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 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.
Herzog 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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