“I always believed that for what I wanted there wasn’t much hope if you had to be a specialist, like a doctor or other expert. If so, as an expert, you’d be dealing with other experts. You wouldn’t care for amateurs, for experts are like that about amateurs. And besides specialization means difficulty, or what’s there to be a specialist about?” – Augie March
So here’s the first book on the list completed. This list is going to be jumbled as all hell, I think, as there are a lot of holds on the books I need to read. Oh well. This book took much longer to read than the last one, owing perhaps to its sheer density.
The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow
Augie March comes from a single-mother household in Chicago, and comes of age in the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. Along the way he falls in and out of money, jobs, clothes and the hearts of many women. Eventually he leaves Chicago and his family behind, first for Mexico on a wild scheme to train an eagle to hunt giant iguanas, then to Europe to take part in the Second World War.
I had some difficult times reading this entry on the list, mostly at the beginning of the book. Bellow is lavish in his descriptions of Augie’s friends, family, their families, where they live, what the weather was like, what smells there were, etc. I tried to follow along and remember all of this stuff, until I realized that none of it was that important, serving instead to set the themes of the novel in place, those being (to me anyways) transience, new love affairs and a struggle with the place of money in the world. Unlike some other commentators I quite liked Augie as a main character (IAmTheBookie on youtube has some very erudite and well thought out comments towards this end here), he’s if anything unbearably earnest, a quality which leads him to be semi-adopted by seemingly everyone he meets. You can almost tell eventually when someone is first described whether they’ll become a teacher or lover to Augie, culminating in the hilarious circumstance of Augie being lectured to about morality and science in a lifeboat by the only other survivor of his ship’s destruction.
So while some people might think of all this mentor-ship as a thinly-veiled way for Bellow to impart ideas about society and the fragility of human existence in the minds of his readers, it’s also a source of comedy as Augie very rarely listens to what they’re saying and stumbles into new ways of life every chapter.
I’m actually really glad that the publication date on this book was 1953, rather than 1943 or even 1933. The distance afforded by Augie March‘s being written long after the Great Depression does two things: 1. it allows for the “mature” Augie, who is full of quotations, allusions and historical facts (mostly gleaned from his stint as a book thief for university students, who spent most of the time reading the stuff he stole rather than selling it) to comment on his past in a way that is pretty funny and knowing (while sidestepping the fact that he’s learned almost nothing since), and 2. It allows for Bellow to use the common vernacular, sprinkling “fucks” and “cunts” around in a way that I feel like people would have talked in the Thirties (because they’ve always talked that way), but few books would have been allowed to print at the time.
This book is often touted as the return of Dickensian richness to the American novel (so sez Lacayo on the Time list, anyway), which was really good for me because I’ve never really enjoyed reading Dickens on his own. With the richness and depth of allusion and description in Dickens’ work, I always felt like I was reading the footnotes more often than the actual text, but in Bellow’s book, I got most of the allusions and was never really confused by antique language or anything. My copy of the book was also pretty sparse when it came to notation, stuffing it all at the back, and that was mostly explaining things in other languages, most of which I knew or could at least glean a meaning from the text.
To continue my sad allusions of classic novels to modern pop culture (as seen in my earlier post on All the King’s Men), if I were to describe the character of Augie March to someone prospectively looking at reading the book (because, rest assured, Augie and maybe one or two others are the only deeply detailed characters in the piece), I’d compare him most to Don Draper on Mad Men. Both are inventive, attractive characters who keep making the same mistakes over and over, mainly wanting to sleep with women but never commit to them. Both men are drawn to very strong women who would easily make their lives better, but they can never reconcile themselves to that fact. Both are outraged when a woman brings up lovers and affairs from their past, obviously forgetting that they are more than culpable for the same offence. Arrested development is the adjective I’d bring to bear on both of them.
I’m going to be meeting up with Bellow again in a few months when I get to reading his Herzog (1964), and I’ve got to say I am looking forward to it.
“To tell the truth, I’m good and tired of all these big personalities, destiny molders, and heavy-water brains, Machiavellis and wizard evildoers, big-wheels and imposers-upon, absolutists.” Augie March. You and me both, pal.
1. The Adventures of Augie March
Total Pages read: 1076 pp
Next up on the Resolution Project: Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997)