September 30, 2011

Tales from the Completist: "The Adventures of Augie March," by Saul Bellow

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

The Adventures of Augie March

The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
By Saul Bellow

It's said by some that Chicago might have the most vibrant literary community in the entire United States right now; and if that's indeed true, it'd be due in part to the remarkably popular One Book One Chicago (OBOC) program run by the Chicago Public Library (CPL), one of the many things that makes it such a treat to be a book lover in this city. Inspired by similar experiments in smaller towns, the CPL essentially twice a year picks an interesting book, stocks up on a thousand percent more copies than usual (done many times via a promotional tie-in with a particular publisher), then tries to convince as many people in the city as possible to all read the book in the same thirty-day period, through things like an informative study guide, a series of events around the city, discussion groups in every single of the 150 branches of the CPL system, encouraging local bookstores to put the book on sale and do their own front-room displays, and many times even getting the author to actually come to the city and appear in a number of events as well, if they're still alive. And I have to say, there's something almost unbelievable and magical about stepping onto a random el one day with one of these OBOC books, and to spy ten or fifteen other strangers just on that car alone who are all reading it too, which is one of the things that the various artistic government agencies here are so good at, adding a little magic to everyone's lives.

This fall's pick is Saul Bellow's 1953 rough-and-tumble masterpiece The Adventures of Augie March, one of the first great novels about Chicago ever written; and that's especially appropriate here, in that this fall just happens to be the tenth anniversary of the OBOC program as well, and the CPL is putting a kind of energy into this particular cycle that they often don't with others. And in fact, this pick is a great example of another big benefit that comes from the OBOC program, which is simply learning more about books that were once important but have started becoming obscure; because as someone with no academic background in literature myself (instead, I studied photography), I have to admit that Bellow was one of the many important writers in history I knew almost nothing about before opening CCLaP, and in fact it seems that he's rapidly falling off the cultural radar just in general these days as well. And that's a shame, because as I've discovered in the last year (not only from reading this novel but also Humboldt's Gift for the CCLaP 100), Bellow was profoundly more important to the 20th-century arts than a lot of us realize anymore, a smart and funny blue-collar intellectual who not only helped define Late Modernism and Postmodernism, but was literally one of the first Jewish authors in history to gain a global following, paving the way for the post-Holocaust "mainstreaming" of Judaism, leading eventually to Mel Brooks and then Philip Roth and then Jerry Seinfeld.

And the irony, of course, is that this "most American" of American writers is an immigrant twice removed; a first-generation Ukrainian whose upper-middle-class family was forced to flee in the early 1900s, he grew up in Canada under a mother who was never able to let go of how much they had lost from their forced relocation, a scrounging day laborer who was ironically raised with a fine appreciation for classic literature and philosophical thought. It was only after moving to America, though, going to college, being drafted into World War Two, then holding a series of odd jobs all over the various neighborhoods of Chicago that it first hit Bellow to try combining these high- and low-brow elements of his life into complex works of fiction; and after a couple of overly serious, not very popular novels in the late 1940s, it was Augie at the dawn of Late Modernism that established the sort of meandering tone and almost absurdist humor that was to mark the rest of his extremely long and productive career. (Bellow lived until his nineties, dying just a few years ago, was still publishing award-winning new fiction into his eighties, won both the Nobel and the Pulitzer at various points in his life, is the only person in history to win the National Book Award three times, and is also the only person in history to be nominated for it six.)

And indeed, when I first sat down a few weeks ago to read Augie myself, I quickly found myself just really entranced and addicted to the loose, anecdotal, causally connected style that Bellow establishes right away, a book that's just as famous as everything else for being one of the first great odes to the American immigrant experience, not a wish-fulfillment morality tale about assimilation and becoming a good little docile citizen (like virtually all stories about immigrants had been before then), but rather a loud, messy celebration of the chaos and shady dealings that marked most immigrants' real experiences, a full-armed embrace of the idea that a man literally defines himself in the US using any criteria he wants, versus the pre-ordained class and caste and serf systems that still existed in so many other parts of the world at the time. And that's really the main thing to know about Augie before reading it, that it doesn't really follow a traditional three-act structure at all, a Modernist academic experiment that made its explosive commercial success such a huge surprise to nearly everyone involved; instead, it's written as if Augie were simply sitting at an older age and reminiscing about his youth, moving organically from story to story and with there being no big beginning, middle and end to his tale. Instead, Augie lives a life of random starts and stops that is much like ours, albeit much more bizarre and exciting than most of ours will ever be, an autobiographical element that was the singlemost biggest reason for its initial bestseller status; tackling the same mesmerizing 1930s Great Depression events as were being looked at by actual 1930s Social Realist authors like Richard Wright and Nelson Algren (two of Bellow's co-workers at the Chicago WPA office during the New Deal years), but in his case written twenty years later when a more even-handed look could be taken, Augie is full of such derring-do as riding the rails hobo-style, getting involved with bootleggers and gangsters, sneaking around high society under false pretenses and more, but with a kind of rascal/scamp humor that the dour, politically motivated Social Realists of the '30s were never able to bring to their work*, a textbook example of the "picaresque" novel that both exposes the kinds of injustices and hard-scrabble lives that so many Americans were living back then, but also kind of gleefully celebrates this life too, arguing that it at least made them as young men feel really alive, really in charge of their own destinies.

But of course, as mentioned before, don't underestimate how profoundly important this work has been to the development of 20th-century Jewish-American culture as well, and specifically how the sometimes exotic ins-and-outs of daily Yiddish life have been acknowledged and dealt with by the vastly larger Christian population around these people since the end of World War Two. As regular readers know, this is an endlessly interesting subject to me, that I've dealt with in much more detail in my essays on Philip Roth's "Zuckerman" series that I'm in the middle of reading (here are my looks so far at The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson, which I encourage you to check out if you're interested in Bellow as well); how important it is to remember, for example, just how anti-Semitic the US in general was before the rise of Nazism (as was the rest of the world), and how it was the shocking events of the Holocaust that first started changing millions of Americans' attitudes towards Jews for the first time, an easing of discrimination that many weary post-war Jews wanted to encourage by never reminding Christian-Americans of their Jewishness ever again, making it a scandal when someone like Bellow delved so matter-of-factly into it in a national bestseller like Augie, not just acknowledging the strange-sounding Yiddish parts of his culture but also daring to admit that the Jewish community sometimes sees dysfunction, dark humor over its own foibles, and yes, sometimes even voluntary reinforcements of lazy Jewish stereotypes. A lot of assimilation-oriented, Holocaust-surviving Jews did not like Bellow at all for doing this; but for people like Roth, Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon, who were all in their teens and twenties when Augie first came out, it showed them that it was possible to address the details of their Jewish lives with candor, humor and self-deprecation, that it was even possible to win over Gentile audiences with such work, without the usual Shylockian "they're laughing AT you, not WITH you" worries of pre-war Jews. And thus did a novel like Augie in the '50s begat something like Roth's Portnoy's Complaint in the '60s, which begat Annie Hall in the '70s, which all eventually led to a sitcom in the '90s about seder and Hanukkah and the Catskills and rye loaves becoming one of the most beloved artistic projects in American history.

The Adventures of Augie March is all of these things and more -- for example, also a meditation on extended families, additions and losses to such families, truth, beauty, and all kinds of other deep subjects -- and it's a shame that Bellow's reputation is starting to wane a bit among the general population, because after reading him it's easy to see why so many people count him as one of the top three influential writers of the entire 20th century. And like I said, the CPL's embrace and promotion of Bellow is just one of the things that makes it so great to be both a writer an a heavy reader in Chicago in the 2000s, and why I'd be willing to compare this city's literary community against almost any other in the world and bet that ours will at least match it if not come out on top. I'll be attending many of the related events going on this month for this book's promotion, and writing up little field reports for the blog; but for now, I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of this remarkable novel and give it a read yourself, and of course I congratulate the Chicago Public Library for ten fantastic years of bringing the city's book lovers together in the unique, powerful way they have.

Read even more about The Adventures of Augie March: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And in fact, I think it no coincidence that, of the dozens of radically left, communism-friendly Chicago writers being published in the 1930s, the only three we've still heard of (Wright, Algren and Bellow) were all deemed more Trotskyist than Stalinist, all balked at the Stalinist idea that art should always serve a serious political purpose, and all eventually quit these communist-friendly groups in disgust long before the Red Scare of the 1950s. I think it no coincidence at all that out of all those writers back then, these are the only three still worth reading.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:32 PM, September 30, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |