A Schlemiel With a Russian Revolver

On the Un-Heroic Conduct of Saul Bellow’s Herzog – Part II

What happens when a schlemiel has been offended and made into a fool? When they are duped, I.B. Singer’s Gimpel doesn’t get heated up and neither does Aleichem’s Menachem Mendel or Motl. Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd and Senderl and I.L. Peretz’s Bontshe Shvayg opt out of action altogether and choose, in the face of this or that challenge, to wait for something else…or to simply move on.

But for Saul Bellow, who had a particular interest in the schlemiel as a writer and translator, this question gets a central place in his novel, Herzog. In the novel Herzog gets heated up about a man named Valentine Gersbach who, basically, stole his wife and child in front of his face. But it is his daughter that Herzog misses most. After a year of being away from her and upon visiting his lawyer, Herzog starts getting heated up and entertains the possibility of doing violence to Gersbach.

As readers, we wonder about whether Herzog can do something rash? Since the schlemiel is such a kind, good-hearted character, (Ruth Wisse suggests that this goodness is “existential”) this possibility is hard for us to imagine. What makes Herzog’s anger unique – and unlike any schlemiel before him – is the fact that it shows us how the schlemiel and his goodness are put to the test in a society that has become more and more violent and confusing. A lot is at stake in his anger because it shows us what this character and its future preservation must face: harsh reality.

Words have a powerful way of spurring the mind to think in a deeper manner about this or that possibility. Moses Herzog lets himself loose with his lawyer, Simkin. He starts talking about things he usually doesn’t talk about such as violence, revolution, and ecstasy. But, as a schlemiel, Herzog knows that he “must stop this” or he will “crack”:

Herzog knew very well when he talked like this that he was again in the grip of that eccentric, dangerous force that had been capturing him. It was at work now, and he felt himself bending. At any moment he might hear a crack. He must stop this. (216)

Herzog has a hard time speaking about Gersbach (who is also a father, husband, and a “family man”). The reader can see that he is fighting with his desire to speak bad of him. His fault, one could argue, is that he found the man who duped him charming. Even though the line between hating him and admiring him is effaced the more Herzog talks, he always seems to slip back into admiration:

I only meant to say that Gersbach won’t let anything go, he tries everything on. For instance, if he took away my wife, did he have to suffer agony for me, too? Because he could even do better? And if he’s such a tragic-love figure, practically a demigod in his own eyes, does he have to be also the greatest of fathers and family men? His wife says he’s an ideal husband. Her only complaint is that he was so horny. (216)

Herzog notes how Gersbach, after Herzog’s divorce from his wife, Madeline, sent him “reports” about his daughter. And Herzog tells us that he wrote them “faithfully, with real kindness”(216). This went on and on until “I found out he gave me the grief he was consoling me for”(216).

When Simkin asks him what he did when he found out, Herzog tells him that he “looked all over Chicago for him.” But when he couldn’t find him, he sent him a telegram that coded his desire to kill Gersbach:

I wanted to say that I’d kill him on sight. But Western Union doesn’t accept such messages. So I wired give words – Dirt Enters At The Heart. The first letters spell death. (216)

Egging him on, Simkin tells Herzog that Gersbach probably “bowled over by the threat”(216). But Herzog says, “with a smile,” that he “doesn’t know.” And then he, once again, slips into thinking nicely about him. It seems as if these types of threats and feelings don’t or rather can’t stick.

Simkin, however, wants Herzog to feel and take ownership of his anger so he says that Gersbach is not a family man or a unique guy so much as “a psychopath on the make, boastful and exhibitionistic…One of those noisy crooks with a booming voice”(217).

Simkin’s words spur Herzog to be slightly mocking of Gersbach’s ability to dupe “literate people.” He calls Gersbach, who has a “head like a flaming furnace, a voice like a bowling alley, and the wooden leg drumming the stage,” a “Mongolian idiot singing Aida”(217). This is what a worked-up schlemiel sounds like.

After he leaves Simkin, he starts sweating. He goes to the bathroom, turns on the tap, and washes his face. He “sighs with shock and then pleasure.” And he “was shivering with the extreme violence of thought and feeling”(218).

The metaphor of washing is powerful since it suggests, here, that even though he washes himself, he can’t get rid of these violent thoughts and feelings as he used to do whenever he came in contact with them. Something has changed.

His body, it seems, is pushing him to entertain this violence. He looks into the mirror of the bathroom and is disgusted with himself after the thought crosses her mind that she, his ex, “loves that actor.” How can Herzog look at himself in the same way after realizing that she and he himself have been duped?

Oneself is simply grotesque! Herzog stated it impulsively, though with pain, and his mind immediately looking for formal stability…catching at ideas. (220)

But he can’t distract himself from his dark thoughts that lead him to a deep desire for some kind of justice. And even when this comes out, he fights with himself:

Now what is it?….What really is on my mind? Probably this: shall I put those two on the stand under oath, torture them, hold a blowtorch to their feet? Why? They have a right to each other; they even seem to belong together. Why, let them alone. But what about justice? – Justice! Look who wants justice! Most of mankind has lived and died without – totally without it. People by the billions and for ages sweated, gypped, enslaved, suffocated, bled to death, buried with no more justice than cattle. But Moses E. Herzog, at the top of his lungs, bellowing with pain and anger, has to have justice. It’s his quid pro quo, in return for all he has suppressed, his right as an Innocent Party. (220)

From this flight of ideas, we can see that the narrator agrees: Herzog must have justice. This leads to a series of fascinating scenes where we see a schlemiel’s experiences of injustice as if for the first time. The revelations of injustice are all the more powerful since they are, for Herzog, unique. They add to the suffering of injustice which is at the core of the schlemiel character. Herzog’s desire for justice brings him to the limit of this character’s identity since it exposes the schlemiel to harsh realism.

….to be continued.

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

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