The Secret Lives of Used Books (Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow)
This copy of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King somehow made its way from the library of Maria Assumpta College, in London, to a secondhand shop in Carmel, California. Tracing the book’s history led to stories as strange and wonderful as the novel itself.
Maria Assumpta College was a Catholic vocational school that operated in Kensington Square from 1946 to 1978 and was dedicated to training teachers. The library file card, tucked into the back of the book, shows that several students checked the book out over the years: V. Terry, Vanessa Blake, and M. Caton [sp?] in 1969; Joy Weston in 1974; and an unidentifiable student in 1977.
Charmingly, around this same time, the nun-run college successfully applied for a liquor license and ended up operating a popular discotheque on the premises, where two members of the rock band Queen found love. In 1971, John Deacon, the band’s bassist (most memorably heard on “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Under Pressure”), met and fell in love with Maria Assumpta College student Veronica Tetzlaff, for whom he would later write the song “You’re My Best Friend,” the second-biggest hit off the band’s 1975 LP, A Night at the Opera (second, of course, to “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Deacon’s feelings were true. He and Tetzlaff have been married for more than forty-five years, and are the parents of six children. (There’s a story that Deacon even auditioned for the band at the college’s disco.)
Also in the early 1970s and at the same venue, Queen guitarist Brian May met Christine Mullen, another of the college’s students, with whom he would have three children over the course of a fourteen-year marriage.
While researching the history of this particular used copy, I ended up in an exchange with a woman who was on staff at the college from 1973 to 1978. She recognized two of the names on the library file card, and said of those days, “Great time to be young in London and I was the same age as the students so socialised with them after work.” She also revealed that her own Queen connection extended even further: “Much later (and nothing to do with the College), I was asked to help find some kittens for Freddie Mercury via his friend, Mary Austin. She had rung the Blue Cross Animal Hospital. They did not have any kittens at the time, but I worked by then for the RSPCA Putney Animal Hospital and had hand-reared kittens who had lost their mothers. So off these orphans went to Freddie who adored cats. He spoke to them via the telephone when he was on tour!”
This touching tale echoes some equally touching passages near the end of Henderson the Rain King, passages in which Henderson is recalling his days as a young drifter, when he ended up part of a two-bit carnival act in Ontario, with an old bear named Smolak that had been abandoned by its trainer:
This ditched old creature was almost green with time and down to his last teeth, like the pits of dates. For this shabby animal Hanson [the carnival master] had thought up a use . . . There was a month yet to the end of the season, and every day of this month Smolak and I rode on a roller coaster together before large crowds. This poor broken ruined creature and I, alone, took the high rides twice a day. And while we climbed and dipped and swooped and swerved and rose again higher than the Ferris wheels and fell, we held on to each other. By a common bond of despair we embraced, cheek to cheek, as all support seemed to leave us and we started down the perpendicular drop. I was pressed into his long-suffering, age-worn, tragic, and discolored coat as he grunted and cried to me. At times the animal would wet himself. But he was apparently aware I was his friend and he did not claw me . . . Smolak and I were outcasts together, two humorists before the crowd, but brothers in our souls — I enbeared by him, and he probably humanized by me . . .
And as Smolak (mossy like a forest elm) and I rode together, and as he cried out at the top, beginning the bottomless rush over those skimpy yellow supports, and up once more against eternity’s blue (oh, the stuff that has been done within this envelope of color, this subtle bag of life-giving gases!) while the Canadian hicks were rejoicing underneath with red faces, all the nubble-fingered rubes, we hugged each other, the bear and I, with something greater than terror and flew in those gilded cars. I shut my eyes in his wretched, time-abused fur. He held me in his arms and gave me comfort. And the great thing is that he didn’t blame me. He had seen too much of life, and somewhere in his huge head he had worked it out that for creatures there is nothing that ever runs unmingled.
I picture Freddie Mercury, a camp humorist before worldwide crowds, riding the gilded roller coaster of fame, with all of its soaring heights and plunging depths (fortune and acclaim, a dread infection, a semi-closeted public existence until hours before the end), clinging to his kittens, he enfelined by them as they were humanized by him, friends never unmingled despite an intercontinental touring schedule.
Another story involves Heather Piercey, one of Maria Assumpta College’s earliest enrollees. The daughter of William Joyce — he who gained everlasting notoriety as Lord Haw-Haw, the Nazi propagandist — Piercey was also the step-daughter of Oswald Mosley’s bodyguard, Mosley having been the leader of the British Union of Fascists from 1932 to 1940, before being incarcerated and then placed under house arrest for the duration of the war.
In 1949, three years after her father had gone to the gallows for high treason, Piercey entered Maria Assumpta College with a head full of inherited anti-Semitism, only to fall into a romantic relationship with a young man she later discovered was Jewish. They remained friends for the rest of their lives — Piercey even joining the man and his eventual wife on trips, including to Israel. In the mid-1960s, Piercey began attending synagogue services two Saturdays a month in addition to Catholic mass every Sunday, partly to atone for all that she and hers had once represented. She also became an active member in an ecumenical organization called the Council of Christians and Jews.
Through it all, however, she remained loyal to the memory of her father, in his role as a father — affectionate and doting, a man she last saw and spoke with when she was but an adoring eight-year-old daughter. As for his noxious racial ideologies, she took a “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach.
Charity, forgiveness, redemption, atonement — hers is a story straight out of scripture.