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Rereading The Adventures of Augie March

As the first book in my TIME Magazine 100 best book reading challenge, I read The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. Actually, I read it in 2014 and found this review in my files. I'm posting it here and moving on to the next book.

Review Summary

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow is a classic novel of America and on TIME Magazine's list of 100 best novels since 1923. I'm trying to work my way through ones I haven't read on the list. Here's my review of this book.

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Augie March covers

Saul Bellow wrote the Adventures of Augie March in 1953. It’s a quintessential American Novel (capitalization intended) and the first book on TIME Magazine’s list of the 100 best English Language novels since 1923.

I’ve had the personal goal of reading my way through the list and reviewing each book as I go, for writing practice. Some of the books on it I read before, but it’s been a long time, and they merit a reread. Some merit a reread even if it hasn’t been all that long.

This reading project has been a start-and-stop endeavor. However, digging through my computer files, I found my write up about Augie March — dated 2014 — along with the book covers I scanned back then. Let’s just say there have been big life distractions between then and now. So I pick up, dust myself off, and start again.

But not with Augie. My write up is still here. It’s interesting to look back on and judge things you wrote several years ago. I had to laugh as I was into reading the Xin Xin Ming at the time and tended to related everything back to it. But I’m only going to do minor revisions and then post. I was also starting to watch any movie versions of the novel (after reading the book, I assure you.) I may pick up with that again.

So, here’s what I wrote about Augue all those years ago. If you haven’t read it, be warned, I generally don’t write spoiler-free.

You can take a trivia quiz about Time Magazine’s list of 100 best novels here.

Late in the book The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, its eponymous narrator explains to his friend, Clem, what he wants from life:

I have a feeling,” I said, “about the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy.  I must have had a feeling since I was a kid about these axial lines with made me want to have my existence on them, and so I have said ‘no’ like a stubborn fellow to all my persuaders, just on the obstinacy of my memory of these lines, never entirely clear.  But lately I have felt these thrilling lines again.  When striving stops, there they are as a gift.  I was lying on the couch here before and they suddenly went quivering straight through me. Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony!  And all the noise and grates, distortion, chatter, distraction, effort, superfluity, passed off like something unreal.  And I believe that any man at any time can come back to these axial lines, even if an unfortunate bastard, if he will be quiet and wait it out.  The ambition of something special and outstanding I have always had is only a boast that distorts this knowledge from its origin, which is the oldest knowledge, older than the Euphrates, older than the Ganges.  At any time life can come together again an man be regenerated, and doesn’t have to be a god or public servant like Osiris who gets torn apart annually for the sake of the common prosperity, but the man himself, finite and taped as he is, can still come where the axial lines are.  He will be brought into focus.  He will live with true joy.  Even his pains will be joy if they are true, even his helplessness will not take away his power, even wandering will not take him away from himself, even the big social jokes and hoaxes need not make him ridiculous, even disappointment after disappointment need not take away his love.  Death will not be terrible to him if life is not.  The embrace of other true people will take away his dread of fast change and short life.  And this is not imaginary stuff, Clem, because I bring my entire life to the test.

-Augie March

Augie, is, apparently, an idealist.  What he says about finding these axial lines when striving stops reminded me a bit of the Zen poem the Xin Xin Ming, with the way only being difficult for those who pick, choose, and strive.  Part of me intuitively understands what he means.  But to stop striving, to live a life centered on the trajectory of these so-called axial lines is a tall order.  Because while ceasing striving may indeed lead to greater peace, for some, its inverse could also be true: drifting without aim or being led by the desires of others. Which is both what happens to Augie, and what he resists.

“Saying ‘various jobs,’ I give out the Rosetta Stone, so to speak, to my entire life,” says Augie.  If there is any plot to this book this is just it:  Augie, self-described as “the by-blow of a traveling salesman” drifting from one occupation to the next. His drifting starts in boyhood in a rough Chicago neighborhood living with his increasingly blind mother, his developmentally delayed younger brother George, older brother Simon, and ‘Grandma’ Lausch – a Russian immigrant who had apparently had some wealth and prestige in her younger days.  Lauch, who hasn’t been able to let go of the past herself, now keeps her black Odessa dress and ostrich feathers in her trunk for special occasions.  She becomes one instrument of Augie’s tendency to let himself be pushed by the desires of others as she tries to advance Augie and Simon into positions of better social standing. We follow Augie through the struggles of this childhood a young adulthood in postwar Europe.

Augie works a wide variety of jobs: including handing out flyers for a local theater, to working for a disabled swindler tycoon to an uncomfortable turn working in a club for the dogs of rich people during the Great Depression, and more.  But Augie doesn’t just drift, he gets recruited.  He even describes himself at times as “adoptable” or an “ideal recruit.”  Perhaps it’s because Augie doesn’t appear to have a clear sense of his own direction, a fact which one character points out makes people uncomfortable, various characters throughout the book attempt to shape Augie to their liking:  recruiting him to their schemes, dressing him up in their outfits, trying to bend him to their philosophies, even trying – literally – to adopt him. Augie goes along with each of these schemes for a time, but as one of his bosses, the disabled swindler Einhorn points out that Augie has opposition in him, and he eventually rejects each one and goes on to the next thing.

Another strong motivator for Augie is love or, perhaps I should say, sex, and it seems that Augie will drop everything if faced with a beautiful woman who seems to want him.  In one of the most striking chapters of Augie’s life, Thea – who seems to be his greatest love in the course of the book — convinces Augie to follow her to Mexico to train a young bald eagle to hunt for giant iguanas.  Augie is not entirely fond of the eagle, which he names Caligula, or of her plan, but, at least initially, lets his feelings override his common sense.  He lets Thea dress him up in adventurer’s clothing, he participates in training the eagle, even though it results in wounds, scratches, and worse.  But eventually Caligula, who has spent most of his young life in captivity, becomes skittish about hunting the iguanas after he gets bit.  Thea rejects the bird, labeling him as “chicken,” and, simultaneously, begins to drift away from Augie.  Augie also lets this drifting apart happen as he becomes increasing less enchanted with Thea’s favorite pastime of hunting, catching, and “milking” venomous snakes. 

When I was reading this portion, my daughter and her friend, both recent survivors of high school AP English literature asked me what I thought of the book so far, and I told them about this portion.  “So,” they asked, “Then what is the symbolism behind the eagle and the lizards and the snakes?  If you were the author, of course, it’s just a story and there is no symbolism, but if you’re an English teacher, there is ALWAYS symbolism!”  Which prompted me to wonder if there was, in fact, any symbolism here. Did the eagle represent America (an idea that Christopher Hitchens, in his foreword to the recent edition mentions that some critics had put forth)?  Did it represent some sort of disassociation, during his time in Mexico of himself as an American?  To me, this didn’t seem to fit.  If the eagle represented anything, it represented Augie himself, his opposition to compliance with the ideas others had for him, and his deteriorating relationship with Thea.

 Many people achieve a sense of identity through their occupation, but without a clear consistent occupation or direction, how does Augie develop his identity?  This book seems to be more theme-driven than plot-driven and identity seems to be one of the strong themes in the book.  In fact, it starts with a declaration of identity:  “I am an American, Chicago-born.” Which, as I understand, was no small affirmation for a poor Jewish kid coming of age during the depression.

Augie seems to have a suspicion of how people create their identities, seeing these identities for what they often are:  a persona, a social mask, even as he acknowledges the necessity of creating such an identity to be able to act in society: 

“But then with everyone going around so capable and purposeful in his strong handsome case, can you let yourself limp in feeble and poor, some silly creature, laughing and harmless?  No, you have to plot in your heart to come out differently.  External life being so mighty, the instruments so great and powerful, the thoughts so great and threatening, you produce a someone who can exist before it.  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. The great chiefs and leaders recruit the greatest number, and that’s what their power is…”

Augie March

Wow. “You produce a someone” who can exist between all these internal forces. And get them to play sustaining roles in their make-believe. Cynical, perhaps. But there’s some truth-telling there that we create stories about our lives. Half-truths and fictions that may help us get by but may also cloud the truth and the ability to live fully.

When I asked myself what identity Augie was trying to create, I had difficulty answering. Augie’s use of language is often colorful:  long sentences peppered with mythological and literary reference. Passages that sometimes prompted me to reread them twice or thrice. Or to do a Google search in an attempt to understand his comparison of a character in his life to some mythical hero (and I thought my mythological knowledge was sufficient.)  When I first started reading the book, I wondered what this suggested about Augie:  was he trying to be pretentious; to show the reader how well-read and literate he was?  Did he see the need to frame his life from some mythical perspective to make his life seem grander than it was (and, Augie, does, at times, seem to have a fixation on “the great man,” though his drifting does not lead him to this type of greatness)?  On further research, the characteristic of his speech seems to have more to do with Augie’s Jewish identity, in particular the features of Yiddish.  Bellow himself stated:

“The most ordinary Yiddish conversation is full of the grandest historical, mythological, and religious allusions.  The Creation, the fall, the floor, Egypt, Alexander, Titus, Napoleon, the Rothschilds, the Sages, and the Laws may get into the discussion of an egg, a clothes-line, or a pair of pants.” (insert citation).

Perhaps in keeping with his suspicion about people’s social masks, Augie does not seem to be particularly interested in creating any particular identity for himself.  He asserts early on that “a man’s character is his fate,” and appears more interested in his identity being about character rather than prestige during most of the book.  He stands in contrast to his brother Simon who seems, from early on in the novel, more interested in learning social graces for social climbing.  In a way, this eventually pays off as Simon marries into money and eventually becomes a successful businessman – successful, that is, in monetary terms, but not in terms of character. Simon’s wealth and success do not seem to lead him to any real happiness, but instead toward arrogance and meanness.  Encountering Simon near the end of the book, Augies’s drifting seems a much-preferred state in comparison to Simon’s wealth – at least Augie has managed to hang onto compassion and optimism.

And, ultimately, this is an optimistic book.  Augie never really achieves his ambitions, ending up in Paris in a marriage the reader senses is in the process of failing, working as a middleman, and dreaming of returning to America.  But yet he remains optimistic, observing that there is still laughter and that nature can’t win over the power of hope, referring to himself as a sort of Columbus: “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.” And just because Augie finds himself drifting and somewhat lost again, it doesn’t mean his axial lines don’t exist.  It appears that though we are parting with Augie’s tale, his adventures – and his drifting – are not yet over.

And that’s what I wrote back in 2014 about The Adventures of Augie March, along with a footnote telling myself to write about whether I liked it. Did I like it? Did I like it?

Overall, I’d have to say “yes.” It was enjoyable, sometimes moving, and readable. But is it a book that floored me or that I want to read again and again? No, it wasn’t one of those books that had me in it’s grip so much I coudn’t put it down or stop thinking or talking about it when it was done.

I was also my goal to release this book into the “wild” via Book Crossing. But I’ve misplaced my physical copy so that will need to wait (does anyone even do that anymore, or is it all Free Little Libraries now?

Anyway, have you read this classic book? What did you think?

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