Monday, April 24, 2017

Favorite Books (3): The Adventures of Augie March

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this is part of a continuing series.

“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.”

Saul Bellow [1915–2005],
The Adventures of Augie March (1953), 1

Augie March: Hardcover by Viking Press (N.Y.; 1953) and softcover by Avon (N.Y.; 1977). The book is dedicated to Bellow’s father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who was born in Vilnius also called Vilna), the capital city of Lithuania. Before the Second World War, the city had almost 100,000 Jewish residents, equating to 45 percent of the city’s total population. With 105 houses of prayer and synagogues, six daily Jewish newspapers and a thriving Yiddish culture, Vilnius  was called The Jerusalem of Lithuania. After the Holocaust, this was no longer the case; 3,500 Jews survived. After the war, many such Jewish communities relocated and were rebuilt in America, most notably within and around the area of New York City, where they flourished.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

The Adventures of Augie March (1953), by Saul Bellow [1915–2005], has one of the best opening lines written in an American novel, celebrating the individual, where his fate is in his hands, where he gains entry by his own hand, by whatever means are necessary. This is American literature at its brashest, but also at its finest, writing about the common individual (a character in search of meaning) at a time when this was not popular.

This book is among the dozen or so books that have had a profound effect on me. I encountered this book first in a college course on American literature, which I took in 1977, a year after Bellow won the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work,” the Swedish Academy said. This introductory course eventually led me to read all of Bellow’s fiction and quite a bit of his non-fiction essays.

This novel speaks of a quest for identity, and how one’s fate can lead nowhere if one does not act rightly on one’s ideals. In other words, high ideals are good and well, but these alone will not bring you to achieve a measure of success; one needs to act upon them in a concrete and directed way and within the cultural and ethical norms of the time. In America, this was easy to determine and emulate.

Even so, it is also true that a life without ideals is empty, without meaning. It is true that Augie does get involved in many schemes, often not of his own invention, that his life is full of adventures. Yet, in doing so, it is also about Augie finding or transcending his ordinariness, in finding a distinct path, which although not direct and is often meandering, leads to some final destination of distinctiveness through a path of high-low culture that is common to America.

It is about “getting it right,” or about “making it right.” And it is about discovery, after all, and of making peace with oneself, of making peace with the past, including most notably with one’s father, with whom sons often have difficult relationships, balancing the need for familial acceptance with the need to make one’s own way in the broader world. One can see the author in this work. It is about knowledge, including self-knowledge, and, of course, about the highest and noblest of human emotions, love.

That is, to give love and be loved. This is a measure of success. It is not easily achieved, which is evident by the fact that there is so much written about love and the failure to achieve it. If this sounds complex, it is because this book raises so many important questions about the human condition in contemporary culture. This novel is also about hope in America, which throughout its history provided immigrants (and more so, children of immigrants) the ability to open the previously barred doors of opportunity.

By doing so, and doing it with success, they are to write their own story, based on freedom and opportunity available to them in America. There have been many stories of the immigrant experience since this novel was published, in opposition to those that say the character, the individual, is dead, no longer relevant in literature. I too join hands with those that disagree. Augie March is, when all is said and done, a very modern character.