Saul Bellow, 1953
What started as a slow-paced and confusing mess grew into a beautiful and engaging novel depicting the coming-of-age experiences of a young man living through the depression and the beginning of the second World War. The protagonist, Augie March, represents the self-made man who pursues a true and examined life while meandering from job to job and from woman to woman in order to develop his self-realized potential despite several wrong choices and fading interests. My reading was reminiscent of a matured On the Road without all the drug induced spiritual excitement of Kerouac. Bellow’s singular voice offers a sober, introspective view of the wander’s life that is both inspiring and motivating.
The Adventures of Augie March is told from the first-person voice of young Augie March, the second son of three boys raised by their tyrannical landlord-grandmother. His father is out of the picture and his nearly blind mother is too preoccupied with work to be involved in his life. His elder brother, Simon, is ambitious and conceited. His younger brother, George, is mentally disturbed and is sent to an institution early in his life. Augie must fend for himself and takes up several odd-jobs and floats from one situation to another, including working as an assistant to a crippled millionaire, smuggling Canadians across the border, stealing books and selling them cheap to college students, working as a union organizer, then a union buster, training an Eagle to hunt Lizards in Mexico, joining the Merchant Marines to be shipwrecked at sea, and eventually as a black market dealer in post-war Europe. He experiences several ups and downs such as the luxuries of country-club lifestyle and a penniless cross-country hitch-hiking and train-hopping voyage from Buffalo back to his home in Chicago that briefly lands him in jail in Detroit. Through his experiences he is constantly reading the classics but never quite achieves a formal education as he is more interested in gaining a self-directed education and developing a personal philosophy that is influenced by his life’s experiences.
I indicated above that the book starts off slow and confusing and I say this because the telling of the early days of Augie’s life are more focused upon depicting his family’s and neighbor’s lives with Augie acting primarily as a distracted observer. This perspective is true to a young teenager’s attention but from a narrative voice the story telling for the first one hundred or so pages was disjointed and hard to follow. However, this line did give me some focus as to what Bellow was doing with these early years of Auggie’s life:
“All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born, and they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself.” (51)
It isn’t really until the the introduction of Einhorn, the crippled millionaire, that the book begins to find focus. Einhorn is both successful as an entrepreneur and womanizer with a keen interest in literature and history. He acts as a father figure for Augie and helps the young man develop his philosophical identity. We witness Einhorn lose much of his wealth through the depression, but Einhorn’s vibrant spirit is little affected by his material loss since he had already thrived despite his physical weaknesses. Einhorn is but the first of several father-figure advisors to Augie and Augie does eventually turn against him, but I found that this first advisor was the most influential.
My favorite moment of the book was the period when Augie was working with his successful brother, Simon, at a coal yard briefly after Simon had married into a wealthy and influential family. Simon had encouraged Augie to become engaged to his wife’s cousin so that both brothers could partner together. During this period Augie was providing financial assistance to a friend of his who needed to obtain an abortion due to a an unexpected pregnancy from another man. After the abortion, his desperate friend, Mimi, becomes terribly ill and Augie’s increased investment in time with this woman caused both his fiance and brother to grow suspicious and angry towards Augie’s actions and decisions. Augie sets aside their concern to act out of human kindness rather than get overly caught up in his brother’s indulgent lifestyle. The experience influences him greatly and he discovers that what he thought was love for the fiance was only a fleeting emotion and he gladly forgets her to pursue his true love and follow his old flame, the wild Thea, into Mexico. The writing in this period of the book is extremely engaging and uses powerful imagery such as the following to depict the depth of emotion experienced:
“There have great things been done to mitigate the worst human sights and teach you something different from revulsion at them. All the Golgothas have been painted with this aim. But since probably very few people are now helped by these things and lessons, each falls back on whatever he has.” (311)
It is Bellow’s use of beautifully engaging passages such as the one above that makes this an amazing book. In reading the The Adventures of Augie March the reader is presented with a believable depiction of a young man’s growing world view. Augie is self-aware that he is born with inherent imperfections, yet he is capable of making the best of his life’s situation. His world-view grows through the experiences he lives through and only a well-lived and time-weathered soul is capable of stating something such as this:
“Everyone tries to create a world he can live in, and what he can’t use he often can’t see. But the real world is already created, and if your fabrication doesn’t correspond, then even if you feel noble and insist on there being something better than what people call reality, that better something needn’t try to exceed what, in its actuality, since we know so little, may be very surprising. If a happy state of things, surprising; if miserable or tragic, no worse than what we invent.” (430)
This world-view shines throughout the Augie’s retelling of his life’s wandering and there are several notable passages worth savoring, such as the following:
“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.” (456)
At 607 pages this is an ambitious and thorough retelling of one man’s life. Bellow doesn’t leave much out, but despite the early pages of the book where I found myself lost and disinterested The Adventures of Augie March was a deeply satisfying read. I feel that I read this at a good point in my life. Most coming-of-age stories feel directed at a younger reader who can identify with the experiences of the protagonists. Augie continues to grow and live on beyond the coming-of-age years of the early twenties and he acts as the representation of a man who lives with the focused desire to live fully without resignation.