Thursday, October 7, 2010

369. The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow

History: Published in 1953, it centers on the eponymous character who grows up during the Great Depression. This picaresque novel is an example of bildungsroman, tracing the development of an individual through a series of encounters, occupations and relationships from boyhood to manhood.
Plot: The story describes Augie March's growth from childhood to a fairly stable maturity. Augie, with his brother Simon and the mentally abnormal George have no father and are brought up by their mother who is losing her eyesight, and a tyrannical grandmother in very humble circumstances in the rough parts of Chicago. Augie drifts from one situation to another in a free-wheeling manner—jobs, women, homes, education and lifestyle.
Augie March's path seems to be partly self made and partly comes around through chance. In lifestyle he ranges from near adoption by a wealthy couple who spoil him, to a struggle for existence stealing books and helping out friends in desperate straits. His most unusual adventure is his flight to Mexico with the wild and irrepressible Thea who tries to catch lizards with an eagle. Thea attempts to convince Augie to join her in this seemingly impossible task.
His jobs include general assistance to the slightly corrupt Einhorn, helping in a dog training parlour, working for his brother at a coal-tip, and working for the Congress of Industrial Organizations until finally he joins the merchant navy in the war.
Augie attracts and gets involved with a string of different women. Firstly a casual acquaintance as a youth, he gets engaged to a wealthy cousin of his brother's wife. However through a scandal not of his fault, he is discarded. After a casual affair with the Greek hotel maid he is swept off by Thea whom he had met when living with the rich Renlings and who forecast their relationship even though he loved her sister. After the fiasco in Mexico where he suffered a terrible accident on a horse, he and Thea began drifting apart; him spending his time playing cards and her hunting for snakes and lizards in the mountains. Their inevitable split came the night he met Stella and agreed to drive her to another town to escape her troubled boyfriend. After the break-up, Augie returned to Chicago and picked back up with the Greek Hotel maid until joining the merchant navy and heading to New York. There he met up with Stella again and married her.
All through the book, Augie is encouraged into education, but never quite seems to make it; he reads a great deal for himself and develops quite a philosophy of life. Something or somebody tends to crop up turning his path before Augie seriously considers returning to education.
During the war, his ship is sunk and he suffers a difficult episode alone in a lifeboat with what turns out to be a lunatic. After rescue he returns to Stella and the book ends with them living a slightly dubious existence in France, he involved in some fairly shady business deals and she attempting to pursue a career in acting.
Review: In some ways, The Adventures of Augie March is seen as a dispelling of the traditional idea of an American hero. He is "the American chasing after self-exploration."With an intricate plot and allusive style, Bellow explores contrasting themes of alienation and belonging, poverty and wealth, love and loss often with comic undertones. In writing a long, crowded picaresque narrative of ups and downs of fortune, letting the hero tell his own life history in the first person, Mr. Bellow goes back to the earliest and most generic form of the novel. It is a form which has always been congenial to observant humorists who relish human variety, who are fertile in creating characters and who are not afraid to seem more interested in life than in art. If anything, Mr. Bellow is too lavish with adventures, though most of them are marvelously convincing. Augie goes through more intensities of experience than Defoe’s Colonel Jack and Smollett’s Roderick Random put together. And having been for a time to the University of Chicago, he muses on his experience in historical and philosophical terms which make those earlier heroes seem very simple-minded indeed.
Opening Line: "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."
Closing Line: "Columbus too thought he was a flop, when they took him back in chains, which didn't prove there was no America.
Quotes: “You want people to pour love on you, and you soak it up and swallow it. You can’t get enough. And when another woman runs after you, you’ll go with her. You’re so happy when somebody begs you to oblige. You can’t stand up under flattery.”
"The lesson of an American life like my father's... is that achievements are compatible with decency.”
Rating: Very Good.

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