Saturday, September 09, 2006

Mining the Modern Malaise: Saul Bellow

This is the first of a pair of posts in which I want to briefly discuss the efforts of two Nobel Prize-winning writers to "mine the modern malaise," to understand the place and meaning of mankind in a world that has largely forgotten God, through specific famous books they've written. It just so happens that I have recently read two of these famous books in a row and have been struck by their authors' differing approaches to the questions that haunt us all in these (to jump on the Dylan bandwagon, like everyone else right now) "modern times." Both books were written during the same decade, the 1950's, so they're not exactly recent responses to these ever-present questions, but the mere fact that they are still being read and discussed prove that they still have much to say to us in these areas. Though they don't supply much in terms of direct or satisfying answers to our deepest questions (as I will point out), they do certainly help to illuminate our struggles and fears and various attempts to deal with that longing for transcendence we so often talk about on this blog, that search for ourselves and our place in the grand scheme of things...

The first book I want to hit upon is Saul Bellow's breakthrough novel from 1952, The Adventures of Augie March. Were this post not part of a series, I think I might have titled it "Bellow's Big Book of Bewilderment," because that is the word that best describes (for me) the 550-page quest for meaning and purpose that the title character, Augie March, describes throughout the novel. The fascinating thing too is that this state of bewilderment seems to be shared equally by both the protagonist and the reader throughout the entire length of the book. Of course I can't speak for others who have read it, but from reviews I've seen and such, this experience seems to be fairly common: when reading the story of March's life, you get this strange sense of utter confusion, as if he himself is still trying to figure out the meaning of all he is relaying, even as you the reader are. And in the end, the enigma isn't made clear in the slightest: when I read the final paragraph of this novel, I was as perplexed as I was in reading the first. I didn't feel like I understood the protagonist any better than when I had first met him on page 1. Here's an example of what I mean. This is the famous first two paragraphs of the novel -- read it and see if you can figure out what March (Bellow) is trying to say in it:

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; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.

Now, I wasn't initially planning on this, but just for kicks, and for drive the point home, here is the last part of the last paragraph of the book:

...That's the animal ridens in me, the laughing creature, forever rising up... is the laugh at nature -- including eternity -- that it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will. But that probably is the joke, on one or the other, and laughing is an enigma that includes both. Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America.

Now. If you've read those two brief sections through a few times and still can't get at what the meaning is, what Bellow is trying to say, then I guess I'm not alone. And you've just gotten a taste of the experience of reading this entire book. Just about all of the prose struck me as fascinating but also almost totally opaque -- I could not "see through" it at all and get at its meaning. George Orwell wrote in his famous essay "Why I Write" that "good prose should be like a windowpane." Well, if that is true than I guess by Mr. Orwell's standards, this novel would be discarded as trash. As I think the sections I cited will show, the prose here is anything but as clear as glass.

But hold on -- is that the whole story? I don't think so, not by a long shot. For even though Bellow's prose is intricate and obtuse, it is also interesting and, in my reading experience anyway, quite original. That opening paragraph is difficult to figure out, yes, but it is also quite memorable. It is famous for a reason. I don't quite know exactly what March is trying to say, but nevertheless, his opening lines strike with the force of real conviction, and with the tone of a manifesto or declaration of some kind. In other words, Augie March bursts to life vividly on the page from the get-go as a unique and authentic character. And in every page following, his life rings true as an "actual" life that may well have been lived by a young Jewish-American kid from a rough neighborhood in Depression-era Chicago. And there is so much to be said for that. For if you're going to write a "coming of age" novel or a bildungsroman of some kind, your first task is to make sure your main character, the one whose "adventures" we will be following for as long as the journey takes us, is fully and authentically rendered. Famous characters like Holden Caulfield or Huck Finn are remembered and celebrated because they (still) speak with a true voice, and bring to life a time and place that was uniquely their own, and yet, an inner experience that is also universal. Augie March deserves to be placed in this same pantheon of memorable American fictional protagonists, and his experiences can still stir our imaginations and haunt our thoughts in the 21st century.

For in the end, despite all of his diverse and weird adventures, the scores of interesting characters he introduces us to, his bizarre ramblings about being a "born recruit" and his involvement in various schemes legal and illegal, and his dogged determinism to "make the record my own way," his story is really about one thing: the desire to love and be loved. That is the one thing I can ultimately see clearly through the dense fog of his prose and his peregrinations: his ultimate goal is to figure out what "his fate" is, but what he really wants to do is to find that soul mate he can rely upon and settle down with. His entire search, like all of ours in the end, is a search for true love of the kind that anchor the soul and settle the wandering spirit. Because of this, his story is a univeral one, and one we can indeed relate to despite the dizzying convolution of its expression.

Towards the end of the novel there is a section where he finds himself adrift in a stormy sea with a madman intent on bludgeoning him senseless in order to use him for his own lunatic scientific experiments (the kook is convinced he can effectively change human nature if he can rid the human psyche of the capacity to be bored!?!). He is cold, he is hungry, he is aimless and desperate, and all he can think about it getting through the ordeal so he can rush home to Chicago and marry the girl he's in love with. He is a man adrift in the world but pining for love. In the middle of the 20th century, amidst the affluence and spiritual decadence of America, no wonder this novel took hold of people and wouldn't let go. I think on some unconscious level, readers came to this point of the long and winding epic and realized, "Hey, I recognize that guy out there on that life raft, flailing and trying to figure out his place in a lonely universe. That's me."

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke: Fascinating post!!

I know almost nothing about Bellow or this novel, so this post was instructive. From everything I can tell, you are right: this is one weird book. Those paragraphs you quoted do remind me of those few books in English that you read and still don't know what the hell is being said. Another example of this, for me, was "Gravity's Rainbow" by Pynchon, as you and I have discussed. This does seem to be down those lines. Those paragraphs didn't make a whole lot of sense to me either.

But you are certainly right about the uniqueness of the vision that Bellow seems to have had, and the fact that an epic, quest-like novel like this must have a unique driving voice behind it. And it seems that this book passes that test. There's something to be said for a voice that stands clear from all others, even if you do not agree with, or can't even understand, what that voice is saying. It's not easy to stand out from the rest of the pack, and this novel must have been a devil to write for Bellow.

You made a fascinating choice to read this book, and saw it through. A noteworthy effort on your part!