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The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

by Saul Bellow

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,814723,189 (3.84)2 / 222
Fiction. Literature. HTML:

This grand-scale heroic comedy tells the story of the exuberant young Augie, a poor Chicago boy growing up during the Depression. While his neighborhood friends all settle down into their various chosen professions, Augie, as particular as an aristocrat, demands a special destiny. He latches on to a wild succession of occupations, proudly rejecting each one as too limiting. It is not until he tangles with a glamorous perfectionist named Thea, a huntress with a trained eagle, that his independence is seriously threatened. Luckily, his nature, like the eagle's, breaks down under the strain. He goes on to recruit himself to even more outlandish projects but always ducks out in time to continue improvising his unconventional career.

With a jaunty sense of humor embedded in a serious moral view, Bellow's story both celebrates and satirizes the irrepressible American spirit.

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    BookshelfMonstrosity: These sprawling novels feature an irrepressible and memorable protagonist. The Adventures of Augie March is set in the 1920s and Depression-era America; Middlesex tells the family history -- spanning the 20th century -- of a hermaphroditic main character.… (more)
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» See also 222 mentions

English (69)  Spanish (1)  French (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (72)
Showing 1-5 of 69 (next | show all)
It's amazing to me that people argued about Great American Novels as recently as 2003, fifty years after Augie March settled the question. It even starts with "I am an American" and ends with "America"! How can it not be the GAM?!

I'll never tire of this book, the only modern inheritor of the picaresque tradition and the first since Huck Finn. It's different from everything else I've read by Bellow, consciously visceral and eclectic, a multisensory kaleidoscope of the American century. It's a goddamn long novel but somehow the creativity never lapses and the voice never wavers and never sounds writerly, despite being intensely literary as in this streetcar trip:

It was stiff cold weather, the ground hard, the weeds standing broken in the frost, the river giving off vapor and the trains leghorn shots of steam into the broad blue Wisconsin-humored sky, the brass handgrip of the straw seats finger-polished, the crusty straw golden, the olive and brown of coats in their folds gold too...

Or this description of the coalyard manager Happy Kellerman:

He was a beer saufer; droopy, small, a humorist, wry, drawn, weak, his tone nosy and quinchy, his pants in creases under his paunch; his nose curved up and presented offended and timorous nostrils, and he had round, disingenuous eyes in which he showed he was strongly defended.

Bellow is brilliant at punctuation; his sentences move not like rivers but like traffic, interruptedly, with trams and big shots' cars and stumblebums syncopating the flow. The novel is profoundly planted in the picaresque tradition: in its rambling plot, of course, the story of an American trying on everything for size, but also in its assertion of the primacy of the real, the tangible, the sensual world:

Everyone tried to create a world he can live in , and what he can't use he often can't see. But the real world is already created, and if your fabrication doesn't correspond, then even if you feel noble and insist on there being something better than what people call reality, that better something needn't try to exceed what, in its actuality, since we know it so little, may be very surprising. If a happy state of things, surprising; if miserable or tragic, no worse than what we invent.

This is the reality-preferring, the reality-delighting, creed of the picaresque. It's an ironic inversion of Hamlet's spiritualist finger-wagging to Horatio. The world has more in it — more actual people, more dreams — than are dreamt of in your philosophy — turning the "philosophy" from the original "science" to the modern, hand-waving sense. Of "people generally": "they dug for unreality more than treasure, unreality being their last great hope because then they could doubt what they knew about themselves was true." This from the most hard-headed character in the novel, Mimi, who embodies resilience and pragmatism.

And the language here is such a treat, such a multifarious delight, it adds up to an alternate, better, reality of its own. Bellow stacks nouns like a gourmet burger chef: "...if I chose to be a lawyer, I wouldn't need to be a mere ambulance chaser, shyster, or birdseed wiseguy and conniver in two-bit cases." And he knows the power of the monosyllable: "blue gas stink in this hot brute shit of a street". Language is tactile, pungent, impinging on the ear: a band "began to pound and smite" and shortly after "clashed, drummed and brayed". These verbs are of the construction trade or the military, and they describe Bellow's tactile technique in this book.

The overriding theme of Augie's life (until he runs out of paper) is his clientism, his being serially adopted in his fatherlessness, his dependence on others as he gropes for his own identity: "Admitted that I always tried to elicit what I hoped for; how did people, however, seldom fail to supply it so mysteriously?" This is something I identify with — maybe in part 'cause of my race and gender, but even within the world of the story, and my world, Augie's and my caromings seem fortunate. But to what extent do Augie and I over-appreciate our dependence on others, our status as objects of fate? The novel take Heraclitus' "fate is character" for its leitmotif. To what extent is that true? Less and less I think so.

But I'll always love this book. It's a humongous beating heart of human sympathy, of love and trying to make things better. It's weird and sad (like at the end of chapter 4 when they commit Georgie to the institution — I cried) and full of dead-ends and wrong turns and schemes and capers. Rereading it caused me to fall five books behind schedule for my 2022 reading goal, and I don't regret a single second. ( )
  yarb | Aug 2, 2023 |
This is a tough read. There's probably a hundred different characters in this book. i thought several times that I couldn't believe kids in high school have to read this. ( )
  gideonslife | Jan 5, 2023 |
This story starts off in Chicago and is set mostly during the 1920s, Great Depression, and World War II. It is a coming-of-age story for the titular Augie. We get to know his family, including his practical elder brother, Simon, slow brother, George, and overbearing grandmother. He drifts through life not knowing what he values or wants. He forms a number of relationships, jumps from job to job, and gets involved in a series of escapades, largely at the request of his relationship du jour.

This picaresque book has been touted as a contender for the “Great American Novel.” It is a must-read according to the Boxall List. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I do not think it has aged well. I like parts of it, especially Augie’s adventures in Mexico, but the story feels antiquated, especially it is depiction of women. It was published in 1953, so perhaps it is representative of its time, but young women are the described by their body parts and older women are said to be shrewish. It was hard for me to get past these segments. It is long and detailed. It meanders. The writing is fine, but reading it felt like a chore. ( )
  Castlelass | Dec 10, 2022 |
The plot, if that’s the term, isn’t exactly linear, its parts aren’t always connected, and the language is angular, usually not flowing and sometimes awkward, which often works but sometimes doesn’t. I realize it’s partly an early Jewish-American cultural position, but the language in a work of literature has to stand on its own. Not that it’s a bad story or that there isn’t some excellent writing, but the former’s a pretty random sequence and the latter’s uneven. Still, there’s a strange depth and an odd, world-weary optimism that are compelling, with more than a few insightful moments that make you stop and reflect. These form a glue and purpose and maybe even a structure that substitute for the equivalents you’d usually expect to come more from plot and language. It ends up working pretty well. I also like the fact that, while it seems everything today is either nihilistic or in denial, or just dumb, and while this unfortunate situation was well advanced when the book was written, it isn’t nihilistic, it’s plenty aware and it's anything but dumb. ( )
  garbagedump | Dec 9, 2022 |
This book is a classic piece of American literature, the breakout novel by Saul Bellow. But I didn't like it.

The book follows Augie March, told in the first person, through his childhood in depression-era Chicago and eventually elsewhere, though I didn't get that far.

The book is characterized by lengthy paragraphs of description of characters being introduced, but there are so many, and some of the characters so peripheral, that I found it hard to follow. The writing style just didn't grab me, and the story moves too slowly.

I can't help comparing Bellow to Philip Roth, a fellow Jewish-American novelist from a similar era. Roth is much more readable, funny, and poignant. ( )
  DanTarlin | Sep 4, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 69 (next | show all)
The Adventures of Augie March is for me the great creation myth of twentieth century American literature.
 

» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bellow, Saulprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hallock, RobertCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Trilling, LionelIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I am an American, Chicago born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; and sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
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Fiction. Literature. HTML:

This grand-scale heroic comedy tells the story of the exuberant young Augie, a poor Chicago boy growing up during the Depression. While his neighborhood friends all settle down into their various chosen professions, Augie, as particular as an aristocrat, demands a special destiny. He latches on to a wild succession of occupations, proudly rejecting each one as too limiting. It is not until he tangles with a glamorous perfectionist named Thea, a huntress with a trained eagle, that his independence is seriously threatened. Luckily, his nature, like the eagle's, breaks down under the strain. He goes on to recruit himself to even more outlandish projects but always ducks out in time to continue improvising his unconventional career.

With a jaunty sense of humor embedded in a serious moral view, Bellow's story both celebrates and satirizes the irrepressible American spirit.

.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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