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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book Review: The Adventures of Augie March (1953) by Saul Bellow

A young Saul Bellow.  The Adventures of Augie March was Bellow's break-through novel.  It won the National Book Award and was significant in the later decision giving him a Nobel Prize for literature in 1976.

Book Review: 
The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
by Saul Bellow

   The Adventures of Augie March was a break through for Saul Bellow, it sold tons, won the National Book Award and firmly put Bellow on the path towards his eventual status as a literary lion.  Augie March is what you call a picaresque; an episodic coming of age novel about the "life, times and adventures" of the main character, one Augie March.  His adventures last from childhood in the 1920s, in the ethnic neighborhoods of south Chicago, to married life in post World War II Paris.  Identifying Augie March as a picaresque vs a bildungsroman requires taking moral lessons out of the question.   In the picaresque, the main character doesn't develop morally, whereas in the bildungsroman the character generally emerges at the end having learned a life lesson or two.

  Both forms involve the same kind of a story, a first person narrative that starts when the character is a lad and ends with him (usually a dude) as an adult.  The picaresque actually precedes the novel as a literary form- the Spanish were writing picaresques in the 17th and 18th century, and along with the romance they were highly influential on the development of the novel as an art form, but they also continued to be a category of novel.  Eventually, the bildungsroman surpassed the picaresque in popularity, part of a general 19th century trend towards morality in literature.

   Bellow was prescient in freeing March from tiresome late Victorian moral attitudes.  In this he wasn't exactly a trail blazer, after all, Hemingway and Fitzgerald both specialized in characters who detached themselves from conventional morality.  Augie March is different from the usually wealthy, upper class or trying to be so protagonists of the lost generation.  He is an amoral everyman, intellectual but not well educated, curious but not cynical.   Augie March takes his life as it comes, and whether he is ferrying his barmaid neighbor to her back alley abortion or trying to teach an eagle to hunt Iguanas in the mountains of central Mexico, he emerges similarly unscathed and unreflective about his experience.

   March anticipates the great anti-heroes of 1960s American books and film, and it no wonder that this book was such a hit.

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