- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003


Edited by James Wood

Library of America, $35, 1050 pages


Saul Bellow met my grandmother in Lakewood, N.J., prior to shipping out in World War II. He remembered her as a “tough Jewish woman” with whom he discussed the war and the work of Singer — Israel Joseph Singer, the older brother of Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom Bellow, in 1952, was the first to translate into English.

There have been other grandmothers in Mr. Bellow’s life, of course. He uses them all in his work, creating characters of his own invention and unmistakably real, situated in time and place.

The grandmother in “The Adventures of Augie March,” the book that made Mr. Bellow famous, and which is the piece de resistance in the first volume of the Library of America’s edition of his novels, is a tough Jewish woman named Grandma Lausch. A “neighborhood Machiavelli” and tenement despot, she reads “Anna Karenina” and “Manon Lescaut” once a year, schemes to stay one step ahead of the Depression-era welfare system, and in the end is unceremoniously placed in a home for the aged by her ungrateful sons, when the March family, to whom she is not related formally, can no longer board her.

The Marches are Augie, his mother, and two brothers — Simon, ambitious and enterprising, and Georgie, who is retarded. Lording over the gentle Mama, and scheming as well as she can to advance what she perceives to be the boys’ interests, Grandma Lausch is indeed a tough Jewish woman, the first of a line of them Augie meets as he grows up and discovers, with a mix of curiosity and apprehension, the increasingly wide world beyond the neighborhood north of the Chicago Loop where the story begins.

Mr. Bellow himself grew up in Montreal, in a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, speaking French in the street, English and Yiddish at home. He was 10 when they moved to Humboldt Park, on Chicago’s north side.

“The Adventures of Augie March” is a great American novel and certainly one of the great Chicago novels, in the lineage of “Sister Carrie,” “The Old Bunch,” “Studs Lonnigan,” and “Native Son.” And like these, it means only so much to speak of lineages. Chicago writers, as Carl Sandburg said of the city itself, are big-shouldered, hog-butchers to the world, yes, but on their own terms and in their own ways. The record Mr. Bellow wants to leave of Chicago, in “Augie March,” is that of poor Jews struggling out of poverty during the Depression and getting on, well or not so well and according to their inclinations.

Chicago opened possibilities that were not available to earlier generations. With these, however, came sometimes contradictory ambitions, and his acute sensitivity to the resulting confusion is, perhaps, what made “Augie March” so stunningly different from earlier novels of social realism. Nothing is pre-determined in Mr. Bellow, certainly not to the degree it is in Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, Meyer Levin and Richard Wright. You have to look at the environment, to be sure, but you have to look at his character as well, for a man’s character, Augie reminds readers, is his fate.

The early novels that are included in “Saul Bellow: Novels 1944-1953,” edited by James Wood with useful notes and a chronology, show the degree to which Mr. Bellow prepared the breakthrough which was “Augie March.” “Dangling Man” and “The Victim” are studies of character. The development of character, with the hilarity, pathos, compassion and unrelenting honesty that mark his style, is probably Mf. Bellow’s strongest side as a writer.

My grandmother inclined toward exaggeration as a rhetorical form; she tended to be overly critical of people — like the handsome friend of her daughter and son-in-law — who talked abot themselves too much. “Kvetching you won’t eat,” she said. She meant people will not pay to hear your bill of grievances. But writers are men with grievances, women too sometimes. If they can make them entertaining enough, people will pay to hear them out.

Mr. Bellow’s complaints are entertaining. He entertains by means of a strikingly original style, a seamless mix of street talk and elegantly expressed ideas, of popular culture and erudite references. And he entertains by making his predicament — what my grandmother called his kvetching — into a contemporary drama that anyone else could identify with.

It is true that Mr. Bellow always has put a great deal of his own life and observations into his novels. People who know him recognize incidents from his own life in them — and sometimes from theirs. They are transformed into art, however, which is to say, not something exquisite or grand or rarefied, but something real, beyond even the reality of our memories of real people and real events. That, after all, is what literature does.

For Saul Bellow, a man of some peregrinations, the one permanent address has been the work of novel writing, and he has been at it, with constancy, method, humor, passion, and sweat, since the late 1930s: an astonishing record for any writer, but especially for those burn-out artists, American novelists. There is no one still standing who is comparable to Mr. Bellow in contemporary American literature, with the possible exceptions of his friends John Updike and Philip Roth — John Cheever and Irwin Shaw come to mind as predecessors, and John Steinbeck, who, upon receiving the Nobel Prize, said to him: “You’re next.” Which he was, in 1976.

Mr. Bellow and Mr. Updike are the long-distance runners who emerged at that splendid moment variously called the post-war years or — John Dos Passos’s choice for his own late work — mid-century. Mr. Updike is a very fine writer, and for what the comparison is worth, “Rabbit Run” is one of the great novels-of-youth in the American canon, alongside such classics as “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Red Badge of Courage,” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain.”

But put any of these against Mr. Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” and you begin to see why the Library of America has chosen the 50th anniversary of its publication to bring out the first volume of Mr. Bellow’s complete works — the first time the eminent house has so honored a living writer.

What makes “Augie March” stand out is that in addition to its power and insight as a novel-of-youth, it is a novel-of-society, a panoramic, picturesque, broad canvas that is so accomplished in its use of colors and techniques that it can effortlessly pile on the characters, the scenes, the events, the plot twists, the situations. In the manner of the great 19th century novels or the early-20th century novels of Dreiser and Dos Passos and Farrell and Levin, “Augie March” is not only a novel of its times, it is about its times: It has the politics, the clothes, the jargons, the moods, the slang, the sentiments, the smells of the 1930s.

Had Mr. Bellow done only this in “Augie March,” he would have won much praise as a continuator of the realist tradition so brilliantly represented and robustly defended by Dreiser and the others. Moreover, he was one of those — Herman Wouk and the young Irwin Shaw come to mind as well — who took Jewish social realism out of the ghetto where such masters as the elder Singer had found it, into the enticing and perilous American mainstream.

But he was doing something else as well, which his earlier novels,” Dangling Man” and “The Victim” foreshadowed. Like Mr. Updike and Cheever and Baldwin and Salinger, he was also showing, the soul of man in America. Character and environment are the novelist’s materials. Study character too superficially and you get cliches and pop-current affairs, the formulae for so many bestsellers, forgotten and forgettable; exaggerate the environment and you get a kind of determinism that sits uncomfortably on the expansive American stage.

Mr. Bellow’s erudition and his endless curiosity in all things American never got the better of his determination to paint people as he found them, therefore to study them lovingly but relentlessly. “Augie March” is a great big blockbuster of an American novel, taking us through the confusion and labor turmoil and politics and ideas and intimations of catastrophe and survival in the 1930s.

But Augie, whom we leave on the threshold of his middle age, is a subtle character, finely drawn. He senses sharply the degree to which people delude themselves, in love and worldly affairs and in their apprehension of the world. Ideas, like romantic passions, are dangerous, but they are the inescapable stuff of out humanness. Ideas and passions and the great American adventure have been Mr. Bellow’s themes, and the originality and freshness with which he treats them throughout his work are wonderfully demonstrated in these early novels.

Roger Kaplan is a writer in New York and a long-time student of Saul Bellow’s work.

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