Tuesday, February 8, 2011
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is a picaresque novel by Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow. The picaresque novel (from the Spanish "pícaro", for "rogue" or "rascal") is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts, in realistic and often humorous detail, the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. Recent examples include Günter Grass' The Tin Drum (1959) and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (2008). Italian film director Sergio Leone identified his spaghetti westerns, more specifically his Dollars trilogy, as being in the picaresque style.
Bellow's novel is also a bildungsroman (German "formation novel"), a genre of the novel which focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood. Change is thus extremely important. The term coming-of-age novel is sometimes used interchangeably with bildungsroman. At an early stage, a loss or some sort of discontent pushes the protagonist away from home or the family setting, providing an impetus to embark on a journey. The main character often develops through "self actualization". The process of maturation is long, strenuous and gradual, involving repeated clashes between the protagonist's needs and desires and the views and judgments enforced by an unbending social order. Noted examples include Dickens' Great Expectations (1860) Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847), Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914), Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), and Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), upon which Bellow's novel was inspired.
The famous opening lines of the book say as much about Bellow as about the novel's character. "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 the knuckles. Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining" (p. 3). The comment about suppression leads the reader to wonder just how truthful the narrator intends to be.
Bellow's Jewish roots were in St. Petersburg, Russia, but he wanted to be known as an American author, not a Jewish author. At the end of Augie March's 536-page odyssey, he states "Look at me, going everywhere ! Why, I am sort of a 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 be a 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" (p. 536). Augie looks back on his own experience and sees that the diversity of his encounters has rendered his life a kind of discovery, not unlike Columbus. America is what one makes of it, a land of possibilities, in which each individual struggles to realize his own fate. Augie, in pursuit of this self-discovery, is truly an American, in Bellow's eyes. The celebration of the individual determines Bellow's presentation of fate. Unlike many picaresque novels, the plot is never predetermined. "No, I didn't want to be what he called determined. I never had accepted determination and wouldn't become what other people wanted to make of me" (p.117). Things simply happen to Augie, an Everyman lost in a chaotic world (the protagonist augments his march to chaos). Nevertheless, this enhances the belief that Augie, ultimately, is in control of his own fate.
In his first major novel, Bellow uses a rich allusive language, reminiscent of Balzac, which can only be appreciated as gestalten, it's meaning not reducible to piecemeal components (see Kiernan, Saul Bellow). Above all else, it is primarily a love story, Augie always in search of something better when it comes to love, falling in love over the course of the novel twice amongst many less satisfactory encounters. Amis says Augie exhibits the American trait of "qualmless promiscuity" (Amis, The War Against Cliché, p. 469). Augie's brother Simon says "You can't hold your load of love, can you?" (p. 263). Bellow's rich sensuous textured language describing Augie's sentimental feelings is as good as it gets. Parentless and penniless, Augie spends his entire life being adopted by various families and friends. Many of these so-called friends were "Machiavellis of small street and neighborhood" (p. 4). Indeed, the original title for the book was Life Among the Machiavellians. Early in the book, Augie is told that he has "opposition" in him, he pursues the opposite of what others want in him. "This was the first time that anyone had told me anything like the truth about myself. I felt it powerfully. That, as he said, I did have opposition in me, and great desire to offer resistance and to say "No!" which was as clear as could be" (p. 117). While in Mexico with his lover Thea to train an eagle ('aguila' = Augie ?) to catch lizards, he meets an aspiring actress Stella. who observes "...you and I are the kind of people other people are always trying to fit into their schemes. So suppose we didn't play along, then what ?" (p. 384). For Augie, love trumps all else "...I was married to a woman I loved and therefore I was advancing on the only true course of life" (p. 488).
Throughout his life Augie makes a conscious choice to avoid a "more narrow and restricted point of existence" (p. 436), never electing his "chosen thing" (p. 260), "if I didn't have money or profession or duties, wasn't it so that I could be free, and a sincere follower of love ?" (p. 401). Yet he yearns for something special in his life "I had some restlessness to be taken up into something greater than myself" (pp. 203-204) and "if there was anything I knew by now it was how impossible it is to live without something infinitely mighty and great" (p. 413). Yet his friend Padilla chides him "...you're too ambitious. You want too much, and therefore if you miss out you blame yourself too hard. But this all a dream. The big investigation today is into how bad a guy can be, not how good he can be. You don't keep up with the times. You're going against history..." (p. 431). Amis comments "As Montherlant said, happiness - the positive value - 'writes white' (The War Against Cliché, p. 457), meaning authors don't write about good news. Augie disdains the institutions that wield "meshuggah power" (p. 457). Augie is arrested for riding the freight trains. His arrest reveals the implications of a loss of control: "We had to empty our pockets: they were after knives and matches and such objects of harm. But for me that wasn't what it was for, but to have the bigger existence taking charge of your small things, and making you learn forfeits as a sign that you aren't any more your own man, in the street, with the contents of your pockets your own business: that was the purpose of it" (p. 174).
Padilla encourages Augie to adopt the Machiavellian methods he so openly rejects. One of those methods is to "recruit others to your version of what's real" (p. 402). Armenian businessman Mintouchian advises "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" (p. 485). Bellow is making the case that a sharp mind and pure ideals are of no value if they are not coupled with active pursuit and a clear understanding of one's relationships with others.
The reader may conclude that Augie is a failure, yet he refuses to live a disappointed life and maintains his animal ridens (p. 536) composure. Bellow's novel rejects the vision set forth by the narrator in Camus' The Stranger, where one can be isolated from society. Bellow asserts that character development rests upon one's willingness to be held accountable to others. Perhaps Augie concurs "Guys may very likely think, Why hell! What's this talk about fates ? and will feel it all comes to me from another day, and a mistaken day, when there were fewer people in the world and there was more room between them so that they grew not like wild grass but like trees in a park, well set apart and developing year by year in the rosy light" (p. 516). Pifer (Saul Bellow: Against the Grain) offers that what is uniquely meaningful in each individual's life is the legacy of their shared condition: "There always is a me it happens to" (p. 519). In the end, regarding fate, Augie rejects Nietzsche's concept of "amor fati" (p. 527). Mintouchian just about sums it up when he says "It is better to die what you are than to live a stranger forever" (p. 485).
Brueghel's The Misanthrope is referenced in the novel. Augie recalls seeing a "Netherlands picture I once saw in an Italian gallery, of a wise old man walking in empty fields, pensive, while a thief behind cuts the string of his purse. The Old Man, in black, thinking probably of God's City, nevertheless has a foolish length of nose and is much too satisfied with his dream. But the peculiarity of the thief is that he is enclosed in a glass ball, and on the glass ball there is a surmounting cross, and it looks like the emperor's symbol of rule. Meaning that it is earthly power that steals while the ridiculous wise are in a dream about this world and the next, and perhaps missing this one, they will have nothing, neither this nor the next, so there is a sharp pain of satire in this amusing thing, and even the painted field does not have too much charm; it is a flat place" (p. 190). Augie's friend Padilla made a hobby stealing books to support his schooling, but he was not of the earthly-power class.