Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Literature: "The Adventures of Augie March" by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow – who died five years ago last week – stands as one of the American literary giants of the second half of the twentieth century. Though born in Canada, his books are often quintessentially American, and are characterized by a darkly comic world view. In his decorations – the Nobel Prize for Literature, a Pulitzer Prize, and three times the National Book Award – it is easy to compare him to the other American greats, Hemmingway and Faulkner. Bellow, though, in his flowery prose, fine suits and with his notorious conservatism, stands distinctly apart from the succinct prose of a Hemmingway or the modernist styling of Faulkner.

It is hard, in fact, to find a recent author set further apart from post-Modernist fashion, or one more hostile to academically chic critical theory. For Bellow merely writes, and does he ever. He paints with bold, ambitious strokes and his style is grandiose and unapologetic. The opening paragraph of Augie March evokes from the beginning Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Bellow’s novel takes as its model.

“I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go about things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first to be 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 by gloving the knuckles.”

The protagonist, Augie March, narrates his way through his life story, the brilliant orphaned son of immigrants growing up in the 1930s in a poor Jewish neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. His adventures – without giving anything away – are at times rather ridiculous and unbelievable. Despite the meticulous detail of the prose, its constant attention to the smutty world of mid-century Chicago, the plot often borders on the fantastical. Chance happenings constantly deliver Mr. March into exceptional circumstances, and anyone expecting a novel of gritty realism should be rather disappointed.

Indeed, the story is a meandering one, and is far from carefully constructed. In that sense, the book is a bit of a technical failure. To become too hung up on the plot’s failures, though, is to miss the point. The joy in Augie March is that Saul Bellow can flat-out write. His prose sprawls and explodes on the page with a jubilant vitality and unabashed swagger like no American’s since Twain. Augie March is a breathtaking odyssey across the American landscape, told in brilliant prose by a master of the language.