Denial in the Lion’s Den. A Review of Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow with the mini-bonus: “Wimps with Word Processors.”
Canada’s greatest writer, Saul Bellow is at his best when a novel is simply a structure for his stream of associations and revisitations. The more Bellow allows his main narrative to drift like dandelion pappus the sharper and more inventive his voice gets. As Henderson the Rain King (HRK) is an early novel steeped we are privileged to recognize Bellow’s battle in finding his voice in light of the heavy handed modernist norms. Indeed, when asked if he’d found his voice in writing HRK he answered that he had been and I think still was struggling to find it, I don’t recall where I read this. From this point of view, and when compared to late works, HRK is instructive, much like John Gardner’s comparison of the early and late voice of Melville in On Becoming a Novelist that makes it all as clear as, oh say a hot day on the savannah.
HRK (1959) is a strange book. I’d categorize as a meeting of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1939) meets Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa (1935) and The Snows of Kilamanjaro (1938) meets the made for tv movie Shaka Zulu by Joshua Sinclair and directed by William Faure for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (1985).
“What made me take this trip to Africa?” Henderson asks. “There was no quick explanation. Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated.” Fifty-six year old Henderson, very rich, a hard worker, a man who has accomplished and yet always wants tries to deduce the secret to a meaningful life. Maybe it’s pig farming. He tries it and believes it illustrates life in general. Maybe it’s violin practice. No, he continues to suffer as he thinks everybody does. He muses, “I tried every cure you can think of. Of course, in an age of madness, to expect to be untouched by madness is a form of madness. But the pursuit of sanity can be a form of madness too.”
In order to be cured, it’s useful to know the malady. Henderson yet is unclear on this issue and so every possible cure fails and becomes a diversion. The wanting does not cease.
“The demand came louder, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want! And I would cry, begging at last, ‘Oh, tell me then. Tell me what you want!’ And finally I’d say, ‘Okay, then. One of these days, stupid. You wait!’”
Here we go, bellow at is best, blasting out language with dominance.
Henderson next decides that Africa is the place for him. Here he comes dark continent, the 57th Street Lawrence of Arabia intent on creating an epic. It’s sad when he’s perceived simply as another entitled white tourist kicking up sand. As he result, Henderson leaves the safari party with a guide named Romilayu, and together they head into the wold. They arrive at the village of the Arnewi where Henderson sees he can solve a problem. Frogs have invaded the local water supply but the Arnewi are too superstitious to deal of them. It’s Henderson to the rescue with a bomb made of gunpowder and a flashlight shell. “…I told those creatures, just wait, you little sons of bitches, you’ll croak in hell before I’m done.” This doesn’t work out too well as Henderson blows up the both frogs and the dam and thus causes all the water to be dissipate. They flee to flee to another village.
Now with the Wariri, Henderson proves his physical prowess. He wrestles and beats the King. He lifts the gigantic Mumma statue and is dubbed the new Sungo Rain King. Here’s where the whole story of the Lion comes in that sets up the theme of the book. It’s also the point where Bellow is less than his best. It’s not that he’s bad, just regular. It reads at about the rung on the ladder most novels today are written at. The difference is, Bellow climbs way higher.
One of Bellow’s strengths is the ability to give people different manners of speaking. King Dahfu composes with a gentile formality, “This man, as you see, is powerful, and a good man…” while Henderson is full of NYC saliva, “You know what it is,?…It’s the memory of past defeats — past defeats, you can ask me about this problem of past defeats. Brother, I could really tell you.”
Henderson went to Africa to be changed and he is: He’s become Sungo, now wearing ballooning silk pants so transparent we see his stained jockeys underneath. He sports a Woolworth bandana and white pith helmet on his head. The crepe soles of his shoes are now upturned. He fulfills the prophecy of Daniel 4:32 in the Bible, “That they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field, and they shall make the to eat grass as oxen, and they shall wet thee with the dew of heaven.” He remains as lost as ever.
He’s not the only one who knows this. While he sits in a hut with a corpse a voice comes to him, “Dummy!…You are blind…So now do not soften, oh no, brother, intensify rather what you are. This is the one and only ticket — intensify.” We now know and Henderson eventually gets there via some long interactions with two different lions, he must relinquish his adherence to Cartesian dualism. To intensify is to unify. The body and brain are one. The remainder of the story focuses on this question as an overwrought quest. Of course there is the obviousness of there’s a lion and a den. I won’t dwell on all of this nor the biblical references which takes up the remainder of the book until the final last bit because it’s ponderous, and the tone doesn’t quite continue mid-life picaresque that I think Bellow attempted to carry through the novel.
Nonetheless he has his moments as in this sentence: “The instrument sobbed and groaned and croaked as the old fellow polished it with his barbarous bow.” Not one but three o-verbs distinguish the instrument that is not played but polished. The bow is barbarous. The assonance and alliteration hint to the sing song of the thing.
We witness as from the dust of the desert, from the burial place of Lucy (Australopithecus), rises homo sapiens sapiens egoismum, i.e. Henderson, denier of his own unified self. “How did I get so lost?” he asks. “And never mind whose fault it is, how do I get back.” By the end he gets what he really never had, a unified self. And here Bellow in turn, recovers his great style. The ending becomes a redemption, a lesson, a coherence, and a teaching.
Online is found a recording of Saul Bellow reading from HRK at the 92nd Street Y in NYC in 1988. Bellow’s voice is exacting in intonation and phrasing that is the same as I hear in my head when reading. There must be something special in this that shows a writer’s ability. Afterward he takes a few questions. When asked what writers contribute to society, he answers,
“the writer’s role is to provide the best books he can for people who read and would like to read and I think that’s about it.”
All writers are not Hemingway, they don’t need join a war, starve in Paris, hunt elephants and grizzly bears, nearly die in airplanes (twice), and drink heavily, in order to write. All writers are not like Llosa, marrying his uncle’s sister-in-law, being part of political movements, and running for president. Many are more like Bellow, a young man who describes himself as “stubborn enough not to quit” and who thinks he’s one of the group he would characterize as “wimps with word processors.”
The reading by Bellow at the 92nd Street Y may be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNfPegZZbPI