Henderson the Rain King – Saul Bellow

Henderson the Rain King has been taking up space on my shelves for over 10 years since I bought it cheap at Pumpkin book store, which closed in the 1990s I think!  Bellow was a set novelist on my American Literature course, though to my shame I never finished a single one of his books.  I had picked this one up at the time of purchase, but put it down as not to my taste.  However, I have been a more determined reader recently.  I certainly needed to be.

Bellow pays homage to the great American novel when his protagonist and narrator compares himself with Ishmael from Moby Dick, and the narrative ends with a similar focus on the great hunter, and his prey, the lion.  For Bellow the lion is symbol of existential power, and he copies his African host who attempts to absorb the power of the lion by living with it, and imitating it.  I am what I do – the existential credo.

More recently Bellow has been accused of racism in this book, and his portrayal of Africa and Africans is founded on outdated stereotypes.  The period in Africa was the least satisfying part of the novel – a wildly delirious dream in the view of one critic.  It was a crazy book and quite artificial in its treatment of existentialism, and in its mid-twentieth century take on the great American novel.  I was glad to finish it – to get it over with.

Henderson the rain King – 21 out of 100 best novels it says here!

NY Times Book Review – 1959


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