Thursday, March 23, 2017

Henderson the Rain King and Herzog by Saul Bellow

Recently I joined GoodReads and I am linking up my reviews here with there as an experiment.  We'll see how this works.

I haven't read Bellow in years but I'm going to be reading him now because I bought three collections of his stories from the Library of America.  I remember in my twenties I liked him but I was frustrated by the lack of storyline.  Now I know better.  There is never really any story line in Bellow's novels, only the stream of conscious thoughts of the protagonist as he tries to figure his life out.

Henderson the Rain King

Henderson the Rain KingHenderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is just a crazy book about a man, Henderson, traveling to Africa and trying to help out some native tribes. With one tribe he succeeds in destroying their only water cistern. The next tribe tries to make him their next king because he participates in some native dance which causes rain.

As is true for most of Bellow's stories, the protagonist is on some kind of journey where he is struggling to discover just who he is, what he wants, and why he is suffering the way he is. He desires something that is always out of reach and attempting to get it takes him to some interesting, sometimes terrible places, including disconcerting discoveries about himself.

 We hear Henderson's voice in the first person as he explains his life to us.  He is married once, then twice to women that are as bizarre as he is.  I cannot really figure out why he left his first wife for the second except that he was tired of her.  The second wife is a bit crazy, but she was somehow able to lure him away from the first wife through sex appeal, for lack of a better description. This is a common theme in Bellow's works.  Man thinking through his nether region as Chaucer or Shakespeare might say (or might not, who am I to presume?).

Bellow's characters do a lot of nether region thinking and tend to find themselves married to psycho-women.

Henderson runs to Africa.  He is always searching for something, but what?  He wants to be a millionaire and he gets it through an inheritance.  He buys a pig farm (Henderson is not Jewish but Bellow is and I wonder if he's trying to say something satirical) but it doesn't satisfy.

"I want, I want!" is his rallying cry and the recurring theme of this novel.

So he is in Africa and meets up with natives.  One tribe  is suffering from thirst; their cattle are dying, but not because there is no water.  Their water hole has frogs in it and the superstitions of the tribe prevent them from drinking from it or even letting their cattle drink.

Henderson is inspired to do something.  He decides to blow the frogs out of the water hole with dynamite.  He succeeds and also destroys the water hole.  He leaves.

His next encounter is with a tribe whose King wants Henderson to help him recover his Father who has been reincarnated as a lion.

Before this episode, however, Henderson must participate in a dance that will make it rain. He does and it rains.  He also moves a statue of the tribe's goddess.  Frankly I did not understand a whole lot of what was going on here.  Why did he need to move the statue?

Or why did he need to learn how to act like a lion, other than to communicate with the King's father?  It does not turn out as planned and the lion kills the King and Henderson is next in line to be King.

But he does not want to become king.  Upon first arriving at the tribal land he stays the night in a building wherein is a dead man.  Who this man is is a mystery but not forever.   Henderson realizes that the dead man in the building was the previous king to the current one and it doesn't take a brain surgeon, or any kind of surgeon, to realize what the future will hold for him.

So Henderson escapes and returns to his family and his pig farm.

I have to admit that while I like reading Bellow's style, I really did not understand this book at all and I must say reading about Henderson roving about Africa  was not terribly interesting.

HerzogHerzog by Saul Bellow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Unlike Henderson the Rain King, Herzog is written in the third person limited narrative. We hear only Herzog's thoughts, see things from his perspective...this is normally how Bellow narrates his stories.

Herzog (like Henderson) has left his first wife and young son for a seamy siren whom he marries and with whom he eventually has a young daughter. Again, like Henderson's second wife, Herzog's second wife is nuts. She leaves him for one of Herzog's friends (always an especially low blow) and tries to keep him away from their daughter.

Herzog spends a lot of time thinking to himself. He thinks about his wives, his friends, famous people, their actions, how these actions affected him, how his participation fit in with everyone else's behavior. He decides to write letters to every single one of these people and explain to them their role in his life and his opinion of them and himself.

While he recovers from his wife's betrayal, he meets another woman, Ramona, who is gorgeous and eager. She carefully prepares her apartment, culinary talents and personality, not to mention her talent as a sex partner to dazzle and completely him win over.

She is a woman in her thirties who is running out of time.

Herzog enjoys all she has to offer but there is something inside of him that says, this is a little too artificial. Hadn't he been here before with the last wife? Another part of him wants to believe that this next chapter is going to erase the misery of the previous chapters of his life.

The story ends with us not knowing where Herzog is going.

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  1. i've frequently wondered about Bellow, and even once tried to read one of his books; it was kind of like trying to read a chemistry manual in another language... not successful... admire you for actually completing one of his, and with the nice review, now i don't have to worry about reading him anymore... tx for that...

    1. Ha, ha, ha Mudpuddle. You can't get out of reading Bellow that easily. Although I admit I have another friend who says she enjoys reading my reviews because it makes her feel as though she's read a lot more than she has.

      Having said that, I think I enjoyed Bellow more when I was young but only because I had just moved away from Chicago to the South and it was nice to read his stories because so many of them take place in Chicago. It allowed me to vicariously feel as though I were still living there.

  2. Hi Sharon.

    Great reviews of these books. I have not read Bellow. It sounds as if he might have had marital issues based on your descriptions of these stories!

    I also have come to understand fiction that does not have a lot of storyline. When I was younger this kind of book also puzzled me.

    Have a great weekend!

    1. Hi Brian! I know that Bellow did base his fiction on his actual life. I have a biography of him that I haven't read yet, but the review says that he antagonized a lot of his friends and family by the way he depicted them in his stories.

      Have a wonderful weekend.

  3. I remember Bellow from college days, but I can't for the life of me remember what I've read by him. Good for you reading all these important classics. Goodreads has made it very easy for me to keep track of books I've read or want to read, very user friendly. I'll have to look for you on there. :)

    1. Hi Marcia. I enjoyed Bellow better when I was in college. I believe I am following you on Goodreads. :)

  4. I did not immediately remember the details of Herzog, for I thought that the Japanese mistress came after, not before the last ex-wife. But it strikes me who closely the circumstances align with Humboldt's Revenge: there is the vengeful ex-wife, there is the hot mistress--in HR she is I think Renata rather than Ramona.

    Perhaps this is a case of "write what you know". Wilfrid Sheed in one of his novels has a quip about "the alimony period of American literature", when the number of one's marriages was a gauge of one's capacity for taking risks.

    I think that HR was the latest of his novels that I read. Of them, Seize the Day seemed the best.

    1. Hi George. I think it is Humboldt's Gift, but I haven't read it in years and you're right. The characters closely resemble each other. Renata was the name of the mistress.

      Funny you should mention Seize the Day. That was the first one I read and liked it so much that I went to my local bookstore and bought every other book they had of Bellow: HG; Him with His Foot in His Mouth and other Stories and a few others.

      I agree. Seize the Day is the best.

  5. Yes! Three cheers for Henderson! I loved it! Your posting brought back good memories of a superb book. Because of you, I will be reading it again, but first I'm taking on Twain at my revived blog.

  6. Hi Tim. Glad to meet a Bellow fan. I actually have all of Bellow's novels and will be reviewing each one eventually.

    So now you have another blog. You are the most interesting blogger I know. I never know what's coming next. Have a great weekend!

    1. Not another blog. Same address:

    2. Okey doke. Will hop over and visit.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.