Well, we’re into a new year. And hopefully this is the year I finish the 100 greatest novels. After the three novels we’re talking about today, I only have 17 left. That’s crazy. It’s been a long, challenging, and enjoyable adventure through these books. I’m not really sure how I’m going to choose what books to read if I don’t have a list to follow. Also, new books are expensive. It saved me money reading all these older cheap and sometimes free books. Anyway, let’s get to it.
I was really looking forward to reading this book because the previous novel by Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King, was a hilarious adventure. At first, I struggled to get into the story. It was nothing like Henderson the Rain King, it wasn’t even funny. But once I got past my hangups, the story really captured me. Following around Augie March from early childhood into adulthood, we get to watch him go through numerous adventures. Growing up in the Great Depression in Chicago to a poor family, Augie uses his wit and some good luck to more around from job to job, education opportunity to criminal opportunity, woman to woman. Living in drastically different situations from chapter to chapter, it was exciting to see where Augie would end up next. And through all of this, Saul Bellow gives us an incredible image of America (and Mexico for a few chapters) during this tumultuous time period. We get an exploration of a person, an exploration of a country, and an exploration of human existence. And it’s worth exploring all of this.
So I went into this book not knowing anything about it or the author. And because of this, it was a great experience to unfold the layers of this story. At first we meet the main character, a disabled historian who has an obviously tense relationship with his son (and most likely the rest of his family). After learning of him and his situation, we find out he is writing a novel based on his grandmother’s experiences as an artist from the East coast who marries a miner and travels the western frontier in the late 18o0s. The novel jumps back and forth between the historian’s daily activities and issues and the engrossing story of this frontier woman trying to survive in these extreme places. In between these two narrations, we get sections and whole copies of letters from the grandmother sent to her friend who still lives in New York City. By the end of the novel, I wasn’t really sure whose story I was more involved in, whose story I cared more about. But once they get tied together, it’s an incredibly satisfying payoff for reading two distinct stories throughout.
As you know, I’ve been somewhat annoyed with this list because of the similar narratives. Numerous British novels with almost identical stories. So anytime I get to a novel with a new location, a new story, anything, I’m excited. And this novel provided all of this and more. This novel is set in an unnamed country in central Africa during the tumultuous period after colonialism began to end. Many African countries accomplished their independence in from the European powers between the end of World War II and the 1970s. Sometimes independence came easily, bloodless. Sometimes it took years of warfare. And after independence, numerous countries dealt with civil wars and destabilized governments. Anyways, A Bend in the River takes place amongst all of this. And it’s really a simple story of a man who owns a store by the river and watches all the changes and growth of his city, his nation, and Africa in general. Between the numerous characters, we see how these changes effect different people: politicians, foreign businessmen, students, people from the tribes, people from the coast, etc. They all have unique experiences and deal with the changes around them differently. And this creates a dense, multi-faceted viewpoint of the decolonization of Africa.
So let’s keep moving forward. Next is The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. We should be coming to the end of the list soon!