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on April 15, 2003
This is easily one of the finest novels that I have ever had a chance to read and proves one of the basic rules of good fiction--experience bucks education. Augie is the product of his own character, intent on understanding all that surrounds him as he makes his way through up and down the cultural, class, and political divides of the 1920's, 30's and 40's. The narrative is the education of a poor boy who could see as much value in the pronouncements of a crippled boss, exiled intelligentsia, and pool room hustlers as in the massive amount of poetry, fiction, and history that he assimilates into his worldview--one that values common decency as much as intelligence or kindness.
This is a book that I have now read three times and the view of American idealism from fifty years ago when it was published is simply awe inspiring. The times when the text breaks from its narrative molde and goes into an extended discussion of philosophicl ideas in Yiddish inflected vernacular with idiosyncratic grammar can make you cranky and can often be perplexing. This is completely secondary though, for a close reading of any of these passages brings to light just how sophisticated Augie is--some of the actions he takes make him seem only slightly smarter than an ape though.
If this had been the only book that Bellow had written he still would have earned the Nobel Prize in 1976. I can thnk of few books I have read where a character has drank so deeply and appreciatively of their own culture, upbringing, and experience as Augie March did. When Augie opens his mouth with the book's first sentence declaring "I am an American," he speaks with a level of sincerity, certainty and complexity that animates very few other novels.
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on November 3, 2001
absolutely essential if you are a young man (in his twenties) like i am. this is an exploration of a boys quest for other peoples pragmatism which at first, in each case he beleives to be beyond him by way of the affectations of absolute understanding imposed on his attentive personnality by them. these people define their own reality by their own authority whereas augie has not the confidence to do this. the turning point in the novel is when he realises that these people have no more authority than he does. this he realises from his meeting this girl "thea" who overshoots all of the boundaries that have been set by his previous opressive but intently beneficial influences. bellow finally concludes by introducing a new character that is a figure for endurance (as is the millionaire cripple einhorn) and suggesting that although augie is with an inapropriate whoman, and that he may never find it, that he will never give up on the idea that he will find love.
it is a difficult book with some obscure (modernist) proustian strange stuff that is incongruous with the down to earth pragmatism of the theme. but it is beutiffully written. and i found it a hard slog but am so glad that i endured it - things in life are often difficult. this is my desert island book. its greatness didnt hit me at first, but it did, and now i am convinced that if i hadnt read it i would lack ninety nine percent of the success that i have had since.
my language fails me. just read it.
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on November 2, 2000
After the intellectual Left killed off God, they found themselves staring into the abyss; absent God what is the meaning of life? There have been many, mostly feeble, attempts to answer this question. The most disastrous have, of course, been Darwinism--we exist to propagate the species, Hegelianism/Marxism--there are World Historical forces in control and Existentialism--existence is it's own point. Saul Bellow seems to fall into a loose grouping with the Existentialists and The Adventures of Augie March is essentially an existentialist tract. In a return to the style of the picaresque novels (i.e., Tom Jones), Augie March bobs along from Chicago to Mexico to Europe to an open boat in the Atlantic, experiencing life and meeting a variety of characters--observing without judging, experiencing without changing, seeking without finding. Critics claim that this is a life affirming book; but life does not need to be affirmed, it simply is. One recalls Dr. Johnson's response to the argument that the material world does not exist: he kicked a rock and said, "I refute it thus!" The task before us as human beings is to find or bring meaning to life. Great literature illuminates the human condition and reveals truths which help us discern this meaning. Bellow fails in this basic task and does so at mindnumbing length.
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on September 9, 2000
As a sum of landscapes, spaces and altitudes, America as a wilderness has already been explored. In fact, while early American history reveled in the most basic of freedoms that can be found in various lands untrod, the urge that drives us towards (and often away from) freedom remains--sometimes as a nuisance, almost always as a kind of tug away from the quotidian and run-of-the-mill. It's a distinctly American drive that leads us to defy laws and morays, explore the unexplored permutations of our innermost selves, and to transcend the expectations of family, friends and, of course, ourselves. Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March," ostensibly a celebration of the life in the 1930s of a sensitive drifter and searcher, is also a transfiguration of the American novel: The story of a Huckleberry Finn of the urban milleux.
Predating Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" by nearly a decade, "The Adventures of Augie March" tells the story of a young man from an impoverished Chicago neighborhood who rejects conventional expectations that he make the best of all good situations that, in other lives, would have led to riches and satisfaction. While his brother Simon goes out to find the quickest way to taste the cream of the business world, only to discover that it isn't at all the way to the happiness he'd imagined, Augie--a man who never quite makes the break from childhood into manhood but instead continues on the same unbroken line of judging the world through what refractions the lenses of his emotions augur--continually renews himself through a series of piqaresque adventures as he searches for "the axial lines" of his life.
After a miserably unsuccessful flirtation with petty crime (he helps a hoodlum buddy break into a basement), Augie, part of an entire generation of men who really didn't stand a chance at success in the world, at least once the Great Depression descended, journeys through the eccentricities of Chicago, a town that, like Augie, rejected the more conventional ways and means of the East Coast establishment as it came into its own as a great city. Falling under the official and unofficial tuteledges of a variety of oddballs, schnooks and characters, Augie often lucks out, too, meeting beautiful heiresses and slipping into High Society almost without really realizing it. However, regardless of the chance at ensnaring the easy dream, Augie withdraws, to the confoundment of his friends and mentors, only to be reborn again.
Perhaps the most sparkling episode occurs when Augie, enamored by the unconventional activities of his girlfriend, Thea, follows her to Mexico--where she buys an eagle and trains it to hunt huge lizards. How on earth did either of them manage to sleep with that eagle sitting on the dresser of the hotel room? Of course, regardless of the exotic character of this infatuation, the mission fails and Augie returns to Chicago, metaphor and emblem of all the freedom for which Augie yearns.
Each episode is represented by one of several paradigmatic figures; each episode a stage of a hero's journey, a step on darkened glass that cannot help but mirror a phase of every man's life. Poignantly possessing the colorations and expressive details of the hardships, the oddball twists and the distortions of American dreams mutated by the trials of economic depravity, "The Adventures of Augie March," Saul Bellow's earliest great novel, ruminates and vents like the wind across Lake Michigan. Of course, Augie is smarter than he thinks he is. If there is any imperfection at all in the story, it's that Augie is simply too smart to be believed.
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on July 10, 2000
"The Adventures of Augie March" is a coming-of-age story about a young man who grows up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood of Chicago in the first half of the 20th century. Augie is intelligent and articulate, but he seems to wander through life passively with no definite goals and not many interests. As the Depression hits, he is forced to postpone his academic pursuits in order to make a living, taking a wide variety of odd jobs, including stealing books, organizing labor unions, and working as a research assistant to an eccentric wealthy man writing a book about wealthy people. Eventually he decides to become a schoolteacher, but even this profession is relatively short-lived. The novel culminates in Augie's discovery that he must align himself with the "axial lines" of his life.
Augie's "adventures" consist mainly of his getting entangled in various affairs of his relatives, friends, girlfriends, and employers. These episodes range dramatically from his nearly getting caught by the police in a stolen car, to his accompaniment of his friend Mimi to an abortionist and her subsequent grave illness (probably a bold thing to write about at the time), to helping his girlfriend Thea train an eagle to hunt lizards in Mexico. (Thea finds, to her frustration, that she can train neither the eagle nor Augie.) This is a bizarre assortment of events, but the depiction of each is strangely realistic and unique.
The narration is masterfully constructed with Bellow's erudite prose and penchant for rich description. Reading this novel is challenging but ultimately rewarding.
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on May 25, 2000
This is one of Bellow's most highly regarded novels and there are plenty of reasons why. It's wonderfully written, maintains the interest throughout a very honest, human story that few people won't be able to relate to. It focuses on its time and place directly and gives the reader deep insight into the people who are living, turning the narrative into a seperate dimension, dragging you into this universe and keeping you there, forever, trapped, unhappy after a long time of joy. Augie keeps talking, keeps telling you his story, and after a while it seems like he has used himself up. Oh, sure, all these additions allow us to know the boy/kid/man, and he tells it with intriuging insight; but sometimes things he tells us about himself are repeated, Augie loses focus and when he gets nervous or unsure of himself, he details the shattered, minute details that serve to distract us.
Yeah, it's a terrific book, but among Bellow's first three novels, I believe it is the least of them. Read it anyway, get what is to be gotten, then move on, keep it in your mind, allow Augie to haunt you for a while, then forget all about that person who bothered you like hell but just couldn't stop trying to help--
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on February 11, 2000
When this novel is on it's as good as reading gets! Imagine if Dickens magically grew up in Chicago in the 30's, or if you haven't read him maybe if Tolstoy did, and actually had a sense of humor and didnt take himself so seriously.
Anyhow it doesnt matter who you can compare Bellow to. The point is he is phenomenal at capturing intimate details that breath so much life into a story. If trifles make the sum of life and the real spirit is in the details, then Bellow has hit the mark! When i would read about some of his characters, they came off the page so realisitically that i could HEAR them breathing in my room while i was reading about them. I could sense them shuffling uncomfortably in their clothes.
Also Bellow is subtle and true in his writing about different relationships. For me the most powerful and fully realized part was the troubled but loving relationship between Augie and his brother. But yes Bellow also writes wonderfully of Augie completely falling for various girls and being overwhelmed with his daydreamy passion. It's great to read if ever you have been sick to the stomach and shaking upon seeing the girl that for some reason you desire.
I confess that as a whole i found the novel artistically mishappen. If this novel were a human being it would be kind of ugly and probably have a lopsided limp. The whole Eagle in Mexico part i found not only boring but pointless to the novel as a whole. Any reader could easily skip those 80 odd pages and not miss a thing. Also the ending is a bit of a let down. It just sort of tapers off, like life does i guess; their rarely are climactic moments in life. Nevertheless this is art and i like endings that are strong and thorough, a last sentence that kills.
Anyhow this novel was a joy to read; it will make you call in sick to work and skip your classes. It will seem more real than your own life (maybe). And i dont think it was a satire on America; no judgements are made and if anything there is a wide-eyed awe and wonder at all the madness that is swirling around Augie. If he satirizes anything it is the shortcomings he finds in himself, his vanity, ulterior motives etc. This is an intimate, personal novel, and all of the observations and judgements stem from the immediate detail of now.
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on January 5, 2000
Augie March had an interesting life in his teens and twenties. We follow him through the Great Depression and WW2. The Depression is summed up in a rich, cagy cripple named Einhorn. The war is largely spent in a lifeboat with a maniac.
Augie's greatest adventures are romantic. The leading ladies are assertive Thea Fenchel and beautiful Stella. Thea chases Augie down, despite the fact that it is her sister who Augie has a crush on. But Augie is led by the nose, and doesn't have a chance against a strong willed woman. She drags him to Mexico to bag an eagle and train it to hunt giant lizards. Like Augie, the eagle disappoints her.
Then there's beautiful Stella, damsel in distress, asking Augie to rescue her from a man and a situation. Thea says Don't you dare! But our Augie can't say no to a damsel in distress. When he is rescuing her the car breaks down, they spend the night together, yada yada yada.
In the end, Augie ends up marrying someone. He's the type of guy who really just wants unity with a special someone, a loving wife and a happy family. Either of these girls could have bagged him like an eagle in a sack. So could any other girl with a strong will. Just grab him by the ear and pull him to the Justice of the Peace.
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on September 15, 1999
It is really quite amazing how people throw around the highest grades/stars, and belch out "Masterpiece" because they were entertained until the word has been rendered meaningless. When I saw this book on the top 100 list, I had to ask myself "How many judges work for Random House"? I am a big fan of Bellow's when he sticks to chronicling the plight of intellectuals in Americana a la "More Die of A Heartbreak", "Herzog" and "Humboldt's Gift", than with the bored bourgeoise protagonists (always men) in this novel and "Henderson the Rain King". There is nothing to take away from reading this novel. It has nothing to say that other coming of age books such as Stendahl's "The Red & the Black" or Maughm's "Of Human Bondage" say with far more superiority. And that whole bit with the bird in Mexico was just more filler. Either he had been reading too much D.H. Lawrence at the time, or he does not disdain the beat poets as much as he would like to believe.
When Bellow is on, there are about two or three living American authors (Delillo, Toni Morrison, Barth?) that can touch him. This is kid's stuff.
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on May 15, 1999
This novel is unquestionably one of the great masterpieces of our time.
Saul Bellow paints portraits of characters like Rembrandt. He has a brilliant technique for divulging not only the physical nuances of his characters but also gets deep into the essence of their souls.
He has an astute grasp of motivation and spins a complex tale with an ease that astounds. Even the most unusual twists of fate seem natural and authentic.
Augie is a man "in search of a worthwhile fate." After struggling at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a penniless youth in Chicago, he ultimately discovers that alignment with the "axial lines" of his existence is the secret to human fulfillment.
While his brother is engrossed in chasing after financial enrichment and social esteem, Augie learns through his own striving that such pursuit is "merely clownery hiding tragedy."
Augie is a man dogged in his pursuit of the American dream who has an epiphany that the riches that life has to offer lie in the secrets at the heart's core. If, as Sarte says, life is the search for meaning, then Augie is the inspired champion of this great human quest.
The true test of a great book is that you wish it would never end. Fortunately, Saul Bellow is as prolific as he is brilliant and there is much more to explore.
Bellow is worthy of the characterization of one of America's best living novelists: he is a treasure. His wisdom staggers the imagination.
Don't let this novel pass you by!
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