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National Book Award winners, part 8: 1954’s The Adventures of Auggie March, by Saul Bellow

5 Mar

(I’ve skipped Invisible Man for the moment; the library was all checked out)

1.

The Adventures of Auggie March, by Saul Bellow, won the 1954 National Book Award. It was Bellow’s third novel, an often breezy story of almost 600 pages.

Auggie March is a coming of age, picaresque novel, following the narrator as he makes his way through his youth, meeting a variety of oddball characters. He has a number of jobs. He has romantic encounters. There are lots of little incidents, anecdotes, run-ins, but there isn’t much of a larger story. It’s similar to Of Human Bondage[1]. Without the striving, yearning, heartache, or gravitas. And none of those great starving-artist-in-Paris scenes.

2.

Saul Bellow belongs to a group of Jewish-American novelists that had a tremendous impact on American fiction. This group includes Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Harold Brodkey and Bernard Malamud[2]. The post-war era belongs to them. They were a disparate group of writers, dissimilar in style and subject matter, but linked through a tradition-bound religion and a culture that valued intellectual achievements. They also wrote some killer novels.

Jewish people were a seismic force in America at mid-century. Fiction and poetry, yes, but also film, television, music and theatre. Consider the Jewish comedians, as way of an example. Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Red Buttons, Mort Sahl, and Don Rickles amongst dozens of others, and you have a game-changing shakeup of American popular culture[3].

Bellow encompasses many of the attributes of Jewish fiction. He’s urbane, self-deprecating, sophisticated, educated, haunted by simultaneous yet contradictory feelings of inferiority and superiority, and living in the black hole of history left by the Holocaust.

Bellow wasn’t a minor novelist. He was a major personality, an early literary celebrity. He was arguably the biggest star of his generation’s serious writers. He won the National Book Award three times, a Pulitzer, and in 1976 he won the Nobel Prize.

He wrote thirteen or so novels, and won the National Book Award twice. When he wants to, he can really cook. Check it out:

 

After this it wasn’t hard for Jimmy to induce me to go downtown with him, especially on science afternoons, to ride, if there was nothing better to do, in the City Hall elevator with his brother Tom, from the gilded lobby to the Municipal Courts. In the cage we rose and dropped, rubbing elbows with bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.

His prodigious descriptive skills—which are manifold—also form the major criticism of his work. He writes overfurnished, over-adorned fiction. (He certainly isn’t alone.) No one just drinks a beer or watches TV. No one takes a walk, looks at trees. Everything is a torrent of words. Everything is a segue into Bellow’s poetic fantasies. Sometimes, he overwrites. As he’s concerned with memory, his novels bend around the narrator’s memories. They don’t follow a coherent line. His excessive language can be frustrating. He writes like an author of another era, which he is.

3.

In the early fifties, Beat culture was percolating. Bop, pop, noir, drug use and nightmares were seeping into fiction, as were aspects of the lower genres of crime, mystery, fantasy and sci fi. Jazz was percolating, too. Innovative, unpredictable, urban, moody, and at times dissonant.

Existentialism + boozy, druggy late nights + transgressive sex + an outlaw mentality + eastern mystical teachings = the Beat movement[4].

There was an enormous bachelor culture in America. Single men stayed up late, drank, shot pool, roamed city streets with black overcoats and even blacker hats. They hitchhiked, worked itinerant jobs, floated like ghosts from here to there. These urban bachelors incubated a hard-living culture of townie bars and wretched hangovers.

Loads of single men + pool halls + bars + lonely postwar despair = 1950s fiction.

A series of high profile indecency trials—most of them around the proto-Beat writer Henry Miller[5]—loosened up moral and aesthetic constraints. These parameters were restrictive, but paradoxically forced writers to be subtle, witty, subversive, clever, and ironic. Fiction was becoming coarser, rougher, wilder, less suave, less dignified.

In the 50s Beat Culture was counter culture. By the end of the 60s this paradigm was the norm.

Bellow is a bridge between the classical formalism of the early 20th century novelists and the jazzy riffs of the Beat writers. In him, we find both.

3.

Well, sort of, anyway. Bellow is droll, he delivers enormous quantity of detail with a slight smirk. He riffs on things that are unimportant to the story, but essential to his idea of his characters. When it works—there’s pages of brilliant, hilarious insight into a wheelchair bound businessman Auggie works for—it’s great; when it doesn’t, it’s a slog. A novel relying on mood to get you through almost 600 pages has to be funnier, more crazed. There isn’t enough danger, menace, madness. Auggie sort of trudges along, from one episode to the next, punctuated by these pithy little references to his family. He doesn’t build anything, he doesn’t really achieve much, and I suppose this is Bellow’s point. But without the derangement of the senses, without a rawer view of sex, without any propulsive engine to the story, it just hangs together.

March isn’t an interesting a travel companion. He’s too safe. Where’s Dean Moriarty when you need him?

4.

And yet, Bellow justifiably won the award. He won by default. There was nothing else.

1953 was a miserable year for American fiction. March beat out only three notable novels: Raymond Chandler’s superb The Long Goodbye; James Baldwin’s moving and poetic Go Tell It on the Mountain; and William Burroughs’s Junkie[6], which I love, but it’s hardly a novel at all. Bellow also won over Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (I already wrote about his victory seven years later here), and a number of forgettable pulp novels. Looking at the competition, nationwide, it’s no wonder Bellow won the top award. Chandler and Burroughs weren’t yet accepted by the literary establishment, and Baldwin was a black gay dude writing his first novel. (Mountain is a good novel, but probably a bit overrated; Giovanni’s Room is much better.)

Those dark post-war years. Man with the Golden Arm is partially about the slipping social fabric of a returning veteran. From Here to Eternity is about the ennui and malaise of fighting men during peacetime. And Faulkner’s stories are peopled with wounded veterans and young people going off to war. Bellow’s novel is lighter, fresher, gentler, but it carries inside it a peculiar melancholy at the edges of the story.

5.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: Bellow is a great writer. He can wind a sentence around a dozen different locales and ideas, held together with witty zingers and pithy asides. He’s a masterful wordsmith, has a huge vocabulary, and half a dozen classical allusions on every page. He’s clever, witty, erudite yet cagey.

But, he’s a weak storyteller. He drags. He avoids. He sidelines. He prolongs. The idea is to mirror the fluidity—and unreliability—of memory. But the result is a novel that never quite feels like more than reminiscences. And March isn’t a very interesting travel companion. He’s too safe. Updike would have him sleep with some old ladies and then steal their jewelry. Mailer would have him daydreaming about anilingus. Roth would have him choking on childhood trauma. Malamud would never have written a book like this.

6.

Let me end with a book recommendation. This past year I read Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love, a Chicago novel by a Jewish author, covering a lot of similar territory. It’s taut, moving, haunting, yet expansive and beautiful and funny. It’s superior to Auggie March in every way; it’s the novel Bellow wanted to write, I think. It didn’t win any awards.

 


[1] Although not nearly as powerful.

[2] Chaim Potok and Leon Uris should be included too, but they aren’t of the same caliber. Rod Serling, too, but I can’t make up my mind about him. Genius, or just macabre and kind of interesting?

[3] The Yiddish theatre has a long, powerful influence.

[4] I don’t count Charles Bukowski or John Fante as a Beat writers. That would change everything.

[5] Sex + sex + sex + pornography + food + philosophy + stream of consciousness poetry + occasional bouts of poverty = Henry Miller.

[6] His best book and don’t let critics fool you; the more he tried to be writerly, the worse his books became.

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National Book Award winners, part 25: 1970’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow.

23 Apr

1.

In 1971, Saul Bellow won the national book award for his odd, melodramatic little novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. It was Bellow’s third time winning the top award.

The Adventures of Auggie March, despite its reputation, is overwritten and meandering. (See my review here, along with a summary of 1950s fiction.) Herzog is magnificent, a masterpiece of American fiction and one of the finest novels of the twentieth century (review here). Sammler falls somewhere between the two, never boring but never quite superb either, didactic at times, a touch overheated in others, with long, tedious speeches about the sins of people and the future of man. It’s an interesting failure from a talented writer of immense learning.

The story follows Artur Sammler, a Holocaust survivor, Polish émigré, one-eyed and aged part-time intellectual, through a few days in 1960s New York. His daughter is aimless. His doctor-nephew—and also his benefactor—is dying. The doctor’s son is a dope; the doctor’s daughter is a sex fiend. Sammler sees a pickpocket commit a crime.

He travels by foot, car, subway and bus through the city.

He thinks. He ponders. He bears witness.

The different storylines converge. Some resolution is found. Some characters die.

Sammler suffers all the indignities of his current age with a stoic detachment. There’s something chilly about his heart, and the novel is refracted through his past suffering.

Here’s an early passage, outlining Sammler’s relationship to his planet:

 

“He was not sorry to have met the facts, however saddening, regrettable the facts. But the effect was that Mr. Sammler did feel somewhat separated from the rest of the species, if not in some fashion severed—severed not so much by his age as by his preoccupations too different and remote, disproportionate on the side of the spirtual, Platonic, Augustinian, thirteenth-century.”

The best parts involve his reminisces, his undulating horror at his past. These sections are poetic, moving, horrifying. For example, his war experiences include being buried alive in a ditch full of corpses.

Fascinating, challenging, just not great.

Fascinating, challenging, just not great.

Sammler can’t reconcile the sins of mankind with the advances in science. The world around him is decaying, dismal, alienating. Yet, the human race seems to be moving forward, somehow.

The worst parts involve his ruminations on the social ills of present-day New York.

And when Bellow misfires, he really misfires.

2.

Bellow is grappling with youth culture, with urban culture and with black culture. In this, he fails[1]. He belongs to an early generation, of good manners, clear class divisions, an established literary canon, as well as Trench coats and spats and canes and fedoras. Bellow’s attempts to portray what he clearly perceived as a coarse, threatening youth culture falls flat, flat, flat.

The pickpocket is African American, and the novel belabors the point, returning over and over to the thief’s race and racial characteristics. Even his genitalia.

The pick pocket dresses like a pimp. He doesn’t speak. And he haunts the novel like some specter of sexual dread. Worse, he attacks Sammler near the beginning of the novel and forces the old man to stare at his big penis. (I’m not making this up.) Sammler spends much of the novel deciphering the symbolism of this act. There are no other black characters. The result is a dark, demented minstrelsy that overshadows the rest of the book. But it doesn’t make it any less discomfiting to read. Bellow is attempting to understand and capture the reality of New York while also maintaining a high literary style. The result is cartoonish and creepy.

Here’s a taste, of when Sammler is assaulted:

 

“He was never to hear the black man’s voice. He no more spoke than a puma would. What he did was to force Sammler into a corner beside the long blackish carved table, a sort of Renaissance piece, a thing which added to the lobby melancholy, by the buckling canvas of the old wall, by the red-eyed lights of the brass double fixture. There the man held Sammler against the wall with his forearm. . . . The pickpocket unbuttoned himself. Sammler heard the zipper descend. Then the smoked glasses were removed from Sammler’s face and dropped on the table. He was directed, silently, to look downward. The black man had opened his fly and taken out his penis. It was displayed to Sammler with great oval testicles, a large tan-and-purple uncircumsised thing—a tube, a snake; metallic hairs bristled at the thick base and the tip curled beyond the supporting, demonstrating hand, suggesting the fleshly mobility of an elephant’s trunk, though the skin was somewhat iridescent rather than thick or rough. Over the forearm and fist that held him Sammler was required to gaze at this organ.”

It’s the second line—“than a puma would”—that makes this passage so difficult to accept. Read it again and see if I’m wrong, but it isn’t Sammler thinking that line. It’s Bellow.

Bellow falters, I think, in his attempt to capture the old man’s distaste for the youth culture then in full swing. It sounds too much like an out of touch dude, angry at being left behind. You can hear Bellow’s high-minded distaste for the changing world around him, and through Sammler he often sounds reactionary, old-fashioned and out of touch. And, well, ugly and sexist and racist, too.

The racism seems to come from the slightly paternalistic generosity of the old-time liberal. Bellow was 55 when the novel was published. He had seen the seismic shift of values during the 1960s on the wrong side of 50. The obscenity trials, the British Invasion, the first theatrical adult films—the culture was changing, and it’s clear that Bellow wasn’t comfortable with the shifts.

That he fails is clear.

What he achieves isn’t so obvious.

It would be wrong to linger too long on the novel’s shortcomings without speaking to its virtues. It’s funny. It’s (for the most part) compelling. The writing is often crisp, freewheeling, poetic, free-associated, rip-roaring. Bellow, like all the great writers, ignores rules of grammar, syntax. He wanders. He riffs. He waxes. He razzles and dazzles.

And Sammler is an intriguing character, bent by history but not broken. Bellow tries to use Sammler’s life to find some type of basic decency to people, some redeeming quality of life. He mostly succeeds.

Here’s another passage, with Sammler imagining H.G. Wells near his final days:

 

“Rancor, and gradually even rage, came over Wells at a certain point as he talked about the powers of the brain, its expansive limits, the ability in old age to take a fresh interest in new events diminishing. Utopian, he didn’t even imagine that the hoped-for future would bring excess, pornography, sexual abnormality. Rather, as the old filth and gloomy sickness were cleared away, there would emerge a larger, stronger, older, brainier, better-nourished, better-oxygenated, more vital type, able to eat and drink sanely, perfectly autonomous and well regulated in desires, going nude while attending tranquilly to duties, performing his fascinating and useful mental work.”

And a paragraph later, Sammler’s sad rebuttal to Wells:

 

“Accept and grant that happiness is to do what most other people do. Then you must incarnate what others incarnate. If prejudices, prejudice. If rage, then rage. If sex, then sex. But don’t contradict your time. Just don’t contradict it, that’s all. Unless you happened to be a Sammler and the place of honor was outside. . . . And the charm, the ebullient glamour, the almost unbearable agitation that came from being able to describe oneself as a twentieth-century American was available to all. To everyone who had eyes to read the papers or watch the television, to everyone who shared the collective ecstasies of news, crisis, power. To each according to his excitability. . . . Humankind could not endure futurelessness. As of now, death was the sole visible future.”

Good writing, urgent, pungent, bleak and hopeful and accepting all at once.

3.

There’s a nice symmetry to Bellow winning the first award of the 1970s. Bellow remains one of the strongest of the 1960s novelists, combining the erudition of the academic with the linguistic dynamism of a wordsmith. He’s related to the postmodernism of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo with the moral intelligence of Vonnegut, but he also fits with terse realism of the Victorian novelists, even akin to Hemingway in a bizarre way. He has a foot in both worlds. He’s a key figure in the literary scene. A bridge.

He won over James Dickey’s redneck revenge tale Deliverance, as well as novels from Shirley Hazzard and John Updike and Eudora Welty. Thomas Berger, Gore Vidal, Jimmy Breslin, John D. McDonald, Taylor Caldwell, Roger Zelazny, and Poul Anderson all published novels[2].

Bellow won on his reputation, on the punched up sections of this novel that read like no one else. But the sum isn’t much, in the end, and the novel’s deficiencies are thorny and disagreeable to my 21st century eyes.

Bellow’s weaker novels have a way of feeling overwritten but undercooked. Sammler is no exception. It has breathtaking moments of superb writing and longwinded nonsense that should have been cut.

I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t read it again.

 

 

[1] Malamud, in his white-knuckle The Tenants, grapples with the racial issues in New York in a very different manner; two writers, one white the other black, inhabit a tenement building and through miscommunication and misunderstanding, drive each other to murderous insanity.

[2] I know some of these writers are terrible.

National Book Award winners, part 20: 1965’s Herzog, by Saul Bellow.

4 Feb

1.

In 1965, Saul Bellow won the National Book Award for Herzog, his novel about an depressed intellectual in a mid-life crisis. All my misgivings around Bellow are gone; he is one of our country’s greatest writers, on the strength of this novel alone. It is a stunning, masterly work, supremely magnificent.

The novel follows its namesake, a weak-willed failure who is lonely, easily tempted. He has three failed marriages. He has two children, both of whom live with their mothers. He is losing more each day to his third wife, who also might be taking his sanity. He’s a professor who’s unraveling, and he knows it. His thoughts drift. He shifts out of present time into memories, impressions. He writes letters, many of them in his head. He writes to his friends and colleagues. He writes to presidents and scientists, to philosophers long dead.

He understands himself enough to be frustrated by his shortcomings. “I fail to understand!” he thinks to himself throughout the novel. He is weary. He wants to change, but can’t quite break out of his self-destructive patterns. He sees his failures approaching, but can’t quite avert them. He is exhausted with himself, and the novel begins with his vacillating over a new girlfriend. The novel follows his disassembly, and then the slow, torturous (and often hilarious) reassembly as a happier person.

An absolute smash.

An absolute smash.

The characters are amazing. Each feels distinct and alive. Each is drawn in quick, masterly comic strokes.

Bellow’s considerable descriptive talents and vast erudition are anchored by a lean, taut narrative. Unlike March, that sort of meanders on and on, Herzog is a controlled, precise work, bursting with life, yes, but also propelled by a not so slow burn. There’s real madness and menace lurking in these pages, too, if you look for it.

The story is simple, following a week in Herzog’s life. The structure and technique are complex, alternating from third to first person, interweaving the letters—many of them incomplete—in and out of the narrative. The results are dazzling. Here’s a taste:

Unemployed consciousness, he wrote in the pantry. I grew up in a time of widespread unemployment, and never believed there might be work for me. Finally, jobs appeared, but somehow my consciousness remained unemployed. And after all, he continued beside the fire, the human intellect is one of the great forces in the universe. It can’t safely remain unused. . . . The soul requires intensity. At the same time virtue bores mankind. Read Confucious again. With vast populations, the world must prepare to turn Chinese.

Through Herzog, Bellow grapples with the major failings of the end of civilization prognosticators. He tackles Freud, Hegel, Marx, plus a whole lot of dudes I don’t know. He accepts their strengths and critiques their shortcomings. His intellect—both Herzog’s and Bellow’s—is ravishing, probing.

Lust, free will, nature versus nurture. The atrocities of the 20th century. The failure of our political systems to bring us happiness. The specter of thermo-nuclear war. The impermanence of a life. The suffering of animals. The burden of ethics. The need for rituals in our post-religious age.

Herzog refuses to be eaten by history. He is a hero. He maintains bravery in spite of species annihilation. Philosophy is in use, in defense of something: the dignity of a single life. If the life in question is selfish, arrogant, diffident, self-rationalizing, vulnerable and unhinged, that same life is also brace, self-sacrificing, searching, generous and wonderful. Bellow does nothing less than redeem humanity.

2.

That’s enough hyperbole. Let’s get to the prose.

Alongside Bellow’s impressive erudition is his storytelling. His immense talents are, in a sense, squandered in his lesser novels.

Page after page of superior prose, crackling, funny, poetic, leaps off the page. Here he is traveling by train, slipping back in time:

The train crossed at the St. Lawrence. Moses pressed the pedal and through the strained funnel of the toilet he saw the river frothing. Then he stood at the window. The water shone and curved on great slabs of rock, spinning into foam at the Lachine Rapids, where it sucked and rumbled. On the other shore was Caughnawaga, where the Indians lived in shacks raised on stilts. Then came the burnt summer fields. The windows were open. The echo of the train came back from the straw like a voice through a beard. The engine sowed cinders and soot over the fiery flowers and the hairy knobs of weed.

But that was forty years behind him. Now the train was ribbed for speed, a segmented tube of brilliant steel.

And again, here, where Herzog is speaking with the aunt of the ex-wife, Madeleine, who just cuckolded him:

“Yes, I was stupid—a blockhead. But that was one of the problems I was working on, you see, that people can be free now but the freedom doesn’t have any content. It’s like a howling emptiness. Madeleine shared my interests, I thought—she’s a studious person.”

“She says you were a dictator, a regular tyrant. You bullied her.”

I do seem to be a broken-down monarch of some kind, he was thinking, like my old man, the princely immigrant and ineffectual bootlegger.
And here, too, as he readies himself for a night with his new girlfriend, who scares him:

. . . Perhaps he had given the impression that he was a little stingy. Or else he had awakened a feeling of protectiveness in her, an effect he often produced. He wondered at times whether he didn’t belong to a class of people secretly convinced they had an arrangement with fate; in return for docility or ingenuous good will they were to be shielded from the worst brutalities in life. Herzog’s mouth formed a soft but twisted smile as he considered whether he really had inwardly decided years ago to set up a deal—a psychic offer—meekness in exchange for preferential treatment. Such a bargain was feminine, or, extended to trees, animals, childlike. None of these self-judgments had any terror for him; no percentage now in quarreling with what one was. There was the thing—the composite, the mystical achievement of natural forces and his own spirit. He opened the paisley Hong Kong robe and looked at his naked body. He was no child. And the house in Ludeyville, a disaster in every other way, had kept him fit. Wrestling with that old ruin in an effort to recover his legacy made his arms muscular. Extended the lease of narcissism for a little while. Gave him strength to carry a heavy-buttocked woman to bed.

I love it.

The writing is dense but thrilling. Writing about Herzog at all feels futile, as with any great work of art it teaches you how to read it as you are reading it, shows you how to enjoy it as you’re enjoying it.

It’s an immaculate, big-hearted novel, and it belongs alongside The Wapshot Chronicle in its poetic intensity, its luminous erudition, its desperate lows and its wondrous joy.

The writing is somehow maximalist, poetic and large, and also spare, elegant and taut.

I wish I could read it again for the first time.

3.

1964 was a great year for American fiction.

Bellow beat out Louis Auchinsloss, John Hawkes, Richard Kim, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Vladimir Nabakov for the top prize. Bellow deserved to win, but there were other, very fine novels released.

Thomas Berger published his fabulous Little Big Man[1]. Richard Brautigan released another oddball novel, A Confederate General at Big Sur.  H.P. Lovecraft, long dead, released the excellent At the Mountains of Madness and Other Stories. Hubert Selby, Jr. published his challenging but influential novel, Last Exit To Brooklyn. Gore Vidal released his excellent (thinly) fictionalized epistolary novel of ancient Rome, Julian[2].  And, Shel Silverstein published The Giving Tree, a near-perfect picture book.

4.

Leaving the book behind, for the last few days, I’ve felt sad. As if a friend has passed.

It’s an astonishing work, one of the finest novels I’ve read in years. I keep thinking, how many more novels are going to catch me in the head and the heart so fully as this one?

It’s also something of a dead-end, the apotheosis of the realistic novel of ideas. There’s nowhere else for the form to go.

The late 1950s had already brought new voices. The 1960s amplified these trends, of irony, inventive wordplay, nihilistic exhaustion. I heard someone say just yesterday that Bellow managed to keep the realistic, literary novel alive, single-handedly. I believe this is true. And I believe with Herzog, this sub-genre found its peak.

And after[3] Herzog, the deluge.

John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme, Joan Didion, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut—some of these had been kicking around for a while, others were fast approaching—were a new wave of American writing, a blurring between genres, between fact and fiction, high and low brow, art and artifice. A sense of cool detachment, or of blasé genius; a love of puzzling wordplay, or a labyrinthine grammatical sense; a mashup of the modernism of Joyce and Faulkner with the destructive creativity and migraine nonsense of Jarry and Beckett—these new wolves romped through American letters.

Meta-textual games, paranoia, distrust in humanity and the arts, a fatal disbelief in the power of stories, an ironic knife blade slicing through anything sincere or heartfelt, deconstruction, postmodernism, an unwinding, madness—after Bellow[4] (or because of him) the novels implodes, resets. The form is exhausted.

New minds auger.


[1] I love this.

[2] I love this, too.

[3] And before. We’ve entered the post-modern way of thinking.

[4] And Malamud, Cheever and Updike, too. Roth was from the beginning collapsing his narratives on himself.

National Book Award winners, part 8: 1954’s The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow

28 Aug

(I’ve skipped Invisible Man for the moment; the library was all checked out)

1.

The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow, won the 1954 National Book Award. It was Bellow’s third novel, an often breezy story of almost 600 pages.

Augie March is a coming of age, picaresque novel, following the narrator as he makes his way through his youth, meeting a variety of oddball characters. He has a number of jobs. He has romantic encounters. There are lots of little incidents, anecdotes, run-ins, but there isn’t much of a larger story. It’s similar to Of Human Bondage[1]. Without the striving, yearning, heartache, or gravitas. And none of those great starving-artist-in-Paris scenes.

A light, breezy thin novel. At 600 pages.

A light, breezy thin novel. At 600 pages.

2.

Saul Bellow belongs to a group of Jewish-American novelists that had a tremendous impact on American fiction. This group includes Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Harold Brodkey and Bernard Malamud[2]. The post-war era belongs to them. They were a disparate group of writers, dissimilar in style and subject matter, but linked through a tradition-bound religion and a culture that valued intellectual achievements. They also wrote some killer novels.

Jewish people were a seismic force in America at mid-century. Fiction and poetry, yes, but also film, television, music and theatre. Consider the Jewish comedians, as way of an example. Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Red Buttons, Mort Sahl, and Don Rickles amongst dozens of others, and you have a game-changing shakeup of American popular culture[3].

Bellow encompasses many of the attributes of Jewish fiction. He’s urbane, self-deprecating, sophisticated, educated, haunted by simultaneous yet contradictory feelings of inferiority and superiority, and living in the black hole of history left by the Holocaust.

Bellow wasn’t a minor novelist. He was a major personality, an early literary celebrity. He was arguably the biggest star of his generation’s serious writers. He won the National Book Award three times, a Pulitzer, and in 1976 he won the Nobel Prize.

He wrote thirteen or so novels, and won the National Book Award twice. When he wants to, he can really cook. Check it out:

After this it wasn’t hard for Jimmy to induce me to go downtown with him, especially on science afternoons, to ride, if there was nothing better to do, in the City Hall elevator with his brother Tom, from the gilded lobby to the Municipal Courts. In the cage we rose and dropped, rubbing elbows with bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.

His prodigious descriptive skills—which are manifold—also form the major criticism of his work. He writes overfurnished, over-adorned fiction. (He certainly isn’t alone.) No one just drinks a beer or watches TV. No one takes a walk, looks at trees. Everything is a torrent of words. Everything is a segue into Bellow’s poetic fantasies. Sometimes, he overwrites. As he’s concerned with memory, his novels bend around the narrator’s memories. They don’t follow a coherent line. His excessive language can be frustrating. He writes like an author of another era, which he is.

3.

In the early fifties, Beat culture was percolating. Bop, pop, noir, drug use and nightmares were seeping into fiction, as were aspects of the lower genres of crime, mystery, fantasy and sci fi. Jazz was percolating, too. Innovative, unpredictable, urban, moody, and at times dissonant.

Existentialism + boozy, druggy late nights + transgressive sex + an outlaw mentality + eastern mystical teachings = the Beat movement[4].

There was an enormous bachelor culture in America. Single men stayed up late, drank, shot pool, roamed city streets with black overcoats and even blacker hats. They hitchhiked, worked itinerant jobs, floated like ghosts from here to there. These urban bachelors incubated a hard-living culture of townie bars and wretched hangovers.

Loads of single men + pool halls + bars + lonely postwar despair = 1950s fiction.

A series of high profile indecency trials—most of them around the proto-Beat writer Henry Miller[5]—loosened up moral and aesthetic constraints. These parameters were restrictive, but paradoxically forced writers to be subtle, witty, subversive, clever, and ironic. Fiction was becoming coarser, rougher, wilder, less suave, less dignified.

In the 50s Beat Culture was counter culture. By the end of the 60s this paradigm was the norm.

Bellow is a bridge between the classical formalism of the early 20th century novelists and the jazzy riffs of the Beat writers. In him, we find both.

3.

Well, sort of, anyway. Bellow is droll, he delivers enormous quantity of detail with a slight smirk. He riffs on things that are unimportant to the story, but essential to his idea of his characters. When it works—there’s pages of brilliant, hilarious insight into a wheelchair bound businessman Augie works for—it’s great; when it doesn’t, it’s a slog. A novel relying on mood to get you through almost 600 pages has to be funnier, more crazed. There isn’t enough danger, menace, madness. Augie sort of trudges along, from one episode to the next, punctuated by these pithy little references to his family. He doesn’t build anything, he doesn’t really achieve much, and I suppose this is Bellow’s point. But without the derangement of the senses, without a rawer view of sex, without any propulsive engine to the story, it just hangs together.

March isn’t an interesting a travel companion. He’s too safe. Where’s Dean Moriarty when you need him?

4.

And yet, Bellow justifiably won the award. He won by default. There was nothing else.

1953 was a miserable year for American fiction. March beat out only three notable novels: Raymond Chandler’s superb The Long Goodbye; James Baldwin’s moving and poetic Go Tell It on the Mountain; and William Burroughs’s Junkie[6], which I love, but it’s hardly a novel at all. Bellow also won over Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest (I already wrote about his victory seven years later here), and a number of forgettable pulp novels. Looking at the competition, nationwide, it’s no wonder Bellow won the top award. Chandler and Burroughs weren’t yet accepted by the literary establishment, and Baldwin was a black gay dude writing his first novel. (Mountain is a good novel, but probably a bit overrated; Giovanni’s Room is much better.)

Those dark post-war years. Man with the Golden Arm is partially about the slipping social fabric of a returning veteran. From Here to Eternity is about the ennui and malaise of fighting men during peacetime. And Faulkner’s stories are peopled with wounded veterans and young people going off to war. Bellow’s novel is lighter, fresher, gentler, but it carries inside it a peculiar melancholy at the edges of the story.

5.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: Bellow is a great writer. He can wind a sentence around a dozen different locales and ideas, held together with witty zingers and pithy asides. He’s a masterful wordsmith, has a huge vocabulary, and half a dozen classical allusions on every page. He’s clever, witty, erudite yet cagey.

But, he’s a weak storyteller. He drags. He avoids. He sidelines. He prolongs. The idea is to mirror the fluidity—and unreliability—of memory. But the result is a novel that never quite feels like more than reminiscences. And March isn’t a very interesting travel companion. He’s too safe. Updike would have him sleep with some old ladies and then steal their jewelry. Mailer would have him daydreaming about anilingus. Roth would have him choking on childhood trauma. Malamud would never have written a book like this.

6.

Let me end with a book recommendation. This past year I read Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love, a Chicago novel by a Jewish author, covering a lot of similar territory. It’s taut, moving, haunting, yet expansive and beautiful and funny. It’s superior to Augie March in every way; it’s the novel Bellow wanted to write, I think. It didn’t win any awards.


[1] Although not nearly as powerful.

[2] Chaim Potok and Leon Uris should be included too, but they aren’t of the same caliber. Rod Serling, too, but I can’t make up my mind about him. Genius, or just macabre and kind of interesting?

[3] The Yiddish theatre has a long, powerful influence.

[4] I don’t count Charles Bukowski or John Fante as a Beat writers. That would change everything.

[5] Sex + sex + sex + pornography + food + philosophy + stream of consciousness poetry + occasional bouts of poverty = Henry Miller.

[6] His best book and don’t let critics fool you; the more he tried to be writerly, the worse his books became.