Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

The Adventures of Augie March begins with America:

I am an American, Chicago born--Chicago, that somber city--and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.

And ends with it, too:

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 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.

In his introduction, Christopher Hitchens identifies Augie's opening assertion as essentially radical. Augie, a Jew and the descendant of immigrants, claims an American birthright, unthinkable in the 1920's of the novel's opening and not much less so when it was written in 1953. We are inheritors of this assertion and will not find it strange; most of us will take it for granted that America is land of opportunity, an immigrant nation, where the ladders of social mobility can be scaled quicker.

Still, we can appreciate Augie's bold claim to exhibit a new conception of our national character. Augie is an American, that is to say, democratic. He tells us early on that the phrase "various jobs" is the "Rosetta stone" of his existence, and indeed his "adventures" can be summed as a series of tasks: He is a dog groomer, a union organizer, a petty thief, a sales clerk, a ship's pharmacist, an assistant to more than one millionaire. In one of the book's greatest sections, he spends a long period in Mexico training an eagle to hunt lizards. Some of these jobs are menial and low-class and others come with fancy wardrobes, but the overall line of progression is fluctuated, not upward as in some Horatio Alger story. When I say that Augie is democratic, this is what I mean--the dogged insistence that meaning and fulfillment, though not likely to be found, can be approached from all sides and all stations:

"How is your campaign after a worthwhile fate, Augie?" asked Clem, for he knew a lot about me, you see. Alas, why should he kid me so! I was only trying to do right, and I had broken my dome, lost teeth, got burned in the progress, a mighty slipshod campaigner. Lord, what a runner after things, servant of love, embarker on schemes, recruit of sublime ideas, and good-time Charlie! Why, it was a crying matter, no fooling, to anyone who might know which side was up, that here was I trying to refuse to lead a disappointed life.

Democratic, too, are Augie's attitudes toward people. On his ship during wartime he becomes a sort of confidant and advice-giver for his shipmates and tells us, "I advocated love, especially." Love is democratic because it regards social class, like all other concerns alien to mere personhood, as irrelevant. Augie's attitude reminds me of the King of France from King Lear, who remarks that "Love is not love / When it is mingled with regards that stand / Aloof from th'entire point." So it happens that, in my favorite section of the book, Augie risks estrangement from his heiress girlfriend, Lucy, in order to help a a friend obtain an illegal abortion. Lucy's parents believe he is mixed up with the girl sexually, not that it would matter if he weren't, and Augie mistakenly expects from Lucy the same kind of inconsiderate love that he gives freely:

Inside, on the turned-over heels of the yard shoes I hadn't remembered to change, I walked to the mirror to knot my black tie and saw backward, by the drape in the living room, the tense belly of Uncle Charlie, his sharp feet prepared, and sitting waiting in the oriental mix-up of brass, silk, wool, and all that gave the place so much power, Lucy, her mother, and Sam, observing me. I felt there was a big machine set against me. But I had come in order not to disappoint Lucy, toward whom, given their chance, my feelings could have shone and warmed again. I expected poisoned looks, against which I was coated and immune; at least, my greater trouble made such looks seem negligible; and I wasn't willing to be tagged for lascivious crime and false pretenses or whatever the coutns were that they thought they had against me. By no means nervous, therefore, I judged that I had only to do with Lucy, no fortune hunting now involved, for I could go any distance independent of brothers, relations, and all, provided that her impulse was a true one and she was, as she had always said, in love.

But love for others is not always the same as love for Augie, who has no conception of the love of money or the love of power. When he calls himself, at book's end, a "Columbus of those near-at-hand," he celebrates the love of people, the personal, individual life as opposed to the "big machine" which only has the power to oppose.

No wonder, then, that Bellow rejects the prose of Hemingway--who might be called typically American in that he exalts the stark, shorn pioneerism of Emerson and Thoreau--in favor of a looser, more exuberant style that is democratic in the sense that no word seems to excessive to leave out. Augie March is dense and allusive, delighting in its metaphors. The hem of a dress is "stiff as a line of Euclid." Elsewhere "the wheat looked like the glass of wheat." The human heart "circulates and warms, when it's piled at any bar or break, burns inward or out with typical embers or sores, and makes a track of fever or fire whose corresponding part is darkness and cold gaps." It is easy to lose the thread, and such long-windedness fails perhaps as often as it succeeds, but one comes to feel that, like Augie, such failures must be permitted.

Hitchens refuses to call it "The Great American Novel," though apparently Martin Amis does so freely. I myself categorically reject the existence of such a thing, but I will note that Augie March is obsessed with the reason that such a novel is impossible: America is too vast, too broad, too pluralistic to be pinned down. It is, in short, like Augie.

No comments: