Audiobook Classics: The Adventures of Augie March
Augie: Then and Now
I had forgotten how much I loved the Saul Bellow novels I read in college. I don't recall if it was class reading or recreational reading - I'll admit I was a much bigger recreational reader than I am now - but I do remember thinking "hey I could probably write like this!" What really grabbed me were all the ridiculous, strange, abstract and just plain goofy situations our hero seemed to fall into. It didn't matter to me if it was called bildungsroman or goin' up against "the man", I was simply delighted by Bellow's wild imagination. I think it was around the same general period that I read Catcher in the Rye, The World According to Garp, The Moviegoer and all the Walker Percy novels, (not that anyone with a literary sensibility would put those authors in the same bunch) and, having been recruited into the English department from the music department, I was excited to learn that fun and literature were not mutually exclusive. I then came upon a poet/writer/mentor - Michael Brownstein - who turned me onto Burroughs, Henry Miller, John Ashbery's A Nest of Ninnies and other "out there" poets and writers that opened the aperture even further: not only could we create strange and twisted characters and put them in whacky, slapstick situations, but we could then cut up the pages, throw the pieces on the floor, and paste them back together to invent some very strange images. (Brownstein had published a couple of volumes of prose poems, Brainstorms and Highway to the Sky, both real eye openers for me. I checked up on him several years ago: his webpage touted the recreational use of psychedelics and featured a chant devoted to healing Dick Cheney. 'Nuff said.)
About Saul Bellow
This from good 'ol trustworthy WikiPedia:
Saul Bellow (10 June 1915 – 5 April 2005) was a Canadian-born American writer. For his literary contributions, Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts. He is the only writer to win the National Book Award for Fiction three times and he received the Foundation's lifetime Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1990.
In the words of the Swedish Nobel Committee, his writing exhibited "the mixture of rich picaresque novel and subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession interspersed with philosophic conversation, all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age."His best-known works include The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Seize the Day, Humboldt's Gift and Ravelstein. Widely regarded as one of the 20th century's greatest authors, Bellow has had a "huge literary influence."
Was I Going to Be Wrong Again?
Fast forward almost 40 years and a new century later. How does Bellow strike me now? Since I can't relate to Augie the same way as I did when I was 23 (would I if I could? Hmmm), what do I now read differently? Many things, naturally, but it is Augie's chronic vexation with women, especially the relationship with Stella and the final chapters in Paris (being in Paris as I write this, as well as having been abandoned by the wife and daughter for a two hour shopping trip that's now into hour five) that grab me. Even though I'm a good 20 years and two grown children down the road than Augie at the end of the story, his relationship with Stella illustrates the timeless Venus/Mars conundrum that can make life so miserable for heterosexual men.
Augie speaks of his adolescent years as if his "Mama" was barely there, and when she is she can barely see her children, the images of them growing dimmer with what sounds like macular degeneration. The only adult supervision comes in the form of Grandma Lausch, who plays more of a fatherly role than that of a mother. It may be this lack of feminine nurturing in his formative years that causes him to set his expectations of the stabilizing power of romantic love and whatever love is called after the romance wears off unrealistically high. Of course his expectation that finding a good woman will have a stabilizing effect on his pinball life is based on sheer wishful thinking as far as we can tell. Like so many people, once he realizes that the relationship is not going to give him what he thinks is missing in his life, he assumes kids will do the trick. Obviously it didn't quite do it for Bellow, who was still having kids in his 80s with wife #5 (God bless him!). And those of us who have been there know that having kids will only further stress a fractious relationship to the breaking point. Fortunately we don't witness our poor Augie going through such trauma.
Augie illustrates the Venus/Mars conundrum beautifully when he describes Stella's mea culpa regarding the Cumberland affair. The whole story drives Augie crazy with jealousy and bitterness over Stella's past involvements, but once she starts telling him what it was all about she can't stop and it just gets worse. Had Augie simply trusted her proclamations of love, regardless of the truth, he could have avoided allowing a seed to take root that might grow into a relationship-killer.
“'Who is this Cumberland?' I said. Just then Stella came down from the ladies’ lounge and I took her arm and hurried her out to a cab. We tore back to the apartment and I blew my top. 'I should have known there was something dishonest!' I yelled at her. 'Who is this Cumberland?'
'Augie! Don’t carry on,' she said, pale. 'I should have told you. But what difference does it make? It proves that I love you and didn’t want to lose you by telling you.'
'He was the one that gave you the coat?'
'Yes, darling. But I married you, not him.'
'And the car?'
'It was a present, honey. But, sweetheart, it’s you I love.' " (P. 525)
But we can't leave well enough alone, can we? The woman needs to talk it out, the man wants to solve the problem, resolve the issue. He is unwilling to admit that there is no resolution for that would be admitting defeat; that would be admitting that he can't solve the problem. Meanwhile the woman has no interest in resolution, because for her it's just a matter of getting it off her chest. The solution is in the talking, and Bellow illustrates this dynamic beautifully:
"Okay, but why couldn’t she be satisfied that I loved her and stop this talk? ... I would meditate over all this and sit there feeling terrible. The very arms of the chair seemed about to stab me through the sides, and the playful flowery Bavarian bed and the knickknacks and stuffed orioles, and all were a drag on me. Was I going to be wrong again?" (P. 526)
Was I going to be wrong again? Is this perhaps the universal question of the eternally vexed married man?
Best American Essays with Saul Bellow
Nail, Hit on Head
Another thing that I found incredibly profound this time, now that I have spent several decades in search of a few clear thoughts, is Augie's apt description of his own internal newstalk radio, an observation he reaches when, observing his beautiful wife in a quiet moment, he notices that it's not really a quiet moment at all:
"I felt settled and easy, my chest free and my fingers comfortable and open. And now here’s the thing. It takes a time like this for you to find out how sore your heart has been, and, moreover, all the while you thought you were going around idle terribly hard work was taking place. Hard, hard work, excavation and digging, mining, moling through tunnels, heaving, pushing, moving rock, working, working, working, working, working, panting, hauling, hoisting. And none of this work is seen from the outside. It’s internally done. All by yourself! Where is everybody? Inside your breast and skin, the entire cast." (p. 523)
Undeniably true, when we pause long enough in a silent place the Greek Chorus inevitably takes over:
"...you wage and combat, settle scores, remember insults, fight, reply, deny, blab, denounce, triumph, outwit, overcome, vindicate, cry, persist, absolve, die and rise again." (p. 523)
This, as far as I understand it, is why man invented prayer, meditation, chanting, certain forms of song and other techniques that autosuggest a wavelength or vibration that for some unknown reason quiets the internal chatter.* But if there is one thing that Augie's freestyle approach doesn't address outside of his Old Testament allegories is spirituality. His opinion of religious institutions is pretty consistent with his overall "whatever turns you on" world view, and though he philosophizes about man and God in a general, he lives according to his own version of secular humanism and the idea, as he states in the beginning, that "a man's character is his fate". It is somewhat surprising given all the reading Augie does in his book swiping period that he isn't exposed to Buddhism and meditation, but even if he was it's unlikely that he would have made the connection between all the "work" the human brain is constantly churning and plowing and nirvana.
It's even more unlikely that I would have made such observations about Augie's troubled relationship with Stella or the spiritual void that keeps him turning over stones when I was in my twenties, which I think is powerful testimony to the timelessness and multi-dimensionality of Bellow's novels. Not only has reading The Adventures of Augie March recalled much of that youthful enthusiasm for fiction that pushes credibility to the limit, but remains believable just the same; it also demonstrates how "big" themes can be on the woven into a narrative using the natural voice of the protagonist without being heavy handed or preachy. Finally, the picaresque characteristics of Augie's story continue to resonate with me as they did in the seventies, perhaps even more so. The individual up against "the man", tacking against the prevailing wind in hopes of finding calmer waters, is a theme that I'm naturally drawn to, probably as a result of growing up with very different ambitions than were expected of me. I also find Augie's optimism and willingness to explore life inspiring. This is good; I need every ounce of inspiration I can get just to keep the wheels turning!
*That quiet, empty state, according to the science underlying Transcendental Meditation, or TM, is profoundly restful: the heart rate and breath rate slow, the blood pressure drops, and though the practitioner may think the noise continues unabated, the relaxation occurs nonetheless and reinvigoration is often the result.
Tom Parker aka Grover Gardner
About Tom and Grover...
One of the great joys of Saul Bellow are the unique voices of his protagonists, and Parker's performance as Augie is pitch perfect all the way through. There are at least 20 speaking parts, but the story is told in first person. Parker picks up the tone of the streetwise Chicago Jew and infuses it with warm irony and Augie's signature laissez-faire. He manages to expertly distinguish the voices and does very convincing women's parts as well. A superb performance and a "must-listen"!
Thank God for WikiPedia:
"One of the most celebrated and accomplished narrators of audiobooks, Grover Gardner (aka Tom Parker) has recorded in a voice of “sandpaper and velvet” for nearly three decades. After first working in Washington, D.C., for the Library of Congress, Grover established his own independent recording studio in Maryland, where he recorded hundreds of audiobooks that garnered awards throughout the industry. Grover is one of AudioFile’s Golden Voices and has received dozens of Earphones Awards for exceptional performances. In 2007, Grover moved to Ashland, Oregon; he continues to record as well as manage Blackstone Audiobooks productions as Studio Director."