Saul Bellow

THE LAUREATE: Saul Bellow was actually born in Quebec from parents who had emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia. The family moved to Chicago when Bellow was 9. He read and wrote from an early age, and studied anthropology and sociology. He moved around, teaching at various universities and marrying and divorcing frequently. At his death in 2005, he was lamented as one of the greatest American novelists.

WHAT I’M READING: Henderson the Rain KingREVIEW: I hate to say it, but I had to give up about halfway through Henderson. Almost exactly halfway, actually. Here’s a recap of what I read and why it bothered me. So, Henderson was born to a rich family of American aristocrats (he even says “I’m an aristocrat, I don’t have time to wait around” at one point). After World War 2, he takes up pig farming and playing the violin to burn off some of his excess violence and energy. He can only manage to contain himself for so long before he decides to buy a one-way plane ticket to Africa to just get the hell out of there on a safari with one of his school friends and his wife. That lasts about two weeks before he heads out on his own into the deepest jungles of Africa (we’ll get to that in a second.). When he comes to this village in Africa, there is a terrible problem: frogs in the water supply! Water is sacred to the people of this village, but so are things in the water, even if it kills them! But don’t worry, Henderson is there to save the day! Hooray! Except he doesn’t! And that’s about where I stopped.

So, Henderson’s problem was that he had no idea what his purpose in life was. He was trying to find himself, and constantly worried that the world wouldn’t let him be the raging asshole he knew he was in his heart. Maybe the world was different in the 60s, but if a rich asshole in America today can’t live free and be a rich asshole, he’s doing life wrong. Some people (namely, some reviewer on Amazon I read) were offended that Bellow didn’t research anything at all about Africa before sending his protagonist there, but I find that thematically appropriate. Henderson doesn’t give two shits about Africa qua Africa or the complex social and political negotiations that make navigating life there difficult for outsiders or the desolation that warlords and colonial armies leave in their wake and what havoc that wreaks on the people who have to live through it: he wants his goddamn vision quest.

RECOMMENDED: No, but I won’t discount Saul Bellow entirely. If I have time and energy, I will read The Adventures of Augie March and add that review to this one.

WHAT’S NEXT: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray


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