Oct 23

The Adventures of Augie March

by in Books, Reviews

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The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Nobody asks you to love the whole world, only to be honest…

Is this the great American novel? I hate tags like that or attempts to declare any work of art “the best.” I would certainly not proclaim it to be so about this novel, but there is a great deal about it worth discussing and admiring. There is not doubt that Bellow is an immensely gifted writer as quotes like that one prove. His command of the language is impressive (even imposing and intimidating) and his writing, dense. However, I am not convinced that this book is as significant as it seems to think it is.

I am not sure that Augie should be classified as a hero, either. In the end, there is not an overwhelming argument for him being a person that I find admirable, or even memorable. His good and bad qualities seem to balance out and there does seem to be an everyman struggle to find meaning and purpose in life, but there is also very little growth in his morality and a very small amount of improvement in his decision making. Perhaps that is the key lesson in the book and Augie’s nature (“…everyone sees to it his fate is shared. Or tries to see to it.”) is to do just that and somehow implicate the reader in his struggles.

As for the promising start of the book, I found some of the later chapters lazy and unfocused. New characters (like Robey, Mintouchian, and the sailor Bateshaw) seemed to pop up exclusively for Bellow to spout further diatribes that could not be otherwise folded into the overall narrative. I was reminded of a similar tactic used by Ayn Rand, except she tends to do it over entire 1000-page novels. The characters had no real relevance in the plot or story other than to serve as a way for the author to squeeze in more pompous, rambling philosophy. I also expected Bateshaw had actually blow up the ship with one of his experiments and that this accounted for his bizarre behavior and demeanor towards Augie, but this proved to be fruitless.

Don’t get me wrong. Parts of this novel were quite entertaining and illuminating to be sure. Particularly his description of each character, no matter how insignificatn and lines like:

“Everyone has bitterness in his chosen thing,” he says. “That’s what Christ was for, that even God had to have bitterness in his chosen thing if he was really going to be man’s God, a god who was human.

Yet, somehow I still feel cheated as a reader. It seems to me as if an author of Bellows’ talents and experience should be able to intertwine themes and story in a way that does not come off as clumsy, inserted, and as ham-handed as they do in the second half of the story.

Ultimately, rather than complain about what this book isn’t, I will focus on what is attempting to communicate. I think Augie philosophy on the axial lines of life are what will resonate with me the most:

I have a feeling about the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy…. When striving stops, there they are as a gift… Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony!

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