Monday, November 21, 2005

Saul Bellow: Augie March

Saul Bellow's third novel, The Adventures of Augie March, involved commitment as a reader. I believed there would be a payoff, and sure enough the odyssey of Augie, the first person narrator, sucked me in somewhere around page 300 and took me along for the ride. I did have to study it--in the sense that I had to read it a chapter or two at a time, sitting at the dining room table (in other words, not in bed), with good lighting and a pen in my hand. Below is a summation of the book provided by Penguin Readers Guides:

by Saul Bellow

The Adventures of Augie March burst on the postwar literary scene with the exuberance of a great American author finding his true voice. The most freewheeling of Bellow's heroes, Augie paints a fresh, gritty, comic view of the American landscape and poses anew the perennial questions: How do you reconcile freedom and love? How do you simultaneously find liberty and home in a chaotic world?

Bellow was already a well-known author when he began writing his third novel, but his early works, Dangling Man and The Victim, are very different books, written in a constrained, naturalistic form that he ultimately rejected as too limiting. Their central characters, introspective intellectuals trapped in claustrophobic circumstances, are reminiscent of Kafka's narrators. "I was afraid to let myself go," Bellow says of these works. He discarded the drafts of two additional novels because he felt they, too, were too bleak. Tired of the "solemnity of complaint," the plaintive tone he heard in the novels of his contemporaries and in his own first books, Bellow turned to his boyhood home in Chicago for inspiration.

The change proved immensely liberating and gave rise to the colorful cast of Augie March: Grandma Lausch, Einhorn, Five Properties, Dingbat, and many others, all of whom were rooted in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Bellow's youth. Augie, a poor but spirited boy growing up in Chicago during the Depression, leaves his mother and disabled younger brother to find his way in the world. He enters a wild succession of occupations— dog groomer, saddle soap salesman, smuggler, shoplifter, boxing coach—guided by an equally fantastic array of mentors. Each of these "recruiters" attempts to determine Augie's lot in life, but whenever he is at risk of being taken by a person or profession, he slips away to a new misadventure, equal parts joiner and escapist. Not until his affair with Thea Fenchel does Augie begin to realize that love and independence are irreconcilable.

In one sense Augie is a characteristic Bellow hero, a young man with an ironic sense of the world, wary of taking direct action but certain that he belongs to a greater destiny. Like Bellow's other central characters, he is intent on finding a "good enough fate" eager to write his own part on life's stage yet stubbornly resistant to the limits imposed by any scripted role. But he is also dramatically different from the brooding thinkers of Bellow's early works. Augie is playful, subversive, adventurous, and ever optimistic. He is a new American Adam, innocently poised for a future full of promise in a land full of possibilities. No profession, no lover, no commitment can capture him. He risks his job as a book thief because he can't resist the desire to keep and read the books he has stolen. Although this very adaptability, this lack of firm obligations makes him hard to characterize or define, his first-person narrative conveys a compelling vision of American freedom, a fresh spirit of irresistible charm.

While Augie's character remains protean, the world he inhabits is painted with magnificent detail and texture. Infused with the vivid, hyperbolic Yiddish of his childhood, Bellow's narrative revels in the melodramatic people and language of 1920s Chicago. As Bellow said:
"The most ordinary Yiddish conversation is full of the grandest historical, mythological, and religious allusions. The Creation, the fall, the flood, Egypt, Alexander, Titus, Napoleon, the Rothschilds, the Sages, and the Laws may get into the discussion of an egg, a clothes-line, or a pair of pants."
The language of Augie March is likewise rife with heroic allusions, casting a mythic glow on Augie's smallest move. Augie's thoughts about his job as a labor organizer invoke John the Baptist, Stonewall Jackson, the Tower of Babel, and Ghandi's India in quick succession. Yet the extravagant metaphors sound uncalculated, falling as easily on the ear as a street-corner conversation. "The great pleasure of the book was that it came easily," Bellow said in an interview. "All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it. That's why the form is loose."

Praise for Bellow's ebullient new style was enthusiastic, if not unanimous, and he won the National Book Award in 1953. Augie March was compared to Ulysses and described as "a howlingly American book." Supporters and critics alike recognized in him a powerful voice, a vision of America that could not be ignored. The book brought "a new sense of laughter," wrote Alfred Kazin. "In Augie, Bellow . . . discovered himself equal to the excitement of the American experience, he shook himself all over and let himself go."

Ultimately Augie's vision finds a tamer, more mature expression in Herzog, Bellow's masterwork. But Augie March holds a unique place for its rev- olutionary joy and exuberance. This rollicking tale of modern-day heroism is not only a portrait of determination and survival, but also a keenly observed drama of one man's "refusal to lead a disappointed life."


memorable quotes:

“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving knuckles.” (Opening Paragraph)
“God may save all, but human rescue is only for a few.” (152)
“He believed she was already in love with him.” (200)
“Talk will lead people on until they convince their minds of things they can’t feel true.” (209)
“She gave me enough silence in which to take it back, looking at me.” (252)
“Well, given time, we all catch up with legends, more or less.” (333)
“The whole mystery of life is in the specific data.” (434)
“Anything that just adds information that you can’t use is plain dangerous.” (455)
“You pay for what you want, not always what you get. That’s what a price means. Otherwise where’s the price?” (465)
“But love is adultery, he said, and expresses change.” (483)
“Why do you have to think that the thing that kills you is the thing that you stand for? Because you are the author of your death. What is the weapon? The nails and hammer of your character. What is the cross? Your own bones on which you gradually weaken. And the husband or wife gets to do the deed. ‘Kind spouse, you will make me my fate,’ they might as well say, and tell them and show them how. The fish wills water, and the birds will air, and you and me our dominant idea.”

“Can you say what is your dominant idea, Mr. Mintouchian?”

He answered readily. “Secrets. Society makes us have some, of course. The brotherhood of man wants to let us out of them by the power of confession. But I must beget secrets. I will be known by secrets at my death. . . .

Complications, lies, lies and lies! he said. . . .Mind you, I’m a great admirer of our species. I stand in awe of the genius of the race. But a large part of this genius is devoted to lying and seeming what you are not. We love when this man Ulysses comes back in disguise for his revenge. But suppose he forgot what he came back for and just sat around day in, day out in the disguise. This happens to many a frail spirit who forgets what the disguises are for, doesn’t understand complexity, or how to return to simplicity. From telling different things to everyone, forgets what the case is originally and what he wants himself. How rare is simple thought and pureheartedness! Even a moment of pureheartedness I bow to, down to the ground. That’s why I think well of you when you tell me you’re in love. . . ."

“You will understand, Mr. Mintouchian, if I tell you that I have always tried to become what I am. But it’s a frightening thing. Because what if what I am by nature isn’t good enough? . . . I suppose I better, anyway, give in and be it. I will never force the hand of fate to create a better Augie March, nor change the time to an age of gold.”

“That’s exactly right. You must take your chance on what you are. And you can’t sit still. I know this double poser, that if you make a move you may lose but if you sit still you will decay. But what will you lose? You will not invent better than God or nature or turn yourself into the man who lacks no gift or development before you make the move. This is not given to us.” (484-485)


“I said when I started to make the record that I would be plain and heed the knocks as they came, and also that a man’s character was his fate. Well, then it is obvious that this fate, or what he settles for, is also his character. And since I never have had any place of rest, it should follow that I have trouble being still, and furthermore my hope is based upon getting to be still so that the axial lines can be found. When striving stops, the truth comes as a gift—bounty, harmony, love and so forth. Maybe I can’t take these very things I want.” (514)


“Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.” (536)


balk, ward, goad, shill, gyp, gypped, gyp·ping, envenomed (with fear), embittered, bid, pacify, gorp (to eat a snack of high-energy food) , procure, lag, repudiate, debilitate, glom, arouse, stymie, pepper, stupefy (stupefaction), clung, blundered, sauntered, swell, hauled, hustled, harrowed, intercept, procure, gallop, interpose

toploftiness, persiflage (frivolous, bantering talk), ripple-assed luxury, fustiness (rigidly old-fashioned or reactionary) , avidity (keen eagerness), supernumerary (exceeding what is necessary, required or desired), rapaciousness (living on prey, voraciousness), assignation (tryst), axial lines, effrontery, guff (nonsense), confiteor ( from Middle English, literally I confess), jitney (slang for nickel)

wan (sickly, pallid, languid) , nonplussed , sullen, parricide faces, fiery, pale-fire concentration, sardonic (disdainfully humorous), temerarious (marked by temerity), indignant, negligible, gilt (gold covered), marvelous, verdigris (green, blueish deposit on copper, bronze or brass), restive (stubbornly resisting control, balky; marked by impatience, fidgety) , licentious (lacking legal/moral—esp. sexual restraint), empyrean (sublime), pellucid (reflecting light evenly / easy to understand)

my book shelf:

I will return my copy of Augie March to the Boston Public Library this afternoon along with my recently finished copies of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and Runaway by Alice Munro.

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