The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

October 19, 2011

Augie March tells his own story beginning with his childhood in depression-era Chicago. His family is poor and his mother weak. The decisions are made by a domineering and realist grandmother. Augie’s description of her early in the novel gives a taste:

If wit and discontent don’t necessarily go together, it wasn’t from the old woman that I learned it. She was impossible to satisfy.

She does her best to ensure that the boys do well in school, stay out of trouble with the law, and learn to lie effectively to obtain medical care or food despite not qualifying for particular programs. Her goal is not so much “good” boys as successful boys. She wants for them whatever will get them ahead in the world and, hence, allow them to help with the family bills.

[T]he old lady, following her own idea of what that fate would be, continued to find various jobs for me.

Saying “various jobs,” I give out the Rosetta stone, so to speak, of my entire life.

Augie bounces from job to job, from mentor to mentor, from love to love, never able to settle into a position in life. He strives for something extraordinary, though he is not sure what that something is. His brother, Simon, is neither as idealistic nor as unfocused and, thus, generally makes more money. But this is plot and I like the writing most.

Bellow is particularly good at identifying and conveying the essential quality of a person. Describing a hulking, good-natured man called “Five Properties”, the narrator follows a few examples of the way Five Properties jokes and interacts with people with this nice summation:

He gave himself an awful lot of delight.

I like this guy as minor as he is to the story.

But the minor characters are important, Augie realizes that, particularly at a young age, he is more a product of influences than an independent agent.

All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born, and there they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself.

As skillfully created a narrator as you can find, he tells us, of course, all about himself in the way he describes his “influences”. Bellow has that felicity with language that allows an author to speak on multiple levels simultaneously. For example:

William Einhorn was the first superior man I knew. He had a brain and many enterprises, real directing power, philosophical capacity, and if I were methodical enough to take thought before an important and practical decision and also (N.B.) if I were really his disciple and not what I am, I’d ask myself, “What would Caesar suffer in this case? What would Machiavelli advise or Ulysses do? What would Einhorn think?” I’m not kidding when I enter Einhorn in this eminent list. It was him that I knew, and what I understand of them in him. Unless you want to say that we’re at the dwarf end of all times and mere children whose only share in grandeur is like a boy’s share in fairy-tale kings, beings of a different kind from times better and stronger than ours. But if we’re comparing men and men, not men and children or men and demigods…if we don’t have any special wish to abdicate into some different, lower form of existence out of shame for our defects before the golden faces of these and other old-time men, then I have the right to praise Einhorn and not care about smiles of derogation from those who think the race no longer has in any important degree the traits we honor in these fabulous names. But I don’t want to be pushed into exaggeration by such opinion, which is the opinion of students who, at all ages, feel their boyishness when they confront the past.

If you suspect Einhorn is not quite as superior as Augie believes, you win a gold star. Augie does not, however, and that is brilliant. With a blindspot in his self-awareness, Augie scoffs at the “boyishness” and naivete of others who, incorrectly, believe men are different now than they were then. It is clear that Augie has caught a touch of hero-worship, a malady of youth if there ever was one. He uses the then-fashionable “N.B.” for “nota bene”, which became fashionable because a (then current) hero comparable to Ceasar or Machiavelli, namely FDR, had used it in one of his fireside chats. Augie is all enthusiasm and praise when, as Bellow also deftly conveys, the truth is much more messy and complex.

We learn something about Augie and something about Einhorn while being prodded with an observation on the world and history. Who are the great men of today? Or, alternatively, would intimate analysis of all great men bring them down to earth as flawed, sometimes petty or weak or selfishly grasping? From history to metaphysics and back through philosophy, Bellow peppers this novel with a learnedness as impressive as it is unobtrusive.

Bellow is, as James Wood has said, one of the “really great prose writers.” He was as eloquent writing about cars as people or ideas:

[E]arly in the morning Joe Gorman picked me up in a black Buick; it was souped up, I could tell the first instant, from the hell-energy that gives you no time to consider….[I]n and out of Gary in two twists and on the road for Toledo, where the speed increased, and the mouth of the motor opened out like murder, not panting, but liberated to do what it was made for.

Slender, pressing down nervous on the wheel, with his long nose of broken form and the color running fast up his face and making a narrow crossing on his forehead, Gorman was like a jockey in his feeling toward the car. You could see what pleasure he got out of finding what he needed to wrap his nerves in.

Bellow’s are sentences to touch and stroke. His prose has a distinctive sensuousness even as it burrows to sharp, slicing truths. The Adventures of Augie March manages to surprise with little stocking-stuffers on each page. And that is the least of the achievements here.

Not everyone, apparently, fell in love with Augie. That I can believe. Augie is not a conventional hero who prevails over all obstacles. Life treats him like a rugby ball, punching, kicking, and grasping at him. Bad guys win while Augie loses. Mostly, though, the characters lose as people usually, eventually, do. In the decades since Augie entered the scene, many critics have marked this book as Bellow’s arrival as a serious man of letters. The novel marked a less restricted approach than he had used in his first two novels. He is quoted later as saying about Augie March:

I took off many of these restraints…I think I took off too many, and went too far, but I was feeling the excitement of discovery. I had just increased my freedom, and like any emancipated plebeian I abused it at once.

And he was probably right. The story itself is a many-armed seamonster. Augie is buffeted about like a mote of dust in a droplet of water. He is acted upon more than he acts, making him a frustrating protagonist. His powerful but diffuse ambition stymies itself, pushing in too many directions or none at all. This is conveyed well, but perhaps there is too much of it. A partial listing of Augie’s jobs gives a flavor of how widely he ventures: newsstand clerk, book thief, dog groomer, eagle trainer, salesman, bodyguard, smuggler, and merchant marine. Augie March does not have the same tightness of Bellow’s later Seize the Day. A little more authorial tyranny might have improved the book. Or not.

Bellow acknowledged “the great mass of sand and gravel” in the novel but seemed pleased, as am I, that he “took [his] chance.”

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

July 13, 2009

While looking for something else, I noticed the Bellow section. I previously read one of his short stories, “A Silver Dish” (in the anthology America’s Best Short Stories of the Century), but had not read any of his novels. I decided that, as the novel I was looking for was temporarily unavailable, I would grab something Bellow. After much serious consideration, I ultimately chose SEIZE THE DAY. It is quite short.

Bellow is a stunning stylist. He crafts sentences that are worthy of having a novel wrapped around them. For instance, Bellow delights with the following when Wilhelm, the protagonist, is watching an old man at the commodities exchange:

A long perfect ash formed on the end of the cigar, the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency. It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man. For it was beautiful. Wilhelm he ignored as well.

SeizeTheDayAside from its aestheticism, this paragraph provides a sense of Wilhelm’s place in the world. Wilhelm is a sort of Willy Loman, an everyman, if not entirely a loser, certainly not a winner. And, yet, as implied from this sentence, there is something beautiful about him.

As the book opens, Wilhelm is an out of work salesman with an estranged wife, two sons he rarely sees, a rather cold father, and a pressing need for money. He also holds three orders of lard in the commodities market. The action of the novel takes place place in a single day and revolves around Wilhelm’s need for cash. His father, Dr. Adler, is a man of sufficient means to help. Whether Wilhelm will ask and whether Dr. Adler will oblige are questions that provide some of the narrative tension.

However, the most pressing issues involve the orders of lard. Wilhelm knows nothing about the commodities market and so finds himself at a loss when the price for lard drops the choice is between selling or waiting for a rebound. “The psychologist, Dr. Tamkin, had got him into this.” Tamkin and Wilhelm first met at a nightly gin game where Wilhelm “had never won. Not once.” Dr. Tamkin is, aside from Wilhelm, easily the most interesting character of the novel.

What a rare peculiar bird he was, with those pointed shoulders, that bare head, his loose nails, almost claws, and those brown, soft, deadly, heavy eyes.

Dr. Tamkin had enthralled Wilhelm with the possibility of easy money in commodities. Wilhelm is not greedy, he only hopes to “work out a little steady income.” An early exchange between Wilhelm and Dr. Tamkin sets the tone of their relationship and warns the reader of the danger ahead:

“I’d be so grateful if you’d show me how to work it.”

“Sure I will. I do it regularly. I’ll bring you my receipts if you like. And do you want to know something? I approve of your attitude very much. You want to avoid catching money fever. This type of activity is filled with hostile feeling and lust. You should see what it does to some of these fellows. They go on the market with murder in their hearts.”

“What’s that I once heard a guy say?” Wilhelm remarked. “A man is only as good as what he loves.”

“That’s it — just it,” Tamkin said. “You don’t have to go about it their way. There’s also a calm and rational, a psychological approach.”

Wilhelm puts his last seven hundred dollars into the market under Tamkin’s guidance. This foray is, technically, against his father’s advice:

…Dr. Adler…had warned him once against Dr. Tamkin. Rather casually — he was a very bland old man — he said, “Wilky, perhaps you listen too much to this Tamkin. He’s interesting to talk to. I don’t doubt it. I think he’s pretty common but he’s a persuasive man. However, I don’t know how reliable he may be.”

Wilhelm is less impressed by the advice than by how it exemplifies his father’s “detachment” regarding his welfare.

Wilhelm’s relationship with his father is quite strained. Wilhelm has been a disappointment to his father since quitting college to try acting on the advice of a talent agent who told him he had the “it” factor. The talent agent turned out not to be quite what he said he he was. Wilhelm’s greatest acting role was as an extra in a movie. His father never forgives him for quitting school for such frivolity. He had wanted “Wilky” to be a doctor.

Wilhelm had been unwilling to go into medicine. In a flashback to a conversation with his mother, he explains:

“I can’t bear hospitals. Besides, I might make a mistake and hurt someone or even kill a patient. I couldn’t stand that. Besides, I haven’t got that sort of brains.”

While his father’s disappointment is simple and straightforward, Wilhelm’s feelings toward his father are more complex. He seeks his father’s love and approval, yet finds his father repulsive in various ways. Despite his revulsion, and with all of New York, at least, to choose from when Wilhelm leaves his wife, he moves into the old hotel where his father lives, albeit Wilhelm’s room is several floors below his father’s. They meet often for meals, despite the fact that neither of them enjoys the other’s company. On this day, his father brings an acquaintance, Mr. Perls, as buffer or distraction. The intricacies of this father-son relationship are largely revealed during breakfast, even with Mr. Perls present.

Bellow introduces the important aspects of Wilhelm’s character through two early interactions with otherwise irrelevant characters. On his way to meet his father for breakfast, he stops for a newspaper. Bellow manages Wilhelm’s interaction with Rubin, “the man at the newsstand”, magnificently. While buying a newspaper is usually a routine and mundane event, Bellow uses the exchange to give the reader insight into Wilhelm. Though Wilhelm and Rubin exchange pleasantries daily, Wilhelm invests their interaction with unusual weight.

The other character is the clerk at the hotel. The clerk gives Wilhelm his mail, which includes a bill. As with Rubin, Wilhelm gives the clerk far more thought than the clerk apparently gives him. This is the kind of fellow Wilhelm is.

Wilhelm has not been successful in life, but he has managed a middle class existence. His not having a job is partly due to principle rather than any professional failing. Wilhelm is not, like his father, a lover of money. As his interactions with Rubin and the clerk show, he respects men as men, regardless of social position. His charitableness, his willingness to assume the best of others is his best feature. Of course, it also leads to gullibility, as with the talent agent.

I do not want to reveal more regarding the relationship between Wilhelm and Tamkin for fear of spoiling the primary pleasure of the novel. Is Tamkin reliable or not? Will he come through for Wilhelm or not? How will Wilhelm solve his problems? It is absolutely delightful to watch the relationship between Wilhelm and Tamkin unfold.

Bellow is a superb writer, both of sentences and of whole works. This novel, as Cynthia Ozick points out in her introduction to this edition, is complete. She compares Bellow to the great Russian novelists and she is correct. But this is not a Russian epic, it is a Wall Street novel, a New York novel, an American novel. It is also a philosophical novel. Bellow writes with elegance, wit, and weight. He packs a world into these 118 pages.

I am sold on Bellow.