Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 8, 2017

The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow #BookReview

the-adventures-of-augie-marchSaul Bellow’s third novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953) was the one that propelled him to fame when it won the (US) National Book Award for Fiction, and it’s been on my 1001 Books I Must Read wishlist for a while, so I was quite pleased when it turned up on the display shelf at my library.  (The only other Bellow I’ve ever read was his last novel Ravelstein, (2000) which didn’t really excite me, so I hadn’t exactly been hunting for Bellows to read).  #TrueConfession: I borrowed it expecting not to like it very much, perhaps to eliminate it after 50 pages if it didn’t engage me as Ravelstein had failed to do.  How nice it is to be so wrong about a book!

The Adventures of Augie March gets its place in 1001 Books because:

This lavish, bustling narrative written in the picaresque tradition reinvents the hero as a modern day Huck Finn.  Augie is a handsome and contemplative character who becomes embroiled in a series of increasingly exotic escapades.  In an odyssey that takes him from Chicago to Mexico, from Europe to an open boat in the mid-Atlantic, the footloose hero is recruited to a series of crackpot scams that include book stealing, arms trading and being appointed the task of guarding Trotsky.

(1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Edited by Peter Boxall, 2001  ABC Books edition, p.475)

In the Penguin edition that I read, Christopher Hitchens hesitates in the Introduction to bestow the title of The Great American Novel, but he admires Augie March for its scope, its optimism and its principles:

… ‘the universal eligibility to be noble’ (eligibility connotes being elected as well as being chosen) is as potent a statement of the American dream as has ever been uttered. (p. viii)

Augie’s ambition to be noble on his own terms, like his quest to be an educated man on his own terms, seems like an anachronism in the proudly ignorant amoral era of Trump, but the expression of an ideal, even though largely unrealised, seems refreshing even though the book was written more than half a century ago.  The Sensational Snippet that I posted about the possibilities of sharing the great moments of nobility through reading tells us that a triumphant life can be real, even for a poor boy living in Depression era Chicago.

The nobility Augie aspires to can seem lost in the murk of what he actually does.  Most of Augie’s enterprises, right from when Grandma sends him out for part-time work when he’s barely into his teens, involve dishonesty at the least.  As a boy he creams off small amounts from a Christmas lucky-dip stall; as a man he’s involved in all kinds of shonky business, though he would say that he gets manipulated into it by others.  But there are moments: he stops his all-powerful brother kicking a dog; he rescues his mother from a sordid old age; and he loses the prospect of marrying a rich woman when he shoulders responsibility for a girl (who’s not his girlfriend) when she needs an abortion and then it’s assumed he’s the father.  She’s a friend, and she needs support, and he doesn’t just risk criminal prosecution when things go badly wrong for her, he also risks the one relationship that sustains him, the love of his brother Simon.

A critical moment occurs when he finds he admires an American eagle that won’t cooperate with his girlfriend’s plans for it.  He’s a man who keeps his thoughts very much to himself, but he can’t conceal his dismay about her behaviour with the creatures she wants to exploit, and that’s the catalyst for another failed relationship.   We see this inclination towards nobility in extremis too, when in the Merchant Marines his ship is blown up by a torpedo and he finds himself stranded in a lifeboat with a madman.  It’s a gripping episode in an episodic book, probably the one that I will best remember…

The aspiration to be an educated man is curious.  He has numerous opportunities to get to college, (and perhaps then to a professional career) and he doesn’t take them.  He could have been a teacher, but passes that up too.  But he reads voraciously, and the book is full of all kinds of allusions, some of which, I bet, made the book frustrating to read in the days before we could Google “wise old man walking in empty fields”, +”Netherlands painting” + “Italian gallery”…

The Misanthrope by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The Misanthrope by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

There’s an old, singular, beautiful Netherlands picture I once saw in an Italian gallery, of a wise old man walking in empty fields, pensive, while a thief behind cuts the string of his purse. The old man, in black, thinking probably of God’s City, nevertheless has a foolish length of nose and is much too satisfied with his dream. But the peculiarity of the thief is that he is enclosed in a glass ball, and on the glass ball there is a surmounting cross, and it looks like the emperor’s symbol of rule. Meaning that it is earthly power that steals while the ridiculous wise are in a dream about this world and the next, and perhaps missing this one, they will have nothing, neither this nor the next, so there is a sharp pain of satire in this amusing thing, and even the painted field does not have too much charm; it is a flat piece. (p. 190-1.)

This painting is held at the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples and once I found it at Wikipedia I realised that I’d seen it before somewhere, because it’s a famous painting with a moral still very relevant for our times.  Vanity tries to steal from a man who wants to relinquish the world.  He’s not aware of the thief behind him, and he hasn’t noticed the caltrops in front of him.  But when he finds his purse is gone and he stumbles into those traps, he’s going to have to face up to the world he lives in and is part of.  He (and we) can’t abandon responsibility for the world’s difficulties.  Like the shepherd guarding the sheep in the background, he has to do his share.

Bellow doesn’t just reference paintings: Augie laments that his brother Simon had gotten hold of some English schoolboy notions of honour and that Tom Brown’s Schooldays for many years had an influence we were not in a position to afford.  Well, most people my age would be familiar with that book.   But other allusions are not so obvious.  Grandma doesn’t want to read Tolstoi on religion. She didn’t trust him as a family man because the countess had such trouble with him. Would I have known what this meant if I hadn’t read War and Peace and Sonya by Judith Armstrong, a reimagining of Countess Sonya Tolstoy’s relationship with her exasperating husband?  And this one, selected at random as I write this?

School absorbed [Simon] more, and he had his sentiments anyway, a mixed extract from Natty Bumppo, Quentin Durward, Tom Brown, Clark at Kaskaskia, the messenger who brought the good news from Ratisbon, and so on, that kept him more to himself.  (p. 12)

I’ve looked these up now that I’m online but I didn’t recognise them when I was reading the book in bed and I certainly wasn’t going to crank up the laptop in the middle of the night to find out.  I just let them (and others) wash over me with a vague idea that I might look them up later but of course I haven’t because I didn’t write them down. I don’t think it matters: I enjoyed the allusions I recognised and I passed on the ones I missed.

I liked this book very much, and will one day get to the rest of the Bellows listed in 1001 Books. (He’s got seven novels listed in my edition).  A good start to my reading year!

Author: Saul Bellow
Title: The Adventures of Augie March
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 2001
ISBN 9780141184869
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond (and probably everywhere else as well): The Adventures of Augie March (Penguin Modern Classics)





  1. Great example of, well not the Great American Novel, but some serious Americana. Augie is this kid from the rather rough side of Chicago during the Depression who sets out to seek his fortune – to make good on his own terms – pulling himself up by his bootstraps (wits and luck), so to speak.

    I’m not so fond of Bellow’s style – I’ve never figured out why. I’ve only read this and Mr Sammler’s Planet. I “know” they are good books, just not my cuppa. Maybe it’s all that introspection. ?

    • I’m going to dig out my journal to see why Ravelstein didn’t rock my boat… must go now, it’s time to visit my dear old dad but I’ll be back later!

  2. The book’s on my shelf with a book mark on p.26 so that says it all I guess. Thinking (thief) to copy your to read list and add on to mine and in the meantime keep dreaming that I am an educated woman.

    • *chuckle* Oh, we can all beat ourselves up about the books we haven’t read yet, but hey, reading is for fun, right?

  3. I have a feeling I may have donated this one, having sat on the shelf too long and little inclination to pick it up, had I read a review like this I’d have kept it! Thanks for reading from your pile, I hope you’ve saved it some other bookshelves!

    • *chuckle* This has made no impact on my pile because it’s from my municipal library!

      • Yes, your review is going to save it from the shelves of others, to stop them doing what I did, Bravo! :)

  4. I definitely need to prioritise my reading – more Greats, less dross. My reading of ‘real’ books is only about 60 a year, nearly all Australian, mostly for reviews. But I ‘read’ another 100-150 audio books, some of which I review, though note-taking is a problem when I’m working and all the spy and detective fiction and even some of the romances are going to have to make way for books like this.
    An excellent review (and excerpt) and a timely reminder for me to get on to the State Library and I guess, on to Audible, pronto.

    • Well, far be it from me to give advice to a professional driver, but I find that (mostly) ‘great’ books don’t work so well when I’m driving. I find I can’t concentrate on them and on the road. I tried, for example, listening to Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and it was a disaster. I could keep track of the fractured narrative style. (The book wasn’t that much easier, but at least I could take notes and draw diagrams!) I’m considering jettisoning Richard Mason’s Us, which I’ve just started, because it’s got three different narrators and I’m not sure I can follow the threads and not have a prang…

      • I’ll let you know if I run off the road.

      • Well -driving might be another matter. Against the law here but I do it – on crime books! lol –

        • Huh? You mean it’s illegal in the US to listen to audio books in the car??

          • The United States is still a collected bunch of independent states in many ways. Yes, in California it’s against the law to use any device which uses your hands in any way or uses more than one earbud. In North Dakota it’s still okay to talk on a cell phone while driving unless you’re under 18 years old. But in ND it’s even legal to text and drive (like a lot of other states) although it’s discouraged. In California it’s all prohibited.

            I do listen and drive though – I use one earbud or I hide my buds behind my hair. A cop caught me one time, though – he was on a motorcycle and made motions. I followed directions. (heh)

            • Ah, so it’s really about the device you use, not the concept. So listening to audio CDs on a CD player would be fine, same as listening to radio.
              Laws about what we call mobile phones are not keeping up here. There are heavy fines for using one while driving, but you can use a hands-free legally, which is stupid because research shows it’s actually the distraction value of a conversation with someone who can’t see the road as you can, that is the danger. I think you’re not allowed to program a Navman while driving too…

              • working towards laws against “distracted driving”:

                Can you watch a video from a hands-free device mounted on the dashboard? –

                The push is really toward driverless cars. Read all you want!

                • I don’t know what the rules are about video. I’ve only ever seen kids watching them in the back seat.
                  But it’s amazing that the states all have different laws, how do you keep track of them all if you travel?
                  (Our states have agreements on all kinds of things to keep laws consistent across states, not just traffic laws, but e.g. animal welfare laws, that are the responsibility of the states not the federal government, but it’s in the national interest to have consistency.

    • One thing about Audible and classics is that the reader sometimes knows how to make the words and sentences really comprehensible. I first noticed this with Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. It helped with Mr Sammler’s Planet, too, although the voice was irritating for the first hour or so.

      • It also helps if they have two different readers to signal a change of narrator, although a good actor can do multiple voices and make it clear enough.

  5. I’ve only read ‘Dangling Man’ by Bellow. I keep thinking of reading Herzog but then I remember it’s an epistolary novel which always puts me off. I sometimes get annoyed when authors include vague references (think Pynchon or Joyce) just, I assume, to show off; and I always think of Bellow as belonging to this group of writers. I think ‘Henderson’ is the one that appeals most.

    • Oh, say it isn’t so! I don’t think it’s showing off, I think it’s strewing little pearls of extra pleasure in the text!

      • In moderation it’s fine but I feel that it’s as if the writer is building a wall up between them and the reader. Imagine a modernday writer in their twenties writing a book with loads of references to current pop culture, technology etc. It would probably only appeal to readers who had similar tastes as the author. We can read it and even enjoy the strangeness of it but it can feel like we’re being deliberately excluded. It’s a fine line though and I’ll certainly aim to read some more Bellow, maybe even Augie March.

        • Well, you’re right about pop culture, I think I know more about the culture of the past than I do of the present. And I think it’s much harder for writers now to assume that most people would recognise literary allusions because there isn’t any agreement about what a canon might be. Many younger people have never read Shakespeare or the poetry that was a staple in my time – even if they’ve majored in EngLit. But I think when Bellow was writing there was more of a consensus about what an educated person could be assumed to have read.
          I remember my son asking me when he was in his middle twenties, to recommend some of the books that ‘everyone’ has read. He did engineering at uni, not arts, and perhaps he felt that exclusion when conversations came round to books. (I bet he was the only engineering student to read Ulysses!)

          • He! He! And I was a Samuel-Beckett-loving physics student. We were expected to like Star Trek and nothing else. eek!

            • Strange, eh? His university has changed the rules since then, and from what I know of it, now they have to do a more general year first and then move into a more specialised course. The idea is to graduate as a well-rounded person.

              • Well they did that at our Uni and I did a North American Studies course but the Humanities students didn’t do science courses as it was deemed that that was covered by their statistics courses, which was bizarre. I could only put it down to them thinking that all science students were weird geeks that knew nothing about the real world. Science, of course, has nothing to do with the real world.

                • *chuckle* It’s probably impossible to get it right. There is so much knowledge now and yet university courses have generally remained the same length of time.

  6. This is a writer who’s on my virtual TBR list.

    This one is a little bit too long for my tastes and I’m not sure I wouldn’t get annoyed by the references.

    • There are lots of shorter works, we can discover them together:)

      • Good idea!

  7. […] lives being subservient to others, but I would never have picked up a book with a dull title like The Adventures of Augie March if it hadn’t been written by Nobel Laureate Saul […]

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