A Schlemiel With a Russian Revolver: On the Un-Heroic Conduct of Saul Bellow’s Herzog – Part I

Ruth Wisse calls the schlemiel a “modern hero.” But the term is ironic. The schlemiel cannot be a typical modern hero who, like many a western hero, does something courageous and saves the day. The schlemiel’s victories are ironic because they arise out of failure. Moreover, the schlemiel’s conduct is what Daniel Boyarin would call “unheroic.” At the outset of her book on the schlemiel, Ruth Wisse tells us that there are many jokes about schlemiels who are sent to the front of war. The schlemiel, as she shares in one joke, doesn’t know how to fight in war. But this doesn’t have to do with an anti-military stance, says Wisse, so much as an illustration that the schlemiel – like the Jewish people in diaspora – simply doesn’t know how to shoot a gun or go to war.

Saul Bellow’s Herzog, at a key point in his novel, illustrates this lack of knowledge or is it, rather, the inability to take part in an act of violence or heroism? Bellow sets up Herzog’s challenge in the first half of the novel. It involves the fact that Herzog has been duped by a person he thought of as his friend. Valentine Gersbach, a radio announcer who is something of a Martin Buber hack, fools around with Herzog’s wife, prompts their divorce, and becomes the surrogate father of Herzog’s daughter.

Like many a schlemiel – as we see in Singer or Aleichem – Herzog loves children and especially his own daughter. He wants her back, but he fears that this will be impossible, legally, so he ends up taking things into his own hands. But before he does this, he stops by to see his lawyer, Simkin.

What makes Simkin so important for Herzog (and Bellow, in terms of the novel) is the fact that Simkin understands Herzog on a deep level but, in many ways, offers a different way of life for Herzog. He is what Herzog calls earlier a “reality teacher.” The schlemiel-question, however, is what does that mean in terms of action. Will Herzog act on what Simkin tells him about reality?

Bellow makes sure to present Simkin’s body and demeanor in a way that is contrary to that of the schlemiel, Herzog. But not completely. Simkin loves art, loves family, and is sensitive, but he is also tough and he is a man of action. He manages to do everything he wants to do:

The ruddy, stout Machiavellian old bachelor lived with his mother and a widowed sister and several nephews and nieces on Central Park West….At eight or so he shaved his large cheeks with Norelco, and by nine, having left instructions for his staff, he was out, visiting galleries, attending auctions. (209)

Herzog asks Simkin for advice about how to act toward his ex-wife Madeline who has his child. Simkin asks Herzog many questions about his relationship and takes note about how Gersbach took advantage of Herzog’s innocence. He points out that Herzog could have acted but found a way to distract himself. This leads Herzog to look down on and berate himself:

Obviously, thought Moses, I wasn’t fit to look after my own interests, and proved my incompetence every day. A stupid prick! (211)

The ensuing dialogue between Herzog and Simkin is about Gersbach and it only serves to exacerbate the fact that Herzog was duped and taken advantage of:

“I was kind of surprised when you named him,” said Simkin.

“Why, did you know anything?”

“No, but there was something about his looks, his clothes, his loud voice, and his phony Yiddish. And such an exhibitionist! I didn’t like the way he hugged you. Even kissed you, if I recall…”

“That’s his exuberant Russian personality.” (211)

The irony of this dialogue is that Herzog, even though he has been duped, is still endeared by Gersbach. His love keeps him from feeling the need to hate him and take revenge.

After hearing all this, Simkin puts aside sentimentality and love and tells Herzog exactly what to do:

“Get a clean-cut gentile lawyer from one of the big firms. Don’t have a lot of Jews yelling in the court. Give you case dignity. Then you subpoena al the principals, Madeline, Gersbach, Mrs. Gersbach and put them on the stand under oath. Warn them of perjury…” (213)

All of this talk of putting them on trial and publically extracting the truth, makes Herzog nervous:

With his sleeve, Herzog wiped the sweat that broke out of his forehead. He was suddenly very hot. (213)

Simkin goes on to pose and frame the difficult questions about the betrayal and the framing. And this prompts Herzog to back off and consider not even doing the trial. It would be too intense an engagement with reality and to courageous. He would rather wait until Madeline died:

“I often think, if she died I’d get my daughter back. There are some times when I know I would look at Madeline’s corpse without pity.”(214)

In response, Simkin brings Herzog back to reality by reminding him that Gersbach and his former wife plotted and deceived him for years. And, to emphasize how evil this was, Simkin says that they murdered Herzog: “They tried to murder you,” Simkin said. “In a manner of speaking, they meant to.”

Herzog immediately reacts to these words and realizes that this situation is a test of manhood. Will he or will he not take revenge?

He wants me to say that I actually feel capable of murdering them both. Well, it’s true. I’ve tested it in my mind with a gun, a knife, and felt no horror, no guilt. None. And I could never imagine such a crime before. So perhaps I might kill them. But I’ll say no such thing to Harvey (Simkin). (214)

This moment is the first point in the novel that Herzog admits to such violent thoughts. They go on, inside of him, while he listens to Simkin. His thoughts and emotions start manifesting, physically:

Herzog listened, looking through the window with a hard gaze, and tried to master the spasms of his stomach and the twisted knotted sensations in his heart. The telephone seemed to pick up the sound of his blood, rhythmic, thin, and quick, washing within his skill. Perhaps it was a only a nervous reflex of his eardrums. The membranes appeared to shiver.   (214)

Although he keeps these bodily feelings and thoughts of murder to himself, as readers, we wonder: could a schlemiel really kill a man out of revenge?

This is the question and this is the test that Bellow puts his American schlemiel through. The dilemma is deep because he wants to save his daughter. He is confused because he loves her and wants her back, yet, at the same time, he knows that the only way he may get her back is either through an intense court case or…murder.   But if he is to act, he will no longer be a schlemiel.

This is the borderline that Saul Bellow places the American schlemiel on….which way will Herzog travel?

….to be continued

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