By Charles Matthews

Thursday, December 30, 2010

8. Herzog, by Saul Bellow, pp. 298-335

Herzog (Penguin Classics)From At last he embraced his daughter ... through ... awkwardly taped, helped into his wrinkled shirt by his brother Will.
Asphalter picks up June and brings her to Herzog at the Museum of Science, arranging to meet them at four p.m. to return her to Madeleine. Herzog does a little discreet questioning of his daughter, asking "Do I know Uncle Val?" when she refers to Gersbach that way, and reassures himself that June knows Gersbach as her "stepfather." She also seems untroubled by being locked into the car. She says she likes "Uncle Val" because "He makes faces." She finally admits, however that "Mama said I shouldn't talk about Uncle Val.... She said you'd be very very angry." He assures her that he isn't: "I'm laughing my head off."

After looking at some exhibits at the museum, June says she wants to go to the aquarium, so they return to the car he has rented. As they tour the aquarium, Herzog's thoughts turn first to the fact that their visit will be short -- "It seemed his fate to be the visiting father, an apparition who faded in and out of the children's lives" -- and then to parting from his daughter as an analogue to death. And then to his father's funeral:
For the first time he took a different view of the way in which Alexander V. Herzog had run Father Herzog's funeral. No solemnity in the chapel. Shura's portly, golf-tanned friends, bankers and corporations presidents, forming an imposing wall of meat as heavy in the shoulders, hands, and cheeks as they were thin in the hair. Then there was the cortege. City Hall had sent a motorcycle escort in recognition of Shura Herzog's civic importance. The cops ran ahead with screaming sirens, booting cars and trucks aside so that the hearse could speed through lights.... Moses said to Shura, "While he lived, Papa had the cops at his back. Now ... " Helen, Willie, all four children in the limousine, laughed softly at this remark. Then as the coffin was lowered, and Moses and the others wept, Shura said to him, "Don't carry on like a goddamn immigrant." I embarrassed him with his golfing friends, the corporation presidents. Maybe I was not entirely in the right. Here he was the good American. I still carry European pollution, am infected by the Old World with feelings like Love -- Filial Emotion.
It's a passage worth looking at because it packs in so many themes -- parents and children, Americans and immigrants, the living and the dead -- that reverberate through the novel, and because it foreshadows Herzog's own relationship to the cops. 

They leave the aquarium to get lunch, but although Herzog is "a circumspect driver," he is being followed too closely by a Volkswagen truck, and when he tries to slow and let its driver pass, he misjudges the amount of pressure to put on the unfamiliar brakes and is rear-ended. The impact forces his car into a utility pole. June is unhurt, but Herzog is thrown against the steering wheel and passes out. He wakes up on the grass to find June standing there between two black policemen. "They had his wallet, the Czarist rubles, and the pistol, of course."

He has a bleeding cut on his head which, when one of the cops points it out, he stanches with his necktie. He tries to reassure June, and hears the driver of the truck asking the other cop, "'You're going to take that guy's license away, aren't you?' Moses thought, I'm in bad because of the pistol, and this fellow wants to pour it own. Warned by this indignation, Herzog held his own feelings in." The cop asks if he has a permit for the gun, and points out that it has two bullets in it. Herzog explains that it belonged to his father and he was taking it back home to Massachusetts. He explains that the rubles are "Like Russian Confederate money. Stage money. Another souvenir."
His head still swam. He decided that this foolishness must stop, or things would go even worse. Running to Chicago to protect his daughter, he almost killed her. Coming to offset the influence of Gersbach, and to give her the benefit of his own self -- man and father, et cetera -- what did he do but bang into a pole. And then the child saw him dragged out fainting, cut on the head, the revolver and the rubles sliding from his pocket. No, weakness, or sickness, with which he had copped a plea all his life (alternating with arrogance), his method of preserving equilibrium -- the Herzog gyroscope -- had no further utility. He seemed to have come to the end of that
In the end, the driver of the Volkswagen truck is ticketed, and Herzog is taken to be booked for the misdemeanor of carrying a loaded weapon.

Now, in his misery, Herzog remembers a long-repressed incident from his childhood, when he was sexually molested by a man, a stranger. "The man clapped his hand over his mouth from the back. He hissed something to him as he drew down his pants. His teeth were rotten and his face stubbled. And between the boy's thighs this red skinless horrible thing passed back and forth, back and forth, until it burst out foaming." Herzog went home "and then turned up at supper as if nothing had happened." He now remembers "a piece of famous advice, grand advice even if it German, to forget what you can't bear."

In the hands of a lesser novelist than Bellow, this sordid event might have been exploited as the key to understanding the character. But here it is only a correlative for Herzog's current state of mind, and that's what makes it both more shocking and more meaningful.

Herzog, riding in the cop car with his daughter, admonishes himself that "all this has got to stop. By this he meant such things as this ride in the squad car. His filial idea (practically Chinese) of carrying an ugly, useless revolver. To hate, to be in a poisition to do something about it. Hatred is self-respect. If you want to hold your head up among people ..." He trails off from that line of thought, and launches into reflections about death. And reflections about his reflections: "Perhaps what had made him faint was not the accident but the premonition of such thoughts. The nausea was only apprehension, excitement, the unbearable intensity of these ideas." And after another swarm of thoughts about death and evil and God, he admonishes himself, "But no more of that!"

They are in the courtroom where he is being questioned and booked by a black police sergeant. After a string of questions that bring out Herzog's difficult relations with June's mother, the sergeant tells him they'll call Asphalter and Madeleine. "Herzog exclaimed, 'Oh, don't call her!'" The sergeant had already said it seemed like Herzog was "scared" of his ex-wife, and Herzog has tried to be exceedingly cautious in his responses. Now he gives in to a stoic acceptance, telling himself, "Well, let her come. Perhaps that was what he wanted after all, a chance to confront her."

The sergeant returns to the topic of the gun, and Herzog repeats: "I was only going to make a paperweight of it. I forgot to take out the bullets, but that's because I don't know much about guns so it didn't occur to me." He asks for a carton of milk for June and tells her a story. He watches others being arraigned, including a prostitute who reminds him of a girl he knew in high school. And then Madeleine arrives.

She doesn't look at him, doesn't speak to him. When she's asked about him, she says, "I don't know where he lives. It's none of my business." Herzog admires "the perfection of her self-control." And as the sergeant questions her, he drifts off into a long train of associations until he hears the sergeant ask Madeleine, "Well, he give you a hard time?" She ignores Herzog when he says, "Let's not have unnecessary trouble." She tells the sergeant that Herzog hasn't made any threats -- to her. Which of course makes the sergeant ask, "To who, then?" Herzog knows that she won't bring her relationship with Gersbach into the conversation because it might jeopardize her custody, but she says that "His psychiatrist ... saw fit to warn me." Herzog explodes in protest.

And then the sergeant asks if she recognizes the gun. "The radiance of her look as it rested on the gun was deeper than any sexual expression he had ever seen on her face." She says no, but she isn't surprised that he has one. She admits that she has never filed a complaint against him, but that she did give his picture to the Hyde Park police, "In case he prowled around the house." And to the sergeant's question if he did prowl, she replies, "He was never seen, but I know damn well he did. He's jealous and a troublemaker. He has a terrible temper." But she admits that she never had reason to file a complaint.

"Madeleine now spoke to Herzog for the first time, pointing with a rigid finger to the two bullets and looking him in the eyes. 'One of those was for me, wasn't it?'" But Herzog's retort, "And who was the other one for?" brings the risky topic of Gersbach into potential play again, and Madeleine backs off. The sergeant says she can take her child and leave, and she does, with Herzog bidding June a goodbye and promising, "I'll be back."

The sergeant finishes with the booking and lets Herzog call his brother Will to help him post the three hundred dollar bond. He waits for Will in a jail cell with a sleeping drunk and a black teenager. Again he vow, "No more of this hectic, heart-rent, theatrical window-peering; no more collision, fainting, you-fight-'im-'e-cry encounters, confrontations." He begins composing a letter to Dr. Edvig and one to Ramona. and makes a silent plea to God for mercy.

Will was an undemonstrative man, substantial, shrewd, quiet, shorter than his brother but with thicker, darker hair. In a family of passionately expressive people like Father Herzog and Aunt Zipporah Will had developed a quieter, observant, reticent style.... William did not share his brother's passion for reminiscence. He was an engineer and a technologist, a contractor and builder; a balanced, reasonable person, he was pained to see Moses in such a state.

They talk about Madeleine and about the house in Ludeyville, which Will urges him to sell -- "Will had great faith in real estate." He insists that Herzog see a doctor, who informs him that he has a broken rib. "'No lung puncture,' the doctor said. 'Six weeks or so in tape. And you'll need two or three stitches in your head. That's the whole story. No heavy lifting, straining, chopping, or other violent exercise." Will also prods the doctor to prescribe "some rest." 

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