The Adventures of Augie March
by Saul Bellow

Review by Edward Tanguay
August 26, 1995

One reason I like this book is that it paints a complete picture of the economic and social strivings of a range of people from lower to upper class during the Depression up in the multi-racial Chicago area of the country. As this kind of social history I find it simply informative to read. It paints a background of that time and that area much like a Michener novel. (It's also long enough to compete with a Michener novel, by the way!)

It's also a psychological journey (adventures) of Augie March. From early on in the book I began noticing the points at which Augie would be exposed to something new and hence would learn a specific lesson or advance his person in some way.


Grandma tells them very early on, "Nobody asks you to love the whole world, only to be honest, ehrlich. Don't have a loud mouth. The more you love people the more they'll mix you up. A child loves, a person respects. Respect is better than love." The whole book is filled with a sort of loveless (but in no way emotionless) world of people connected by desires both bodily and economic and social. There is no love or trust in this book. Simon basically sold off his mother's life to pay a debt, then takes care of her. She's a responsibility and he respects her, but he doesn't act toward her out of love. The brothers were affected when "Grandma" died but there was no bond there (she wasn't even really their real grandma, just someone who tried to dump her off on their family--they even mentioned her once as a family burden). And they dumped Georgie off slowly--not that they wanted to, but for practical reasons. Grandma's words here seem to be words of advice for the city. When you grow up in the country you learn to trust your family and then your small town--love and trust are real things there. Growing up in the city teaches you that you should watch out for yourself and learn how connections between you and the others work early on. Love and trust don't power relationships in the city, something else does. The sooner you learn what it is, the better you will survive there.


After Augie explains to his brother that customers had short-changed him and therefore he had less money than he started at the end of the day, Simon said, "You couldn't get that money out of somebody else's change, could you! / What? / You heard me, you dumbhead! / Why didn't you tell me before? / Tell you? Tell you to keep your barn buttoned, as if you didn't have any more brains than George!"


Of Augie's grandma: "Passing then into the hall to wash, there, often, we saw the old woman's small figure and her eyes whitely contemptuous, with a terrible little naked yawn of her gums, suck-cheeked with unspoken comment. But power-robbed. done for. Simon would say sometimes, "Wha'che know, Gram?"--even, occasionally, `Mrs. Lausch.'"

Lesson #4: DEATH. "

Winnie died in May of that year, and I laid her in a shoe box and buried her in the yard." His childhood world begins to die away.

Lesson #5: DESIRE.

"I know I longed very much, but I didn't understand for what." Einhorn sparked this desire in him. I like how the charred books that Einhorn gave him keep turning up as a basis of his educational reading. He never gets rid of them.


When Augie sat with Einhorn as Einhorn was frantically cleaning out his dead father's room and clothes discovering secrets of how he operated: "So this was the deal he had with Fineberg? What a shrewd old bastard, my dad, a real phenomenon."

Lesson #7: REAL DANGER.

When Augie stole with Gorman for the first time. "And if the cops had come he'd have tried to shoot his way out. That was what you let yourself in for. Yes, that's right, Augie, a dead cop or two. You know what cop-killers get, from the station onward--their faces beaten off, their hands smashed, and worse . . ."


His conversation with Thea Fenchel (his whole failed relationship with the Fenchel's was a lesson): "I'm all for you, Mr. March, so I'll tell you what Esther thinks. She thinks that you service the lady you're with. / What? / That you're her gigolo and lay her. Why don't you sit down? I thought I should explain this to you."


The whole ride back to Chicago with the bums.

Lesson #10: SPECIALIZE.

"`You shouldn't waste your time,' [Padilla] further said, `Don't you see that to do any little thing you have to take an examination, you have to pay a fee and get a card or a diploma? You better get wise to this. If people don't know what you qualify in they'll never know where to place you, and that can be dangerous. You have to get in there and do something for yourself. Even if you're just waiting, you have to know what you're waiting for, you have to specialize. And don't wait too long or you'll be passed by.'"


"[Padilla] said, `Either this stuff comes easy or it doesn't come at all.' And that stayed with me."


Augie seems to be concerned over the change in character of Simon as he moves more and more into the world of the Magnus family, first through marriage then the running of one of the fields. Augie slowly gets sucked into this change as well. The family wants to know that he "can be like them."

Bellow has created some awesome descriptions in this book. Here a few of the best:

"And 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." (Describing her energy as producing physical manifestations if powerful.)

"His appetite was sharp and he crowded his food. A stranger with a head on him, unaware that Einhorn was paralyzed, would have guessed he was not a well man from seeing him suck a pierced egg, for it was something humanly foxy, paw-handled, hungry above average need." (This paints the full character of Einhorn and allows you to imagine this same person, paralyzed, having his body carried up to the whore house to be serviced. He doesn't give up and is a bit wild and wolf-eyed.)

And a great quote about why it's better to buy books than get read them from the library:

"`You can use my card and get it out of the library,' he said. But somehow that wasn't the same. As eating your own meal, I suppose, is different from a handout, even if calory for calory it's the same value; maybe the body even uses it differently.'"

Edward Tanguay

*** The Adventures of Augie March
*** Review of SECOND half
*** Notes by Edward Tanguay
*** September 4, 1995

This book was worth reading, even though its 536 pages never seemed to end! I'm glad the story got out of Chicago about half way through and into Mexico and Augie's love relationship with Thea. The description of Augie's lustful, jealous, crazy, earthly love for Thea is solidly described. The geographic distance emphasizes Augie's true character: he's following something but he doesn't know what it is. The twists that the story takes all the way up to the end (Bellow was introducing characters on the last couple pages!) keep you reading along.

Augie is truly aimless, following his male organ and curiosity throughout life and around the world. This makes him a lovable and un identifiable character. He's not holy. He doesn't offer any morals. But yet he's not a bad character. He's just like you and me. He suffers from pains and from having cheated on the one he loved, but he always keeps going. If he does differ from the common man, it is in the extent of his adventures. That he ended up in a boat with a murderer, for instance, threw me. This guy really drifts! I had the feeling that this book could have easily gone on for 2000 pages-- hundreds of chapters of Augie doing this and that, trying to figure out this strange thing called life and the relationships it entails. Throughout the book, I wanted Augie to find his way, to make his life whole like his brother Simon--to "settle down." Yet he never could and you end up liking him for this. I liked when he had doubts about his marriage with Stella and asked himself, "Am I going to be wrong again?"

I had the feeling while reading this book that a lot of it was going over my head, that it would be a gold mine analyze. Most of the references to Greek and Roman mythology seems to play along with the ongoing story and it would be interesting to make a thorough study of them. And his detail is amazing. A quote on the back of my book puts it this way: "Mr. Bellow has a Dickensian zest for description and caricaturing of individual human beings; and he has a deep understanding of the general state of man's mind and spirit in this century."

Especially in terms of human relationships, this books give you a lot for your mind to consider: the brothers' relationship with their mother, grandma, and Georgie; Thea and Augie, Stella and Augie, Einhorn and Augie, and of course the changing relationship between the two brothers.

The development of Augie's character is uniquely 20th century but not existential. The limitless possibilities of the 20th century promise both freedom and meaninglessness for the Augies of the world, but the Augie March in this book was a pre-post-modern in the sense that he doesn't ever really have an existential crisis. He is always fully in the world, being affected by it, falling in love with its characters, wishing he could be like others (Georgie). As he deliberated whether or not he had a fate, I was waiting for him to throw out the whole question and end up in a smokey French cafe drinking strong coffee and writing bad philosophy, but he kept playing the game, trying to figure out the pre-destined fate that life had given him. I liked his character for this reason: he is innocent and simple and down-to-earth in the way he went about his most adventurous life.

Edward Tanguay

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