READING: Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March

A life is a contrary thing, resistant to a theme, don’t you think?  At times it shrinks to its single  bearer and all seems lost and then at times it billows wide to take in a crowd of rowdy, joyous others, who all meet for drinks at the club.  It’s like that, isn’t it?  We are one and then we are another.  A life is a large thing to take in, so large it has its own eras – the school years, the time spent with Jacob (mostly in bed), that job in advertising, the Sydney years, that marriage, the vagabond years, the other marriage and that time I lost my driver’s license and had to walk everywhere.  And what of our driving force.  Is it fate or chance or a little of both?
Do we hold out for that perfect purpose, the one we are designed for, or do we simply apply ourselves to some thing and get on with living?  I find most people place their weighting on one side or the other with no one in the middle at any one time.  We can be one and then the other, but not both simultaneously.  Perhaps this is the nature of identity, that even when we are searching for it, we must commit to what little we understand.  I am this! I am that!  Life is declarative.  I’ve been thinking in spurts like this ever since I finished reading Saul Bellow’s novel, The Adventures of Augie March.  I can’t help it.  It’s a big book, a coming of age book, a search for identity book.  It’s hefty and it begins with this famous declaration:
“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.”
From the outset, Augie tells us he is from this place and holds these values and comes with a certain state of mind, as if this is how we are to take him, warts and all.  He will try the best he can under his circumstances to give an accurate rendition of his life and we must find our own way sifting through it.  Character is fate, remember.
Still, Augie’s is an extraordinary proclamation for his time.  He is the son of poor Jewish immigrants and a child of the Great Depression.  In 1953 though, when Bellow wrote this novel, it was just as unusual for an immigrant’s child to be at the heart of a work which has in every other sense the hallmarks of a ‘great American novel’.  And was there resistance to such a character claiming poverty and his democratic right to the American Dream in 1953?  You bet there was.  Augie March muscled in the likes of Huck Finn and Gatsby, the very cheek of him.  So, the story of the story is interesting too.
For me though, I love Augie.  I love the way he sees the world around him.  He says this of the old lady lodger in his mother’s house, who was like a grandmother to him:
“…she was narrow-nosed with pride, and distinguished in a kind of fury of silent trying, from the other immigrant relatives…”
Of his friend Jimmy’s, Uncle Tambow, he says:
“He had a huge nose, and a countenance loose in the skin, with eye-bags of a fishing bird, seamy, greenish, and gray.”
Bellow uses Augie to commit some unforgettable charactisations.  There is this on his older brother, Simon:
“Simon had forefront ability.  Maybe his reading was related to it, and the governor’s clear-eyed gaze he had developed……a lifted look of unforgiving, cosmological captaincy; that look when honesty had the strength of prejudice, and foresight appeared a nobel cramp of impersonal worry in the forehead.  My opinion is that at one time it was genuine in Simon.  And if it was once genuine, how could you say definitely that the genuineness was ever all gone.  But he used these things.  He employed them, I know damned well.”
It is Simon who focuses in and commits himself to a concrete life, manipulative though he may be.  Augie, on the other hand, cannot settle to any one thing.  He falls in love with two women.  He travels to Mexico to train an eagle to hunt iguanas.  He becomes a union organizer.  He joins the navy when the Second World War beckons and spends days at sea in a life raft with a lunatic.  Despite all that he goes through and very possibly because of it, his American Dream is not fully realized despite its availability.  He puts it this way:
“‘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 which 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.'”
Augie keeps moving, his character driving him toward his fate along his ‘axial lines’.  It is not hard to know him though, that his greatest fear may be to become a disappointed man.  Perhaps this is what is at stake when there is such a thing as choice – that Augie, you and I might make the wrong one and live a life not quite up to scratch.  There is safety in not choosing then, and the possibility of discovery along the way.  Augie’s final words are:
“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.”
He is prodding a pointy stick at that directed, centered kind of life where decisions are overtly made.  Yes, we can do it this way and perhaps it’s easier to and it has its successes, but there is a less structured way, which makes its own discoveries and has its own particular and sometimes accidental successes.
How does one weigh a life?  I do not know, but Bellow’s, Adventure’s of Augie March, allows me to appreciate the grandness of it, it’s moments, even if only as a means to say, I was there once and this is how it felt.
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