The Adventures of Saul Bellow:
Progress of a Novelist
WITH the publication of Henderson the Rain King (Viking, $4.50), Saul Bellow confirms one’s impression that he is just about the best novelist of his generation. The new book has faults; it is uneven, it is sometimes diffuse. And besides the liability of its real faults, it makes its appeal to literary-qualities which, although very much in the American tradition, Serious Readers have learned during the last decades to scorn. For much of its length Henderson is a “romance” rather than a “novel.” It forfeits some of the virtues of the novel (realism, plausibility, specificity), but gains some of the virtues of romance (abstraction, freedom of movement, extreme expressions of pathos, beauty, and terror). The book is sometimes farcical, melodramatic, zany-qualities that Serious Readers know, know all too well, are inferior to Realism and Tragedy. But Henderson has realism and tragedy too, although not so much as some of Bellow’s other writings.
Bellow has chosen a fertile subject-a demented American aristocrat at loose ends and in search of his soul. This is a subject which, before Henderson the Rain King, few if any American novelists had thought of using, except at the relatively low level of imaginative intensity that characterizes the polite novel of manners. In the brutal, loony, yet finally ennobled Henderson we have a character who for dire realism and significant modernity far surpasses in dramatic intensity
the frustrated aristocrats portrayed by writers like Edith Wharton and J. P. Marquand. It is interesting, by the way, that of the few reviewers of Henderson I have read, none mentioned the patrician heritage of the hero, although this heritage is of cardinal importance in understanding him. It is as if the reviewers still regard “an aristocrat” as nothing but a walking collection of manners and therefore unsuitable for portraiture in anything but a novel of manners. Yet even in democratic-America the well-born may receive as part of their birthright a certain dynamism, a distortion of character, a tendency to extreme behavior, or other qualities not easily expressed by a novel of manners.
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