Augie March & Mr. Sammler, Part One

Back in 2017, Dan Simmons wrote: “Thank you for your loving and close-reading analysis of Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, Enright. Now I, for one, will be looking forward to your thoughts about a later-Bellow book—say Mr. Sammler's Planet—in comparison to his tour de force ‘Hey, world, I've arrived!’ raw power of Augie March.”

A number of factors or an undisciplined life style have kept me from working on the above suggested essay, but (with one exception) I can say now that reading the very fine Christopher Hitchens introduction is one of the pleasures of taking up the March book again, if you have the modern, Peguin Classics edition—that one exception being an important historical error. Hitchens says that Bellow was smuggled by his parents across the U.S./Canadian border from Lachine to Chicago when he was an infant.

Lachine is a borough of Montreal now, but at the time it was an independent city on an island in the St. Lawrence river. When Bellow was three, his family moved from Lachine to Montreal proper, not Chicago, but they were still only about 20 minutes away from Lachine by trolley, and Bellow said that nearly every weekend he would go and visit his cousins there. His family didn’t move to Chicago until he was nine. As far as his writing is concerned, Bellow might have been more impacted by his experiences in Montreal, rather than his later life in Chicago, the "City of the Big Shoulders," as Sandburg called it. In the June 25 issue of People Magazine in 1984, Joshua Hammer wrote on the matter:

From 1915 to 1924 Shlamke Bellow lived and played on Eighth Avenue in Lachine and on St. Dominique Street in old Montreal—in cluttered, dirty slums filled with the cacophony of Italian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Polish immigrants, the cries of bread hawkers and ice peddlers, the Hebrew prayers of Jewish families, the rasping coughs of children dying of tuberculosis in the night. Life then had a harsh elemental quality—tightly familial, exuberantly emotional, bound by tradition, besieged by poverty and death. It was a life that shaped Bellow’s literary voice, from Dangling Man, his first novel, published in 1944 (“I sometimes think St. Dominique Street was the only street where I was able to encounter reality,” says the main character) to Him With His Foot in His Mouth, Bellow’s new collection of short stories.

“I saw mayhem all around me from an early age,” Bellow recalls this afternoon. “Especially on St. Dominique Street and at the Royal Victoria Hospital, where at the age of 8 I understood what sickness and death were. I was in a children’s ward with peritonitis and pneumonia, and one day you’d be talking to a kid, and two days later you’d see him being wheeled out, covered up. One was not protected from these things. I think of that as an advantage. I look at my own children and their generation, and though they’re very intelligent and attractive, they seem not to know anything about life.”

Early into his introduction, Hitchens, while taking no position himself on ‘the Great American Novel sweepstakes’—and citing certain other observers with a more jaundiced view—quotes Martin Amiss, who wrote in 1995:

"The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further. All the trails went cold forty-two years ago. The quest did what quests very rarely do; it ended.”

Perhaps it is so, but not quite for me or Hitchens (who said in so many words that he would hold out for Moby Dick). As for Saul Bellow himself, when he was asked which of his books he considered his masterpiece, he responded with these (edited here) comments:

“There’s a thread in all my books that I am pleased with . . . It begins to appear in Augie March, where the control is not very good because there’s a novelty in Augie March that carried me away, though I made certain discoveries about the way American English might be written—with a new vigor. I invented a kind of sentence that hadn’t existed before. [But in] Henderson the Rain King, or in Herzog, or in Humbolt’s Gift, or in some of my short stories, I think I’ve done my best work . . . .”

Before reading Augie, I had never felt so seized by the power of an author in quite so overwhelming a way, becoming convinced from reading his work of what can only be inferred, that among Bellow's other good qualities, his intelligence quotient must have been off the chart. And so from my admittedly limited experience of him, I would say that should you as a reader or writer have a mind inclined toward envy or jealously, you could do worse than pick Saul Bellow as your writer to hate. Yet, in terms of lyricism of the poetical sort, there were no Lo-li-tas tripping from his tongue.

However, I did have difficulty getting into the book, possibly because I misread Augie’s character at first, as he was depicted as a person who could blatantly lie or steal at times because he liked the challenge, or because something in his environment appeared to demand or require it. He even for a period of time had the vocation of taking valuable books from libraries and selling them. He was a contract book-thief, not exactly something I could admire. Of course, Augie had been taught from a young age about the necessity or at least the normality of deception and lying as tools of survival by “Grandma” Lausch, abilities perhaps not invaluable to know, or have in one’s quiver, but still I really wanted his more upright, older brother Simon to be the focus of this story—Simon, who had inculcated certain values from British and American heroes found in books, and seemed to know exactly where he was going, whereas Augie was just going along for the ride, although admiring his brother’s chivalrous stance.

As the novel wore on however and Simon faded, I warmed to Augie considerably because he did have certain qualities. Among other traits like loyalty and a fine critical faculty, he was honest with and about himself; he did listen well and patiently to advice, although not always taking it; and he engaged with his surroundings, with energy and curiosity. He took life as he found it, by simply experiencing a wide variety of people and environments, vocational and otherwise. And there is a lesson there for all of us. Not necessarily having an overall purpose in life, Augie could have been pulled down to a dark place—Dante’s fifth level of hell or something—but he fought back. “To live life to the end is not a childish task,” said Pasternak, true even if one’s ambition should be no more than that, to live a life.

Taking on the honor, a son once said to his father, “I just want to be a regular guy.” The Adventures of Augie March was a youthful, passionate book at the flood. Reading it was to stand in wonder at the back of a waterfall in the mists generated by all the waters falling down.

Hammer ended his beautiful piece on Saul Bellow with this:

“I’ve always gone my own way,” he tells his admirers, “always stamped my writing with the direct imprints of my mind and spirit. One must see and feel this contact. Otherwise, we are so beleaguered by trivialities that life is stolen from us.” Small wonder that, as he walks amid the remnants of his youth, his eyes flash with recognition of—and longing for—the world as he first knew it, a world that has departed forever.