The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow book cover
The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is Saul Bellow’s picaresque novel about the travails of a low-born Chicago boy from a broken home, growing up in the depression era and making ends meet however he can. Despite being handsome and resourceful, Augie never has the focus that makes others around him successful, instead being distracted by a series of improbable schemes devised by seemingly well-meaning, but deluded benefactors. As Augie ages the schemes become increasingly wild and, rather than settling down to start a family, he continues to chase personal fulfilment – it being part of his nature to reject and oppose, and to seek personal gratification. Through his adventures, Augie encounters a variety of brilliantly drawn, comic characters that help or hinder him (usually the latter) along the way to maturity, and the novel becomes a riotous coming-of-age story in the bildungsroman tradition.

Augie’s unflinching pursuit of personal fulfilment in a world ravaged by financial depression is true testament to the human spirit, to optimism against the odds, but it is also a stark insight into the trade-off between spiritual and intellectual growth, and the happiness and security of a more conventional, perhaps mundane, existence. Indeed, although presented in a comic package, the novel is at all times preoccupied by darker existential issues.

Bellow presents an American society divided along class lines, Augie unable to accept his place in the lower classes, yet unable to break into the ranks of the wealthy – a grating reality for many chasing 'The American Dream'. Indeed, Bellow seeks to capture the mood of lower-class America as mass-urbanism changed the face of the country, bringing with it complex fears about life, death, money, and the nature of one’s identity. Identity and destiny are important themes and, although Augie’s fate takes many dramatic turns for better or worse via a series of accidents and coincidences, his essential identity remains stable. The novel forms a landmark, for the first time an immigrant to America becomes part of its rich tapestry, rather than an outsider looking it. Augie, like Bellow (himself an immigrant), redefining the nature of Americanism.

Bellow’s writing is exceptional and yet the sentence structure is at times so complex and unusual that reading is slow, and paragraphs need to be re-read to be fully appreciated, or even understood. Though descriptive passages are often gorgeous, vivid master-classes, they are equally often peppered with grammatical peculiarities that, when one is not attuned to the novel’s rhythm, act as stumbling blocks to the flow of the writing. Bellow’s idiosyncratic style turns Augie’s tale into a modern day myth, an interesting positioning of the story and a subtle statement about the transition of stories to myths.

The novel is guided by Augie and his development, but at times the structure feels disorganised and, whilst reflective of the life portrayed, this can irritate. The novel is at its weakest when Augie indulges his wanderlust and is separated from his native Chicago, but this forms but a small part of the novel. Throughout, Augie allows himself to be led, but never to the fruition of a plan, and his rejection of the Machiavellian characters who attempt to control him points to his enduring belief that a special fate is reserved for him – whether this is admirable or delusional is questionable. Indeed, there is an endearing naivety and a slightly adoptional quality to Augie that leads others to take him under their wings, and in turn he returns affection wherever it is shown to him. One thing is for certain though, Augie’s fate is controlled by the choices he makes; he is inescapably in control of his own destiny, and the emotions he is left with are brought on by his own actions. Undoubtedly one of the most prominent and important American novels of the twentieth century, The Adventures of Augie March is not easily accessible and, for some, might prove a frustrating read but repays one’s concentration in abundance.

I found this a little hard to get into, but once I did it really struck a chord. I suspect this might be a book that young men identify with most, and for those that can get into the rhythm of the prose I definitely recommend this as a wonderful read.

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