I still remember one day in a sixth form English literature lesson, at Northampton school for girls, being intellectually swatted on the nose by a tutor for daring to suggest that (I thought) American novelists lacked delicacy. At the time I felt burningly resentful of the whole thing (especially due to being a teacher’s favourite and something of a talent; it always makes criticism sting harder when you feel you’re above reproach), but as I’ve gotten older and more educated, I’ve realized that my remark at the time came from me having a limited scope but wanting to say something broad and bold. You know, in order to suggest that my tastes were artfully curated, rather than simply lacking due to age. My teacher was entirely right to dismiss my pompous seventeen year old self’s posturings for exactly what they were, and I often, nowadays, when talking to other literature graduates from England, find myself in the position she was in.
I’m not sure how, whether it was luck, or judgement, but throughout my academic career I somehow ended up exposed to just as many, if not more, American writers, than English ones. And in the course of that learning I developed a soft spot for the concept of the Great American Novel. I mean, your basic bildungsroman is awesome to read, yeah? especially what with me being single, in my mid twenties, in a big city. There’s always gonna be a solid hundred pages in the middle full of underline-for-tumblr gold buried in there, the section in which the protagonist struggles with the change in front of them. So we’ve established I like books about how it’s just really fucking hard to be a grown up, right? good. I like the American ones more though. There is something compelling about the mid-century American effort to contain it all. To create these all encompassing worlds, always driven by a protagonist as dizzyingly socially mobile as the social landscape is disorientatingly mutable? They make my fucking heart stop, these Great American novels. Part of it is the difference, it’s a landscape that hasn’t directly begotten the one I live in, this much I know; but it always comes back to the same thing, which is (and here imagine me doing my best bartender Barbie face, if you will): It’s all just so much bigger over there. The attempt to get lives of that sheer size to fit into a novel is heroic, and deserves wide-eyed admiration.
I’ve read my fair few of these badboys, spent a lot of time thinking about them, but my current list-topping love is Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. And I think the main focus of my fixation hinges on one theme of the novel: dissatisfaction. The beauty of this novel lies in the fact that Augie, the adventurer, spends his life encountering powerfully charismatic people who all feel they have some right to impart their worldview or agenda to him, and he is always, without fail, temporarily influenced by it, before getting frustrated and moving on to something more interesting to him. it’s a great novel to read if, like me, you sometimes feel incredibly ‘this is not my beautiful house… this is not my beautiful wife…’ about your path in life. It makes you feel like it’s okay to not always be satisfied with what other people want for you, and it’s alright to not know where you’re going despite having very definite ideas about where you’re not going. Augie shrugs off the powerful influences of an old-fashioned and disciplinarian grandmother figure, his dodgy dealing brother who eventually marries into being a philandering millionaire, a local poolhall running wideboy, and a fiercely intellectual Mexican college friend, amongst others. he works and lives in all kinds of situations, as an errand boy, a dog groomer, a union representative, a playboy, a book thief. He rides the rails during the depression, and he fights in the war. There’s the length and breadth of human experience in early 20th century America right there, and each step he takes is guided by one of these eventually-rejected charismatic presences.
There’s a breathless joy in every refusal Augie makes. Every one being an assertion of himself, in a world of people who want to make him just like them; despite the fact he has no idea what his self would even be if left to his own devices. His knowing what it wouldn’t be is enough to keep you turning the pages. And it’s not like you don’t get to see him happy; he’s perfectly content holed up reading donated (or stolen, during his brief phase stealing academic texts) classics. There’s an almost a delicious irony in this; he refuses to be told how and who to be by people, unless their writings are included somewhere in the great literary canon. The accusation of a kind of ‘nobility complex’ levelled at him early on in his adventures, would seem to be quite just. Again, as a classic contemporary kidult myself, this refusal to listen to real time advice in favour of turning my phone off and poring over literary classics, making pencil lines under things that strike a chord with the prevailing preoccupations and moods that day? it’s all too familiar. And just makes me like Augie more as the central adventurer of the novel.
The only other times we see Augie happy is when he loves. Which he does the same way he does everything else; by mirroring somebody else’s overwhelming agenda until he can’t anymore. And yes, this is probably another oh-how-I-can-relate-to-that-oh-boy moment. This is seen most obviously in the main love event of the novel, his romance with Thea Fenchel, who seeks Augie out, after falling in love with him on an adolescent holiday, despite his only having eyes for her sister at the time. The romance is whirlwind, they head straight down to Mexico so that Thea can try to tame a bald eagle to try and hunt giant iguanas. The eagle proves not untameable, but too tamed, having been spoilt with already dead meat, it can’t hunt through fear of the prey, but before that it was totally bestial and terrifying. Nice metaphor, eh? Taming a beast only results in it being unexciting and unable to fend for itself. Which is why the apparent great love of the novel breaks off. Augie becomes flattered and intrigued by another woman, as does the equally feral and adventurous Thea. It’s not even sad. Bellow writes a convincing and unsentimental account of the breakup of two such flighty indivudals as inevitability (anybody planning to make an indie romance film that will probably star Zooey Deschanel should be taking notes right here).The book would feel like it sputtered out and died a premature death if these two turned all marriage and babies. Augie would have nothing happen to him that impacted him and made him grow. But the taming project fails, and so he grows, and goes on his way.
There’s a beauty in it being a two sided taming project. Thea is no manic pixie dream girl. She’s flawed, messy, alternately fierce and vulnerable on her own schedule, and she finds her own bit on the side rather than sitting around waiting for Augie to leave her. I really feel like Bellow writes women on a more intricate and sensitive level than his contemporaries. I mean, I’ve already proclaimed my love for Eleanor Klein, but there’s also Mimi Villars, the tempestuous waitress who aborts her high flying academic boyfriend’s baby because he’s not what she wants in a love, and the magnificently three-dimensional Thea, a divorced, disowned heiress who hunts wild animals in Mexico and writes articles about it, unable to settle down with just one man. One of Augie’s key likeability factors is his humanist ability to take these women, unsaintly pasts and all, in his stride, and give them the respect and attention he gives their male counterparts, without batting an eyelid. And their huge influence on the novel is a refreshing change for a reader like me, used to her Great American novels being populated only transiently with women, who leave no mark on the protagonist and bear no consequence on the narrative. Bellow’s women characters are so strongly drawn that I struggle to remember male characters who could be classed as having equal significance. Even though there were probably more of them.
Augie’s adventures made me happy in a way that a book hasn’t achieved in quite some time. It might be because I am approaching the second half of my twenties and am (pretending that I am not) freaking out a bit about that, therefore reading Bellow’s novel of determined individualism and quest came at the right mind-easing time. Seeing a life riddled with indecision where nothing quite works out to whatever scant plans there were, is, in it’s odd way, a relief. The final line of the novel perfectly emphasizes Augie’s struggles to define himself:
‘Columbus too, thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.’
Augie may not have found what others intended to find, and they may not know how to deal with him not fitting in with their various agendas, but he’s found something important to him, on a much larger scale. he has discovered and mapped a self, not due to, but in relation to others. And that’s all anybody’s trying to do really, isn’t it?