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Thursday
Jul092009

1954

The Adventures of
Augie March

by Saul Bellow

Original Publisher: Viking
Current Publisher: Penguin

Nathaniel Rich writes:

The Adventures of Augie March is for me the great creation myth of twentieth century American literature. It marks the emergence of a new literary hero, the working-class Jewish quester; a new novelistic form, one based entirely on character instead of, and even to the expense of, plot; and most significantly, a new language. An urban Jewish Midwestern argot that is both vividly realistic yet completely of Bellow’s own invention. It is a language that one must learn by immersion, as in a Berlitz course. Some readers complain that the first forty or fifty pages are slow. The truth is that it takes time to get used to the arrhythmic canter and the slingshot energy of Bellow’s prose. Take, as a single exuberant example, his description of a dispensary:

“...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....”

Augie March is that rare book that I want climb inside of. It feels insufficient simply to follow the characters and see them through their fates. I read the novel with the irrational hope of being there among them: Grandma Lausch, the “Machiavelli of small street and neighbourhood”; Five Properties, the local urchin made good, with his “Eskimo smile of primitive simplicity opening on Eskimo teeth”; crippled William Einhorn, a “superior man” and his newspaper clipping obsession; his half-brother John Dingbat, the “candy kid of city politics” with his “sharp financial hat” propped over his “absolutely unreasonable face”; Augie’s brother Georgie the Idiot who runs “dragfooted with his stiff idiot’s trot”; beautiful, rash, loving Mimi. The names alone are masterpieces of description and onomatopoeia: Lollie Fewter, Cissy Flexner, Stoney, Kelly Weintraub, Mimi Villars, Happy Kellerman, Mintouchian.

There is something threatening about all these figures. They are too large, too rich, often too hideous for life. Bellow regards each of them too closely, and with perhaps excessive sensitivity. Such an intense gaze can be uncomfortable—like playing Don’t Blink First against a man without eyelids. Still there’s nowhere I’d rather be than in their company. Bellow’s other great novels are cities to themselves, but Augie March is an entire universe.

 

Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue, a novel, and San Francisco Noir. He is also an editor at The Paris Review.

ISBN: 9780143039570

Fiction Finalists that Year: Not announced

Fiction Judges that Year: David Dempsey, Leon Edel, Mary McCarthy, Arthur Mizener, Gerald Sykes

The Year in Literature:

  • The Pulitzer was not given for Fiction.
  • Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • The Australian band, Augie March, take their name from the title of Bellow’s book. They are known for their descriptive, literary lyrical content.
  • The Adventures of Augie March was Saul Bellow’s first National Book Award win, but there were more to come. To this day, he is the only writer to have won the National Book Award three times, and to have been nominated for it six times.

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