On Henderson the Rain King

I’m trying to go back and read more of the classics. Not the 19th-century classics – Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Bronte, Tolstoy, or Hawthorne (though I probably should) – but the 20th-century classics. I’ve been collecting Bellow, Vonnegut, Conrad, Joyce, Ellison, and Orwell on my bookshelves.

I’m not terribly familiar with the great literature, particularly of the 20th-century. I didn’t take a single English or Literature class in college so my education stopped at my high school graduation. With a couple well-worn exceptions (The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird), we didn’t spend much time in the 20th-century in high school. In hindsight, it’s not difficult to see why.

List after list of the greatest novels of the century include some real doozies at the top. In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov writes about an older man’s pursuit of a teenage girl. Huxley’s Brave New World offers detailed accounts of recreational drug use, eugenics, and state-enforced sexual promiscuity. Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man is filled with stream-of-consciousness accounts of encounters with prostitutes and vivid, dozen-page descriptions of hellfire and damnation. There’s some odd stuff out there.

There are a few that usually end up somewhere near the top, but there’s also incredible variation. So I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me when I started reading some and found that I didn’t particularly care for them. I’m reading Portrait of the Artist right now and I don’t think I’ll put it on top of any lists, but I’m also not finished so I’ll withhold judgment beyond that. The one that really surprised me, however, was Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King.

Bellow tends to leave me scratching my head in a way others often don’t. In his column for the New York Times, explaining an odd and perhaps racist statement he made about Papuans and Zulus, he unfurled the following: “Give us a week’s moratorium, dear lord, from the idiocies that burn on every side and let the pure snows cool these overheated minds and dilute the toxins that have infected our judgments.” I marvel over his words even as I recoil slightly at the ideas. Read one paragraph three times and then wish I’d skipped the next.

In Rain King, Bellow describes the journey of a bumbling narcissist named Henderson to Africa to find himself. He decorates the bizarre and engaging story of such a self-absorbed man’s self-serving journey with both demeaning descriptions of Africans (written from Henderson’s perspective, there could be no other descriptions) and stunning language. Henderson describes the villagers at his final destination as brutes, masses, savages, or Amazons. The African king of the village, on the other hand, is eloquent, philosophical, and incisive:  “We are funny creatures. We don’t see the stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects but endless fire.”

There’s a calendar hanging on my wall. I got it from The New Yorker and each month is accompanied by one of their favorite cartoons of the previous year. It’s been open to August for almost three months now. I wrote about the cartoon a few weeks ago, but it has a picture of a man and woman staring at a framed display in an art museum. The woman is speaking and the caption reads: I said “I wonder what it means,” not “Tell me what it means.”

There’s a lot about gender dynamics and male arrogance going on in the cartoon, but it rests on the universal frustration of hobbyists with those who explain art to them, strip it of the mystery. I might have to go back and read some of these again later. A few more books may make me feel on more solid ground when I say that I just didn’t like Henderson the Rain King that much; that I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it held a candle to Augie March. On the other hand, I’m telling myself what it means right now; leaving books with definite notions of what happened and what was there to value. Maybe encountering heavier and deeper and more bizarre works of literary art will make me a little more open to wondering what it means. Who knows.

Language, ReviewPeter Amosreview