By Charles Matthews

Saturday, November 6, 2010

1. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, pp. 1-33

Henderson the Rain King1-3
Eugene Henderson, an American millionaire in his fifties, is in Africa and on the verge of telling why he went there and what happened to him. But he has a lot of back-story to tell us first about, has he puts it, "my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my soul!" 

His father, for example, was so rich that he "used currency for bookmarks -- whatever he happened to have in his pockets -- fives, ten, or twenties." Henderson inherited three million dollars, after taxes, from him. To his father, Henderson also owes the fact that he wasn't thrown out of the Ivy League university he attended. He tried to please his father by marrying "a girl of our own social class," Frances, whom he describes as "private, fertile, and quiet," and as "a schizophrenic." They were married for "about twenty years" and had five children: Edward, Ricey, Alice, "and two more -- Christ, I've got plenty of children." They were divorced sometime "after V-E Day. Or was it so soon? No, it must have been in 1948." He is now married to Lily "(maiden name Simmons)," with whom he has twin boys.

He's a big man: "Six feet four inches tall. Two hundred and thirty pounds. An enormous head, rugged, with hair like Persian lambs' fur, suspicious eyes, usually narrowed. Blustering ways. A great nose." Lily once described him as "unkillable," which "made me very bitter." He imagines people saying about him,
"Do you see that great big fellow with the enormous nose and the mustache? Well, his great-grandfather was Secretary of State, his great-uncles were ambassadors to England and France, and his father was the famous scholar Willard Henderson who wrote that book on the Albigensians, a friend of William James and Henry Adams."
He torments Lily with his misbehavior, making a scene when she is "entertaining ladies," and smashing bottles at a fancy resort: "The guests complained to the manager about the broken glass and the manager took it up with Lily; me they weren't willing to confront. An elegant establishment, they accept no Jews, and then they get me, E.H. Henderson." And then he threatens to blow his brains out with his pistol, which upsets Lily most of all, because that's the way her father committed suicide.

Okay, we are in the realm of the rampaging id, a place often visited by the postwar generation of novelists who transformed American fiction in the 1950s and '60s: Bellow, Mailer, Malamud, Roth, Heller, Updike et al., all male, mostly Jewish. (Which last I mention only because it adds a fillip to Henderson's haut-Gentile origins.)

Back to Lily, who is almost six feet tall and shares with Henderson the fact that "we both suffer with our teeth." She has a bridge because she lost her four upper incisors when her father, drunk, accidentally knocked them out with a golf club. She is twenty years younger than Henderson, whom she first met at a party he was attending with Frances, who absent-mindedly took their car and left him there. Lily offered him a ride, but it was a snowy night and the car went into a skid. She threw her arms around him in a panic, and he took over the car. They talked for a while and she told him, "You ought to divorce your wife." He was taken aback.

They meet again in the summer, and this time he gives her a ride home to "a small house filled with the odor of closed rooms." They make love in her room during a thunderstorm: "Everything got filled and blinded." She repeats "I love you!" over and over. Although Lily had called her mother and told her, "Don't come home for a while," her mother is there when they go to the living room. "I read the signs. Lily had made sure she would be found out.... I realized that she was mentally listing accounts against Lily. 'In my own house. With a married man.'... Lily blamed her mother for her father's death. And what was I, the instrument of her anger?" When they say goodbye, Lily calls him Eugene and he calls her Miss Simmons. "We didn't part friends exactly."

But they meet again soon, after Lily has moved out of her mother's house and into a small, smelly flat "where the drunks hid from the weather on the staircase" in New York City. And Henderson begins to hear "a ceaseless voice in my heart that said I want, I want, I want." He is "seething with lust and seething with trouble." She asks him, "Are you going to waste the rest of your life?" He thinks of a conversation he had had with Frances that told him their marriage was over: He was "then losing interest in the farm" (he raised pigs) and Frances asked, "what would you like to do now?" When he replied, "I wonder ... if it's too late for me to become a doctor -- if I could enter medical school," she laughed at him.

Lily tells him that she will be thirty in a few years and needs to have a child, and that they'll die if they're not together. But when a year goes by and she doesn't persuade him, she marries a broker from New Jersey -- her second marriage. And he and Frances and their two daughters go to France, where she studies philosophy. Lily shows up again in Paris, having left her husband, though his private detective follows them. She tells Henderson that she decided on the way to the wedding that it was a mistake, and that her husband-to-be punched her in the eye when she tried to get out of the car. "Also, my mother is dead."

He begins to drink as they travel around to the cathedral towns in a little convertible, "and the two of us, of grand size, towered out of the seats, fair and dark, beautiful and drunk." She moralizes about things: "one can't live for this but had to live for that; not evil but good; not death but life; not illusion but reality." But she mumbles and he's slightly deaf in one ear, so he's able to ignore her. But she's also dirty, often neglecting "to wash her underthings until, drunk as I was, I ordered her to.... The tour continued and I was a double captive -- one, of the religion and beauty of the churches which I was not too drunk to see, and two, of Lily, and her glowing and mumbling and her embraces." And once again he threatens to blow his brains out.

They break up in Vézelay. "Yellow dust was dropping from the lime trees, and wild roses grew on the trunks of the apple trees. Pale red, gorged red, fiery, aching, harsh as anger, sweet as drugs." They fight and he bursts into tears, and finally he leaves her at the train station and drives to the south of France, where he visits an aquarium:
I looked in at an octopus, and the creature seemed also to look at me and press its soft head to the glass, flat, the flesh becoming pale and granular -- blanched, speckled. The eyes spoke to me coldly. But even more speaking, even more cold, was the soft head with its speckles, and the Brownian motion in those speckles, a cosmic coldness in which I felt I was dying. The tentacles throbbed and motioned through the class, the bubbles sped upward, and I thought, "This is my last day. Death is giving me notice." 

So much for my suicide threat to Lily. 

But he doesn't die. He goes to Africa. And he's still telling us why.

After the war, he becomes a pig farmer. It seems to be a fulfillment of a decision made while fighting in Italy, where he and Nicky Goldstein were the only survivors of his original unit. They talked one day about what they would do after the work, and when Goldstein says he's going to have a mink ranch in the Catskills, Henderson "said, or my demon said for me, 'I'm going to start breeding pigs.' And after these words were spoken I knew that if Goldstein had not been a Jew I might have said cattle and not pigs. So then it was too late to retract." He goes home and converts the family estate into "a pig kingdom, with pig houses on the lawn and in the flower garden. The greenhouse, too -- I let them root out the old bulbs. Statues from Florence and Salzburg were turned over. The place stank of swill and pigs and the mashes cooking, and dung." The neighbors complain and call the health officer, but Henderson only reminds him that "Hendersons have been on this property over two hundred years." Frances says only, "Please keep them off the driveway."

He realizes that he has gotten far away from explaining why he went to Africa, and tries to restart the narrative. After several false starts, he talks again about the war:
The war meant much to me.... The whole experience gave my heart a large and real emotion. Which I continually require.... Well, I've always been like this, strong and healthy, rude and aggressive and something of a bully in boyhood; at college I wore gold earrings to provoke fights, and while I got an M.A. to please my father I always behaved like an ignorant man and a bum.... A student of the mind once explained to me that if you inflict your anger on inanimate things, you not only spare the living, as a civilized man outhg to do, but you get rid of the bad stuff in you.... On my own place, stripped to the waist like a convict, I broke stones with a sledgehammer. It helped, but not enough. Rude begets rude, and blows, blows; at least in my case; it not only begot but it increased. Wrath increased with wrath.
And always there's the voice: I want, I want! But it won't tell him what it wants. The voice only lets up toward nightfall, and he begins to think of listening to it as his occupation "because it would knock off at five o'clock of itself."

He takes up the violin as a cure, having his father's old violin restored. As his strength declined, and after the death of Henderson's brother Dick, his father shut himself away and played the violin. And one day on the way to his violin lesson Henderson meets Lily again. He is divorced and Frances has stayed in Europe. It has been a year since he put Lily on the train. She tells him she's engaged and that her mother is dead. But he remembers that she had told him in France that she had died. Lily admits that she had lied and that she has sold the house where he met her mother and wants him to have something from it. When she tells him it's a rug, he guesses it's the rug from her bedroom. When she sends it to him, he puts it on the floor in the basement where he practices the violin. He continues coming into the city for violin lessons and seeing Lily.

"We courted for about eighteen months, and then we got married, and then the children were born." He gets rid of most of the pigs, and spends his time trying "to reach my father by playing on his violin." As he practices, he is "keeping time with the voice within."

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