“And who could blame me, after that trip across the mountain floor on which there was no footprint, the stars flaming like oranges, those multimillion tons of exploding gas looking so mild and fresh in the dark of the sky; and altogether, that freshness, you know, that is like autumn freshness when you go out of the house in the morning and find the flowers have waked in the frost with piercing life?” —Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
You could really choose just about any sentence. Bellow’s warty, thronging, thrilling style is in place throughout Henderson the Rain King, and short of opening the book at random, I’ve chosen one that seems to describe and embody the joy of reading Bellow with its own zany, energetic figuration. Right out of the gate there’s a hokiness, a reflexive corniness—leave it to Bellow to leap from self-rebuke to the cosmos in the span of a single clause—but also a raw exhilaration. This sentence falls early in the book, as Eugene Henderson plods out into the African bush, in search of relief more than salvation. But relief from what?
Bellow’s characters always seem afflicted, pecked by their mistresses and wives and parents and children. Henderson is a brute, a buffoon, an egotist, and a lunatic: he can get away from anything except from himself. And that’s where this book, this sentence, and Bellow in general all seem to excel, in these drastic, cosmic, Whitmanesque expansions. (It’s weird that David Foster Wallace didn’t mention Bellow in his litany of “Great Male Narcissists,” since neither Mailer, Roth nor Updike were quite so narcissistic as SB; I’d argue that none were really as great either.)
The key to the sentence is in its metaphor: the stars that flame “like oranges.” Those oranges are so Bellow, fragrant and sensual, and again, faintly ridiculous. (Oranges? Really? The stars?) It’s that shuttlecock that passes so relentlessly between the metaphysical, the mystic and the mundane, that defines him, that makes him, for my money, so much more than a boring novelist of the self. This sentence is filled, of course, with tension: with “exploding” gas and “mild” sky; the exotica of the African prairie and the homeliness of domestic life (“you know”—how beautifully Bellow leans over and familiarizes the insanity, aligns our experience with that of a demented, at the very least manic-depressive, millionaire—“when you go out of the house in the morning”).
The word ‘fresh” appears three times, but only, I think, to set up the plunging blade of “piercing.” (Flowers! These are “flowers” that are so piercing.) To the extent that it turns on itself, setting up a lathe that can accept neither beauty nor isolation (special mention, too, to that mountain floor without a footprint: Bellow had never been to Africa when he wrote Henderson The Rain King, and its easy to see in these thrilling descriptions the egotistic congratulation of a writer inventing—my God—a very cradle of civilization from scratch), the writing punches through.
Beyond the consolations of beauty, and beyond the limits of the speaker’s own boundless self-regard, Bellow gives us something else, legitimately ecstatic. In his excellent, if at times weirdly reactionary, essay on Bellow in The Irresponsible Self, James Wood refers to reading him as “a special way of being alive.” This is true. Not even Walt Whitman, or James Joyce—none of Bellow’s forebearers, really—were quite so able to resolve this tension between the isolation and the amplitude of being; neither was quite so tickled by the very things that horrified him and vice versa. (Elsewhere, Henderson considers the notion of “reality” just so: “I love the old bitch just the way she is and I like to think I am always prepared for the very worst she has to show me. I am a true adorer of life, and if I can’t reach as high as the face of it, I plant my kiss somewhere lower down.”) If Bellow’s approximate novelistic peers (I suppose he was fifteen years older than Updike and Roth; he had only eight years on Mailer) were cranially stranded, myopically obsessed with their own psychosexual stature, Bellow himself was chasing much bigger fish, working away at that intolerable, and infinite, tension between self and surround. I simply can’t get enough of him.
Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Believer, Tin House, Black Clock, and other publications. He is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.