. His father "wore a Russian sleeping suit of linen with a pleated front, the last of his gentleman's wardrobe from Petersburg." The three brothers, Moses, Willie, and Shura, slept in a single bed. Herzog remembers his father standing "under the bulb, which had a spike at the end like a German helmet. The large loose twist of tungsten filament blazed."

Jonah Herzog saw Ravitch as "one of the symbols of his changed condition. In Petersburg there were servants. In Russia, Father Herzog had been a gentleman." Jonah "was not a big man, one of the small-boned Herzogs, finely made, round-headed, keen, nervous, handsome." And he was a failure: "First Father Herzog failed in Petersburg.... He had been importing onions from Egypt. Under Pobedonostsev [the conservative anti-Semitic adviser to Alexander III] the police caught up with him for illegal residence. He was convicted and sentenced." But he fled to Canada "where his sister Zipporah Yaffe was living," and bought some land near Valleyfield, Quebec. He "failed as a farmer ... and failed as a baker; failed in the dry-goods business; failed as a jobber; failed as a sack manufacturer in the War, when no one else failed. He failed as a junk dealer. Then he became a marriage broker and failed.... And now he was failing as a boot-legger."
On Napoleon Street he had five mouths to feed. Willie and Moses were sickly. Helen studied the piano. Shura was fat, greedy, disobedient, a plotting boy. The rent, back rent, notes due, doctors' bills to pay, and he had no English, no friends, no influence, no trade, no assets but his still -- no help in all the world. His sister Zipporah in St. Anne was rich, very rich, which only made matters worse. 
Mother Herzog had also been used to "linens and servents in Petersburg, the dacha in Finland (all founded on Egyptian onions). Now she was cook, washerwoman, seamstress on Napoleon Street in the slum. Her hair  turned gray, and she lost her teeth, her very fingernails wrinkled. Her hands smelled of the sink."
Napoleon Street, rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather -- the bootlegger's boys reciting ancient prayers. To this Moses' heart was attached with great power. Here was a wider range of human feelings than he had ever again been able to find. 
His rich Aunt Zipporah harshly criticized Moses' mother for her "ambition for her children, because she wanted them to be lawyers, gentlemen, rabbis, or performers." Helen is taking music lessons. Zipporah asks, "Why must your children go to the conservatory, the Baron de Hirsch school, and all those special frills. Let them go to work, like mine."
To haunt the past like this -- to love the dead! Moses warned himself not to yield so greatly to the temptation, this peculiar weakness of his character. He was a depressive. Depressives cannot surrender childhood -- not even the pains of childhood. He understood the hygiene of the matter. But somehow his heart had come open at this chapter of his life and he didn't have the strength to shut it. So it was again a winter day in St. Anne, in 1923 -- Aunt Zipporah's kitchen.
So he yields himself to memories: Zipporah urging economies: "Let your Helen and your Shura go to work. Sell the piano. Cut expenses." His father's bootleg truck is hijacked and he is beaten up, and Herzog recalls being "suffocated by this horror. I thought I would die of it. Whom did I ever love as I loved them?" But he attempts to put it in perspective:
What happened during the War abolished Father Herzog's claim to exceptional suffering. We are on a more brutal standard now, a new terminal standard, indifferent to persons. Part of the program of destruction into which the human spirit has poured itself with energy, even with joy. These personal histories, old tales from old times that may not be worth remembering. I remember. I must. But who else -- to whom can this matter? So many millions -- multitudes -- go down in terrible pain.
And he recalls where these recollections started, with Nachman. He concludes that Nachman's wife must be dead, that she must have succeeded in committing suicide, and that "Nachman ran away because (who could blame him) he would have had to tell Moses all about it.

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