Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Henderson the Rain King (1959) by Saul Bellow

Eugene Henderson resembles a description of actor Brian Dennehy
Book Review
Henderson the Rain King (1959)
 by Saul Bellow

  You can tell when an artist has achieved financial stability because the work rate goes way down.  The percentage of artists who continue to turn out top flight works year after year in the period after they've achieved financial stability is a small percentage of financially successful artists, who are of course a tiny, tiny percentage of total people devoted full or part time to an artistic endeavor.   For Saul Bellow, that threshold was reached in 1953, when The Adventures of Augie March was published.  Augie March won the national book award and sold buckets, securing Bellow the kind of financial stability that allowed him to take several years to write and publish Seize the Day (1957), itself a novella.  Henderson the Rain King followed in '59.  It achieved success on a par with Augie March.

  For the first time, Bellow takes his action outside of the western hemisphere (Augie March had scenes said in the interior of Mexico.)  His hero, Eugene Henderson, is a larger-than-life type of fellow, think Brian Dennehy   Henderson is an unhappy rich white guy, on his second wife, his second batch of kids, aimlessly raising pigs on his families spread in Danbury Connecticut.   He resembles nothing so much as an 18th century English Aristocrat, the kind who didn't attend school or do anything except hunt and collect rents from their estate.  Bellow has updated the type- Henderson attended Harvard and flirts with the idea of returning to school to become a Doctor.  

  Like, Augie March, which integrated two centuries of bildgungsroman into a particular American milieu, Henderson the Rain King traverses the history of literature for elements while also making an indelibly contemporary statement.  Timely and timeless at the same time, that's literature for you.  On a whim, Henderson decides to travel to Africa, where he hires a guide and hikes out into the bush of Central Africa- it sounds like the Central African Republic or perhaps Southern Chad.   In the bush, he encounters two different African tribes, both with western educated leaders.

 His encounters with these leaders constitutes the core of the book, and both Kings are foils in the sense of an 18th century philosophical discourse.  Henderson is repeatedly asked what he is doing out in the bush, and his answers, and actual experiences end up being something like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness crossed with Monty Python.  It's impossible to treat Henderson as other than a comic novel.  The description of Africans and their leaders aren't insulting, but they are hardly realistic.   Africa is like a a psychic projection of Henderson, like the whole thing could be taking place inside his head at a mental hospital.


Monday, December 14, 2015

The Romani Gypsy (2015) by Yaron Matras

Path of the Gypsy Romani migration out of India
Book Review
The Romani Gypsy (2015)
 by Yaron Matras

   It is really, really difficult to get reliable information about the Romani Gypsy because their language is unwritten.  They have suffered from all the indignities that minority populations have suffered in the 20th century.  Their entrance into Europe was largely as slaves in what is present day Romania. In recent centuries, isolate populations in western Europe have lost their language entirely and are placed in a situation similar to that of Native American tribes in the United States, trying to resurrect a language few speak fluently.

  The most useful parts of The Romani Gypsy are just the straight forward, historical facts that he lays out about their history and culture.  The Rom/Romani/Gypsy trace their roots back to western India.  They speak a language that is akin to contemporary Hindi or Urdu.  In India, they were a caste of craftsman and maybe travelling entertainers.  They left India at some point, and probably spent time in Central Asia under Turkic rule.  Matras is a linguist, and he uses hisorical-linguistic arguments in a way similar to the methods employed by Indo European linguists.

  After that, the Rom spent centuries in the Byzantine empire, where Greek entered the Rom language in a big way.  The fall of the Byzantine Empire was disruptive to the Rom, and many entered into Southeastern Europe with the Ottoman Empire  Their entrance into Western Europe and the consciousness of the West was in the 15th century, where Rom coming from Romania and southeastern Europe arrived in larger kin groups, often bearing letters of recommendation describing themselves as "Egyptians."

  Once they arrived in Western Europe, they attracted local camp followers.  In places like Germany, England and Spain local "traveler" groups developed semi-independently of the eastern European Rom. Besides laying out the true history of the Gypsy Romani migration into the West, he also does an excellent job describing hitherto undescribed beliefs of the Romani civilization.  These are practices common to both Rom and Traveler groups, and provide the strongest evidence besides shared vocabulary/language that they are all part of one ethnicity.

Rabbit, Run (1960) by John Updike

Book Review
Rabbit, Run (1960)
 by John Updike

  John Updike actually worked at the New Yorker before going full time as a novelist.  He personifies the idea of "New Yorker Fiction" in my mind,  He's white, he's male, he lives in New England. Rabbit, Run was the first novel in his tetralogy about Rabbit Angstrom, a former high school basketball star who has trouble to adjusting to life after stardom.

   At the beginning of Rabbit, Run  Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is unhappily married to a young woman named Janice who is heavily pregnant and heavily drinking.  He works demonstrating a "slicer dicer" in a department store. Janice and Harry already have one child, a boy, who is a toddler.  He is 26.   Based on feelings of alienation and ennui, Angstrom abandons Janice in favor of the company of a part-time prostitute in the town next door.

  Although published in 1960, Angstrom is a quintessential 1950s character.  In the preface John Updike wrote for the collected Harry Angstrom novels, he mentions how he read Jack Kerouac and the writers of the Beat Generation "with horror" because they "abandoned their responsibilities."  At the same time Rabbit, Run is racier than I had imagined.  Sexuality is addressed as frankly as one would see in a Henry Miller novel, and there are female solliguys that owe a direct debt to the sexually frank passages in Ulysses by James Joyce (Updike acknowledges the debt in his foreword.)
 Updike is one of those "so square that he's hip again."  He's still awaiting something like a first revival after being canonized even before his own death.  Rabbit, Run is a sharp, fresh take on contemporary American life circa the mid 1950s.

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