Saturday, February 21, 2009

On Re-reading The Adventures of Augie March

Shortly after Dan Green announced his TRE Prime site, collecting his more substantial Reading Experience posts, I re-encountered this piece in which he articulated his dislike of Saul Bellow's fiction. The occasion for the original entry was an essay by J.M. Coetzee that appeared in The New York Review of Books, reviewing the Library of America volume collecting Bellow's first three novels. In his essay, Coetzee offers fairly tepid judgments of the novels under review (The Dangling Man, The Victim, and The Adventures of Augie March). It is in particular Coetzee's take on The Adventures of Augie March that interested Dan in his piece. Coetzee notes its "lack of dramatic structure and indeed of intellectual organization" and judges that "[t]he book becomes steadily less engaging as it proceeds. The scene-by-scene method of composition, each scene beginning with a tour de force of vivid word painting, begins to seem mechanical." Dan goes him one better and calls Augie March "basically unreadable"; it is, he says, "badly written" and "terribly paced".

It so happens that I was in the middle of re-reading The Adventures of Augie March when I re-read Dan's post, after reading The Victim the previous week. I have since finished reading it. I admit that I first read Dan's judgment (and Coetzee's) with some excitement. I'd liked some of the little Bellow I'd read at the time but did not understand the source of his reputation. And I'd had some troubles of my own with his work. So I was sympathetic to the criticism they leveled, but in truth my excitement had more to with weariness than with my own opinion of the quality of Bellow's fiction: I was tired of reading not only about how great he was supposed to be, but in particular about how he was The Great American Novelist; I was especially tried of hearing this from certain high-profile British writers and critics, namely Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, and to a lesser extent, James Wood. It was their attention to his Americanness that irritated me most of all, I think. Amis' devotion, his claiming of Bellow as his literary father, especially made me gag (and this was before I'd gone sour on Amis). As for my own judgments, I'd loved Herzog (but even this judgment was reinforced here, as Coetzee rates it highly and for Dan it is the only Bellow novel deserving to be called "a superior work of fiction"), liked Humboldt's Gift and, to a lesser extent, the somewhat similar Ravelstein, and disliked Henderson the Rain King.

The Adventures of Augie March seemed to be of a different category. I remember finding it tough slogging, though overall I'd have told you that I enjoyed it. I could almost imagine co-signing Coetzee's assessment, if his critical words could somehow be admitted in the service of a more positive review. I was certainly not willing to go as far as Dan Green--even if I did indeed find certain sections literally unreadable: that is, I could not read them; I stumbled, unable to make the sentences move, tripping up on adjectives and nouns employed in weird ways, on grammatical oddities.

Re-reading Augie March, I found that I can see why I had trouble the first time, and I can see why one would find it virtually unreadable, if approached from the wrong angle. There were still passages that stopped me short, when I found it very difficult to continue without an effort of sheer will. However, I wonder if this isn't my problem rather than the book's, as if in these sections I'm still trying to force the book to be something it's not. Because when I was in the right frame of mind, I enjoyed the hell out of it. This is writing, often ramshackle, but writing, alive on the page. I have a hard time seeing how Dan could call it badly written. And it seems to me that Coetzee's problems are beside the point. Augie may live a charmed life of sorts, as Coetzee complains, but he is an amiable presence (and I'm not so sure his life is so charmed after all). There is no real plot, of course, but this is pure narrative. Adjectives pile up, images, insane lists, descriptions, quick, offhand characterizations: Augie sees. Sees a lot. It is this seeing that interests me, as well as what I'd like to call an occasional Biblical quality to the narrative. In both of these elements Augie March is like a much shorter, hard-scrabble In Search of Lost Time, if I may be so bold (following Josipovici, in his comparison of Proust's narrative mode with that of the Bible). Not that Augie's project is anything like Marcel's--he doesn't seem to be in search of his past or invested in literature in any way similar to Marcel. Augie is essentially writing his memoir, from a certain, though by no means completely, settled vantage point. His memory doesn't explode on him, recovered through his senses; he is simply remembering, and telling. Yet, though he could be said to be outside the timeframe covered in the novel, he manages to invest his writing with an element of in-the-moment discovery, creating writing out of it all. He's remembering, but not imposing meaning retroactively, even if along the way he tries to tell us--or himself--what he's about.

If this were a proper review, I'd be quoting passages demonstrating this seeing, this writing. But it's not; these are my impressions (and besides, I didn't do a good job of keeping track of passages I especially liked). It's true that there are times when the novel sags a bit--it's no coincidence, I think, that Coetzee identifies the Mexico sequence as signaling for him that something was amiss, for these chapters are considerably less compelling, on the whole, than the time spent in Chicago, where Augie himself is more at home; no doubt it could be argued that this is intentional, that of course Augie's memories of Chicago are more vivid than those of the strange time in a strange land. Nevertheless, my attention did wander. But on the whole, I developed a much greater appreciation for what Bellow is up to in general, as well as here, in this novel. It's a great book.


Andrew said...

I really enjoyed this post, although strangely enough I think the Mexico passages are some of the most beautiful in the book--there's more space there, like Bellow was stretching things out to balance the teemingness and kinetics of Chicago, but as you say, I can see why that change might also feel tiresome.

I'd be very interested to see what you think of Dangling Man, as it seems to me so different from Augie.

Richard said...

Thanks, Andrew. I should say that I did find many of the Mexico passages very beautiful, but overall my attention flagged, with the eagle, the snakes, lizards, tequila, poker, etc.

Carter said...

I'm new here, having found your blog only recently. I also wouldn't call myself a literary critic, since I have very little respect for some of the most quoted.

But one thing I wish they would consider: books written half a century ago were written *then*, not now. So Augie March doesn't measure up to their contemporary standards. So what? I read Augie when it appeared in 1953, and loved it. I was 25 or 26 then, and don't even remember what made it so good. Whoever makes up those "100 best novel" lists may understand this--I don't know. But that book gave me more pleasure than dozens I've read before and since, maybe because I was about the same age as Augie and grew in the same Depression, and recognized how *true* that book was. When I get time, I'll read it again.

And then, of course, I may not like it so well. For years people now and then asked what I considered the best novel of World War II, and I always answered The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Monsarrat. I re-read it about two years ago and was terribly disappointed. Had my taste changed? Certainly I know a lot more about literature than I did when I read it in 1951, but I'd just left active duty in the US Navy; maybe that influenced me. But back then I read them all as they came out--Mailer, Myrer, all the rest--and that book seemed to me by far the best.

My point simply is that tastes change--even my own. What's the point of knocking old novels? Who knows? Maybe some 25-year-old has the same taste I did when I was young, or maybe not. But why tell people those books are no good, when we who read them when they were published found them great?

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks for an interesting post Richard. I'm pleased that you got in to it eventually, and derived some pleasure from the writing. I'd have to agree that it's often difficult to read due to the style. I'd be really interested to read Coetzee's view of Bellow's fiction, and see how his criticisms pan out.

I probably picked up the book on account of Amis et al.'s praise, and have to say I enjoyed it. I read Tom Jones earlier in the year, another picaresque novel that Amis gushes about, and found it dated and tedious (I'm planning to give it another go), so I was pleasantly surprised by this. I think though, it's a style of novel that dates quickly, and critics may be increasingly critical of it.