The Language of Life
The Adventures of Augie March.
by Saul Bellow.
Viking. 536 pp. $4.50.
At first sight, The Adventures of Augie March is very different from Dangling Man and The Victim, Saul’s Bellow’s first two novels. They were disciplined, abstract, subjective, and somber. But Mr. Bellow lets the reins go in this one. Dangling Man hardly ventured beyond the consciousness of its narrator; Augie March covers continents and the whole range of American society. The Victim restricted itself to the evocation of a nerve-pulling anxiety never adequately defined; Augie March is all variety, hopping from farce to melodrama, from abstract speculation to the most minute descriptions of faces, figures, and things. Its atmosphere, if not genial, is expansive, charged, effervescent. One senses the joy with which Mr. Bellow breathes the freer air; he writes like a man set loose from prison. Every page in his earlier books had a look of nervousness, as if expecting to be challenged to justify its presence in the total conception. In Augie March, every word exhales a devil-may-care, reckless confidence coming from the discovery of its right to exist solely for the sake of its own immediate impact. Mr. Bellow can’t spurt out the images fast enough; the book is almost bursting at the seams in an effort to be exuberant:
“The rest of us had to go to the dispensary—which was like the dream of a multitude of dentists’ chairs, hundreds of them in a space as enormous as an armory, and green bowls with designs of glass grapes, drills lifted zigzag as insects’ legs, and gas flames on the porcelain swivel trays—a thundery gloom in Harrison Street of limestone county buildings and cumbersome red streetcars with metal grillwork on their windows and monarchical iron whiskers of cowcatchers front and rear. They lumbered and clanged, and their brake tanks panted in the slushy brown of a winter afternoon or the bare stone brown of a summer’s, salted with ash, smoke, and prairie dust, with long stops at the clinics to let off dumpers, cripples, hunchbacks, brace-legs, crutch-wielders, tooth and eye sufferers, and all the rest.”
Thomas Urquart (17th-century translator of Rabelais) and Smollett and Dickens are behind the raciness, pace, and thickness of that prose, not Flaubert or James or Forster—and that in itself indicates pretty well what Mr. Bellow is up to. He is trying to put blood into contemporary fiction and break through the hidebound conventions of the well-made novel. This is a herculean job that will have to be done if we are to have a living literature at all. But our sympathy with Mr. Bellow’s ambition and our admiration for his pioneering spirit should not lead us to confuse the high intention with the realization.
The strain is apparent not only in many lapses, where Mr. Bellow tugs at syntax frantically, as if squeezing and twisting the language were enough to get all the juices out of it, but even in a passage as good as the one quoted. In a comparable paragraph of Urquart or Smollett, we get the sense of an endlessly flowing fountain; the stuff comes quickly and easily, with an effect rather like a Brueghel painting. But the feeling conveyed by Mr. Bellow’s exuberance is an overwhelming impulse to get in as many adjectives and details as possible, regardless of considerations of rhythm, modulation, or, for that matter, meaning. Like Milton in Paradise Lost, who was trying to do the near impossible too, Mr. Bellow seems frightened of letting up; a moment’s relaxation might give the game away. The result is that we are far more aware of the words than the objects, of Mr. Bellow than of the world—which is the reverse of how he would like us to respond. His language lacks the suction to draw us into its stream.
Exuberance isn’t the only quality he strains for; he wants detachment and impersonality too. Mr. Bellow apparently knows that Dangling Man was ruined by its non-dramatic subjectivity, and The Victim marred by its failure to relate Levinthal’s anxiety to the world outside. This time every precaution, we feel, has been taken to insure that Augie March shall be rich with life and mature in viewpoint. It proliferates in people, and Mr. Bellow also uses a narrator quite unlike himself in order to increase the distance between him and his material. I find it extremely difficult, however, to determine how often and how much he takes Augie at face value, and I think Mr. Bellow himself would be hard pressed to answer the question. It isn’t that Augie lacks a personality of his own. Actually, considering how inherently incredible a character he is—tough as nails and sensitive as a poet, a handsome sex-hero and a profound moralist, a bum and a sophisticated man-about-town—he comes off very well on the realistic level. But he doesn’t represent a point of view independent of Mr. Bellow’s.
The jargon Augie speaks—it’s the language of the autodidact—is a device that permits Mr. Bellow to get away with his uncertainty: “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.”
Mr. Bellow is no doubt poking fun at his narrator here through mimicry, but we are supposed to be taking what Augie says very seriously: it’s the theme of the novel, after all. The main effect of the mimicry is to give Mr. Bellow an out (he knows what sort of character his narrator is), not to qualify our response to Augie in any significant way. This kind of trick we are familiar with from Auden’s early poetry, in which self-mockery becomes an excuse for the self-indulgent refusal to make up his mind.
Consequently, two things are always going on in Augie March. We are actually permitted to see the world only from Augie’s perspective—and it is a very limited one—while being aware that Mr. Bellow shifts constantly in his attitude toward Augie, sometimes identifying with him completely, sometimes standing off with an equivocal neutrality very far from the detachment he’s after.
Consider, for example, the love affairs in the book. They are obviously drawn not from life but from day-dream. It’s impossible to believe that Mr. Bellow is unaware of this: from internal evidence we know that he is a first-hand authority on street-corner legend and pool-room mythology. But he gives us in Lucy Magnus the tired old image of the calculating, frigid rich girl who has always served as the scapegoat for her class in the bull sessions of the pool-room. And there is Mimi, the waitress who can be “one of the boys” (Augie of course doesn’t sleep with her—another proof that Mr. Bellow knows the conventions of the pool-room). Thea is the most blatant example. Unbelievably beautiful, she runs after Augie (even coming to his room while he’s in bed with a working girl), loves him madly, supports him in wealth and style in exotic Mexico, gives him a chance to show his stuff as a he-man trainer of eagles, and then clears out leaving him with the luxury of a broken heart and a gorgeous movie star to sleep with.
Is Mr. Bellow offering us some sort of comment on the fantasies of Americans? If so, what is it? Is Augie’s jargon intended as the barometer to register the author’s changes in attitude? If so, there must be more than mere mimicry in the standoffish passages to overpower or at least balance the pull of the action. The suspicion forces itself upon one that Mr. Bellow is resorting to a convenient trick only to sneak in a titillating appeal to our self-dramatizing day-dreams and his own.
The detachment Mr. Bellow is most often capable of is that of the caricaturist: “As she had great size and terrific energy of constitution she produced all kinds of excesses. Even physical ones: moles, blebs, hairs, bumps in her forehead, huge concentration in her neck; she had spiraling reddish hair springing with no negligible beauty and definiteness from her scalp, tangling as it widened up and out, cut duck-tail fashion in the back and scrawled out high above her ears.”
Obviously, there is a great sensitivity here to the way things look and feel. The same energetic eye is very good at capturing mannerisms and tricks of speech too. But Mr. Bellow’s relish in his own performance and his fascination with externals combine somehow to prevent reverberations below the surface from forcing their way through—as they do force their way through in Dickens’ Mr. Podsnap, for instance, or George Eliot’s Mrs. Glegg. As a result, most of Mr. Bellow’s characters are one-dimensional: they exhibit not individuality but peculiarity. This simplicity of characterization is of course reinforced by the fact that Augie’s point of view is not used to brighten the light thrown on the characters but to dim it to a flicker.
The portrayal of the cynical old Russian Jewish matriarch who raises Augie and tries to teach him how to become a gentleman is a case in point. We know in great detail what she looks like, how she speaks, what her notions about life are. But we get no sense of her as a complex, contradictory, rounded human being. Mr. Bellow never asks himself the question: What would it be like to be Grandma Lausch? He doesn’t care, contenting himself merely with a vivid sketch of an eccentric old woman, to whom he asks us to respond not as we might to a real Grandma Lausch, but only to one figure who exists in the imagination of Augie March. And Augie, of course, is taken in by her. The awe of the child clings to his descriptions of her, and its impact is far more powerful than his assurances that he really understands her now.
The point to be drawn from all this is that Mr. Bellow hasn’t yet worked his way out of the non-dramatic solipsism of his earlier books: the most successfully drawn character in Augie March is not a human being but an ego. Yet Mr. Bellow has made some real strides forward. I know of no modern novel which speaks up more wonderfully for the necessity of love and charity than Augie March. The way that compassion wins out over envy in the portrayal of Augie’s brother Simon is a triumph of the moral will: “He was ashamed, stony with shame. His secrets were being told. His secrets! What did they amount to? You’d think they were as towering as the Himalayas. But all they were about was his mismanaged effort to live. To live and not die. And this was what he had to be ashamed of.” There is hope that this note will grow into the kind of compassion that makes a great novelist. The novelist begins with pity-in which his own emotions are more important than the object which has called them forth-but he moves on to sympathy, in which detachment has been achieved without a diminution of feeling. It is the most difficult of all attitudes to reach; that is why we have so few genuine novelists. So far Mr. Bellow is closer to pity than to sympathy.
It would be misleading to suggest that Mr. Bellow is another Smollett. Augie March makes a bid for a greater style of picaresque than Smollett’s, for it is also a novel of ideas. The book is about America, or, more specifically, the problem of the individual in a conformist society.
Augie March stands for the American dream of the inviolable individual who has the courage to resist his culture—that figure whom, Tocqueville doubted could survive the realities of American life and whom David Riesman has lately tried to reinstate as an ideal. His quest is for happiness through self-realization. The power to find oneself and then to submit to what one is—that is the superior fate Augie believes he can achieve. He rejects an enormous range of flattering temptations-power, wealth, devotion to cause-because his will to oppose is stronger than his will to be a recruit and conform.
But Augie is a representative American in other ways too, the image of modern man living in a hopelessly fluid society, forced to choose an identity because he has inherited none. Augie is fatherless, Jewish, and penniless. He starts with nothing and is eventually propelled into everything, but he won’t stay put and he won’t admit defeat: “I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains, which didn’t prove there was no America.”
Mr. Bellow probably intended this book as a parable of American optimism. He is saying, and rightly, that the American dream is a faith which, like any other, can only be maintained stubbornly in spite of the evidence. Augie’s optimism is not blind. You cannot argue with his belief in the American abstractions by telling him how completely at odds they are with nature, human, social, and physical. He knows all your arguments and uses them against himself. What’s more, he has been through hell and back, he has touched bottom, he has seen cruelty and rottenness and degradation. He is a first-hand authority on evil. Or would be, if he were human. But he remains a mere device, not a test case at all. Augie reminds us of those animals in the cartoons who get burned to cinders, flattened out like pancakes, exploded, and generally made a mess of, yet who turn up intact after every catastrophe, as if nothing had happened. Though he goes through everything, he undergoes nothing. He doesn’t change in the course of the novel; he doesn’t even learn, for all his great show of having learned. He merely resists the apparent lessons of his experience. So that Mr. Bellow’s failure to explore concretely the impact of experience on faith makes that faith—with which, incidentally, I am very much in sympathy—seem merely willful. He has written a deeper parable than he may have intended, and Tocqueville, alas, still hasn’t been proved wrong.
Augie March is an impressive tour de force, impressive enough to earn the right to be criticized as a criticism of life. Mr. Bellow deserves our admiration and gratitude for showing us the direction serious fiction must take if it is to come alive: it will have to get in touch with day-to-day concerns, it will have to set itself rigorous standards of detachment and complexity that do not result in a shrivelled and straitjacketed transcription of petty worries, and it will have to open up the sources of vitality in American life.
Mr. Bellow has the very genuine distinction of giving us a sense of what a real American idiom might look like. It is no disgrace to have failed in a pioneer attempt.