My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Most famous or classic books are more complicated, more contradictory, and more strange than their capsule-summaries or encyclopedia entries would suggest, and Saul Bellow’s third and career-making novel of 1953, The Adventures of Augie March, does not disappoint in this. For a novel often said to exemplify the midcentury interregnum of literary neo-realism between the reigns of modernist and postmodernist experiment, it is extraordinarily zany, mixed in style, tone, and genre, veering wildly from page to page between naturalism and near-fantasy, so much so that I think it should count, in its own way, as experimental (Pynchon claimed it as an influence); similarly, for a novel evidently intended to restore storytelling brio to fiction after the narrative hiatus that was the Jamesian-Joycean-Woolfean-Faulknerian phenomenology of the inner life, Augie March is an awfully plotless book whose greatest pleasures often come when the narrator slows down and peers inward; finally, for a novel said to be definitively American, Jewish, and/or Jewish-American, it concerns itself little with America, even less with Jewish America, and generally addresses the question of how best to be modern (though hovering in the background, I should note, is perhaps the suggestion that to be modern successfully is in fact to be Jewish and American—diasporic and free—whatever else you are).
Drawing on the pre-modernist narrative traditions of the bildungsroman (David Copperfield), the picaresque (Huckleberry Finn), and the conte philosophique (Candide) as well as on the classic American exuberance of Melville and Whitman, The Adventures of Augie March is the titular hero’s autobiography. It begins with his Chicago childhood in a relatively impoverished immigrant family; without a father (he memorably describes himself as “the by-blow of a traveling salesman”), Augie grows up with his overworked, emotionally vulnerable mother, his tougher older brother Simon, and his mentally-challenged younger brother George. But the star of the novel’s first phase is Grandma Lausch—not actually Augie’s grandmother but a formidable old “widow of a powerful Odessa businessman” and the first of the novel’s titanic ideologues who try to “recruit” Augie to their worldview. Grandma Lausch’s counsel is a Machiavellian gospel (Bellow originally thought to title the novel Life among the Machiavellians) of strategy and strength: “‘Respect is better than love,'” she says—though, striking the novel’s thematic counterpoint of the complications of eros, she also loves Anna Karenina.
Though the book is written, as Augie says on its opening page “free-style,” it is loosely structured by the figures who dominate Augie. After Grandma Lausch, as Augie grows older, he falls under the sway of Einhorn, a paralyzed autodidact businessman and “the first superior man I ever knew.” Though Einhorn is a crank and his personal life is squalid, he is perhaps the character Bellow invites us to admire most: his vitality and ambition overrun circumstance, and his worldview is not a reductionist ideology; therefore, he epitomizes the novel’s heroic ethos. His obituary for his father, with its moving yet comic grandiloquence (praised by James Wood), affirms values the novel takes lightly but takes nonetheless:
“The return of the hearse from the newly covered grave leaves a man to pass through the last changes of nature who found Chicago a swamp and left it a great city. He came after the Great Fire, said to be caused by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, in flight from the conscription of the Hapsburg tyrant, and in his life as a builder proved that great places do not have to be founded on the bones of slaves, like the pyramids of Pharaohs or the capital of Peter the Great on the banks of the Neva, where thousands were trampled in the Russian marshes. The lesson of an American life like my father’s, in contrast to that of the murderer of the Strelitzes and of his own son, is that achievements are compatible with decency.”
Next, Augie becomes the traveling companion of a wealthy woman, Mrs. Renling, but flees her attempts to mold him to high society; going to the opposite extreme, he then falls in with a criminal friend, Gorman, whose irresponsibility strands him in Buffalo, penniless and hunted by police so that he has to return by train-jumping to Chicago. By this point—about a third of the way through—the pattern is clear: Augie will meet a succession of egos and ideologues, he will sample their lifeworlds, and then he will abscond in quest of what he calls his own “fate.”
After his sojourn among the vacationing aristocrats and the rail-hopping hobos, Augie is taken in hand by his brother Simon, now successfully in business and about to marry into a wealthy family; Augie nearly marries into it himself, but scandal ensues when he is discovered to have helped a female friend, Mimi, an adept of love, to get an abortion (Bellow’s depiction of this difficult process makes for a harrowing and fascinating chapter). After a spell working for a labor union, Augie travels to Mexico with a wealthy woman named Thea who wants to train an eagle to hunt lizards. The eagle fails to hunt, their relationship collapses, and Augie eventually falls in love with Stella, a film actress he meets in Mexico. During the war, Augie meets his most extreme would-be master, Basteshaw, a delusional mad scientist from Augie’s own Chicago neighborhood; the two men fight nearly to the death in a lifeboat after their ship has gone down—this is the novel’s least creditable sequence. Bellow ends with Augie married to Stella and working in “illicit business” in Paris for a cynical but humane lawyer named Mintouchian. Which is to say it stops rather than ends—Augie is still questing for his fate, unsettled but still in motion.
The novel, then, does not obey any dicta, Aristotelian or Flaubertian, about how to construct a logical and coherent plot or how to write a tightly-organized and rigorously controlled narrative. Deliberately a “loose, baggy monster,” Augie March is held together less by story or symbol than by two other forces: 1.) Augie/Bellow’s signature prose style, with its rambling jerky slangy Shakespearean sentences and its heaped-up adjectives and its proliferating metaphors, and 2.) a dominant thematic interest in whatever possibilities of individual heroism remain in the secular, mechanized, materialistic modern world. Unlike the hyper-vivid grotesques he everywhere encounters, Augie himself is not strongly characterized; as Scott McCloud once speculated about Augie’s Belgian contemporary and fellow wanderer, Tintin, if the protagonist is a blank, the reader effectively moves into his role and is thereby immersed in the fictional world.
Lacking a strict narrative focus, the novel is free to waver between an intense naturalism of physical description and social observation (especially in its first half) and a comic fantasia whose sometimes scarcely believable episodes (eagle, lifeboat) are the illustrations of a philosophical fable about freedom and necessity. As noted above, Bellow claimed that he wanted to recapture pre-modernist fictional modes with their freewheeling ante-Flaubertian disregard for unities of action and style, but because this very gesture is itself theoretical, manifesto-like, and because the novel’s verbal mannerism is sometimes so obtrusive as to feel as theme-determined as anything in the second half of Ulysses, I’m afraid Augie March remains, whether Bellow liked it or not, within the modernist moment. Those other two Great American Novels (and exuberant picaresques) of the 1950s—Invisible Man and Lolita—far more successfully attain nineteenth-century grandeur despite resisting modernism less strenuously, Ellison’s book because it more systematically and realistically constructs heroic myth out of a particular modern experience and Nabokov’s because of its ruthless focus on one central dilemma.
It is an easy book to put down and not pick up again for all the reasons listed above, but Augie March is nevertheless incredibly impressive from page to page, even if the pages do not quite add up. As every critic observes, Bellow’s gift for description is as extravagant as his indulgence of it; and if the indulgence is willed—a polemical rebuke to the school of Hemingway—so what? There are no pure motives, and the prose swirls up so thick with adjective and allusion it is like the surface of a Van Gogh. Here, to take only one example and not clog this page with quotations, is a Chicago hospital during the early days of World War II:
The hospital was mobbed and was like Lent and Carnival battling. This was Harrison Street, where Mama and I used to come for her specs, and not far from where I had to go once to identify that dead coal heaver, the thundery gloom, bare stone brown, while the red cars lumbered and clanged. Every bed, window, separate frame of accommodation, every corner was filled, like the walls of Troy or the streets of Clermont when Peter the Hermit was preaching. Shruggers, hobblers, truss and harness wearers, crutch-dancers, wall inspectors, wheelchair people in bandage helmets, wound smells and drug flowers blossoming from gauze, from colorful horrors and out of the deep sinks. Not far the booby-hatch voices would scream, sing, and chirp and sound like the tropical bird collection of Lincoln Park. On warm days I went up to the roof and had a look at the city. Around was Chicago. In its repetition it exhausted your imagination of details and units, more units than the cells of the brain and bricks of Babel. The Ezekiel caldron of wrath, stoked with bones. In time the caldron too would melt. A mysterious tremor, dust, vapor, emanation of stupendous effort traveled with the air, over me on top of the great establishment, so full as it was, and over the clinics, clinks, factories, flophouses, morgue, skid row. As before the work of Egypt and Assyria, as before a sea, you’re nothing here. Nothing.
And the novel’s wisdom is, adjusted for historical distance, genuinely wise. Bellow’s theme, as I’ve observed, is the need for the modern individual to be free, not in the sense of doing whatever one wants, but in the old-fashioned way of choosing and embracing a worthy fate rather than a fate imposed by history or ideology: “This is the amor fati, that’s what it is, or mysterious adoration of what occurs.” Bellow’s interest in heroism is not an anti-humanist vitalistic Nietzschean or Lawrencian one, though; the Mexico episode is even probably a reply to Lawrence, with his mythos of blood-consciousness and animal alienness, as when Thea’s eagle (named Caligula with perhaps a shot at fascist aesthetics) is unable to be ferocious and bloodthirsty enough to do what she asks:
Well, it was hard to take this from wild nature, that there should be humanity mixed with it; such as there was in the beasts that embraced Odysseus and his men and wept on them in Circe’s yard.
And Augie, recovering from his Mexico episode, reflects on life as a contest of worldviews, from which planet-devouring strife he would like to absent himself:
External life being so mighty, the instruments so huge and terrible, the performances so great, the thoughts so great and threatening, you produce a someone who can exist before it. You invent a man who can stand before the terrible appearances. This way he can’t get justice and he can’t give justice, but he can live. And this is what mere humanity always does. It’s made up of these inventors or artists, millions and millions of them, each in his own way trying to recruit other people to play a supporting role and sustain him in his make-believe. The great chiefs and leaders recruit the greatest number, and that’s what their power is. There’s one image that gets out in front to lead the rest and can impose its claim to being genuine with more force than others, or one voice enlarged to thunder is heard above the others. Then a huge invention, which is the invention maybe of the world itself, and of nature, becomes the actual world—with cities, factories, public buildings, railroads, armies, dams, prisons, and movies—becomes the actuality. That’s the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what’s real. Then even the flowers and the moss on the stones become the moss and the flowers of a version.
The novel does speak up for a post-1776 or post-1789 democratic ethos: “What did Danton lose his head for, or why was there a Napoleon, if it wasn’t to make a nobility of us all?” Yet it rejects their embodiment in Bellow’s youthful Marxism; while a character’s (not Augie’s) enthusiasm for Trotsky echoes the enthusiasm for Napoleon in, say, Stendhal—
[H]e sympathized with the Reds and admired Lenin, and especially Trotsky, who had won the civil war, traveling in a tank and reading French novels, while czar, priests, barons, generals, and landlords were being smoked out of the palaces.
—Augie eventually concludes that he, with his obscure origins and unsystematic education, will never be accepted by the grandees of the official political left when he meets another old Marxist friend in Paris:
He was feeling very grand, the place inspired him, and he sat down and gave me a sort of talk—pretty amazing!—about Paris and how nothing like it existed, the capital of the hope that Man could be free without the help of gods, clear of mind, civilized, wise, pleasant, and all of that. For a minute I felt rather insulted that he should laugh when he asked me what I was doing here. It might be incongruous, but if it was for Man why shouldn’t it be for me too? If it wasn’t, perhaps that wasn’t one hundred per cent my fault. Which Man was it the City of? Some version again. It’s always some version or other.
Unlike Ellison’s Invisible Man, though, neither Augie nor Bellow pledge themselves to American ideals in particular, except insofar as America stands for possibility itself. Wouldn’t that be another idolatry, another ideology, another way of making life unlivable by forcing it to conform to an overbearing image?
But I had the idea also that you don’t take so wide a stand that it makes a human life impossible, nor try to bring together irreconcilables that destroy you, but try out what of human you can live with first. And if the highest should come in that empty overheated tavern with its flies and the hot radio buzzing between the plays and plugged beer from Sox Park, what are you supposed to do but take the mixture and say imperfection is always the condition as found; all great beauty too, my scratched eyeballs will always see scratched. And there may gods turn up anywhere.
Philip Roth told a biographer that he once taught a course on Kafka and Bellow, “the hunger artist and the artist of abundance, of superabundance…I wanted to show them the pendulum, the swing of fiction.” An aphorism from Kafka:
On the handle of Balzac’s walking stick: I break all obstacles. On mine: All obstacles break me. The one thing we have in common is the “all.”
You could replace Balzac with Bellow there and lose little. Looking around the contemporary literary scene, or its perhaps misleading social media refraction, I perceive that Kafka’s sensibility—one of those despairing modernist sensibilities that dismayed Bellow—has won the day. Writers and artists and thinkers seem, paradoxically, to revel in a sense of their (our) own received identity, grand ideology, real and perceived woundedness, capacity to be shattered. Self-labelled and self-diagnosed, captioning images of the flayed or the writhing with “hard same” on social media, we—even if we differ from them demographically—are at one with Kafka’s or indeed Roth’s self-tormented insectoid victims of life and of ourselves. And yet, in the spirit of Augie March I do want to ask: Is it ever permissible to suggest, without seeming to trample the victim, that perhaps there is at least something to be said for a more energetic riposte and rebuttal to the blows of circumstance? Here, the sheer exasperating willfulness of Bellow’s literary performance in Augie March finds its justification, for, like it or not, it is at least in part our will that determines our fate.
Praising and thereby recommending heroism used to be a function of fiction. And not only in the superannuated genres of epic and romance. Certainly not only in the superhero saga, whether devised for throwaway pulp with fantastic enterprise by men of Bellow’s own background or else captured and rebroadcast as narcotizing spectacle by the multinational corporation. But rather in Bellow’s and Balzac’s own field of action, and that of Stendhal and Dickens and Tolstoy and Charlotte Brontë too: the grand old “realist” novel, not that it was ever as realistic as reputed, and never less realistic than in this book. Better an eagle than an insect if you have the choice, though Bellow is humane enough to know that even an eagle has his “human” weaknesses. Heroic realism: it may be in short supply today—I assure you, reader, I feel short of it myself—but a stash can be found in this wild, exhausting old book that you might take (in the capsule form of a chapter or a paragraph, if you can’t swallow it whole) as a kind of artistic energy supplement.