Bellow, Saul. The Adventures of Augie March. New York: Fawcett Premier, 1967 (1953).
Bellow, Saul. Seize the Day. New York: Penguin, 1977 (1956).
Bellow was one uneven writer, and as much as we would like to separate his virtues from his faults it never seems quite possible. On balance Augie March has much more of the former, Seize the Day and what follows more of the latter. The question of Bellow is the question of why Augie March could be written only once, what sort of reality principle had to rise up to discipline that book’s exuberance and tame its prose.
The prose, and not the title character, is the real protagonist of Augie March. On their own, Augie’s speech and action would make him likeable and curious, also hapless and passive, perhaps without many connecting threads to hold him together. What turns him incandescent is the language Bellow grants him. The largeness and catholicity and meticulously worked sloppiness of that language, consistently pitched an octave higher than its actual referents, amounts to a protest against smallness in all forms, against the limits of the world as it stands, and because our primary attachment is to the ghost within that prose, it doesn’t really matter that nothing Augie can do, not even hunting iguanas (!) with an eagle (!!) among the igneous rocks of Mexico (!!!), can meet its demand or fulfill its promise. One of the few points where the book shades into the problematic later Bellow is in Augie’s speech (which is meant to be climactic) about following the axial lines of one’s own ethosbecause after all, an axial line is an ideal construction without thickness or breadth, and we don’t read novels for the schematic; we want the particular. At any rate, the end of the book finds Augie married to one of the many winning women he has encountered, but otherwise itinerant and impermanent as always. Finding himself displaced in postwar Europe and helping another of his shady mentors to run another lucrative scam, he insists that this situation, too, is only temporary. Do we believe him? Thankfully we are not required to decide, because it’s the end of the book.
Seize the Day finds Bellow playing Flaubert to his own Balzac, with a much tighter rein on the sentences, but without the extravagance of sauce one soon tastes the leanness of the meat. Bellow is a little older now, his protagonist much more so, and this one change in the formal setup reveals how much of Augie’s rhetorical claim depended on youth. The difference between Tommy Wilhelm and (say) Arthur Miller’s washed-up salesman is that Wilhelm is not a holdover from an earlier time but someone who never found a fit in any decade. Like Augie he has both a weakness for being enrolled into other people’s systems and a passive stubbornness that keeps his from properly assuming them; but now too old to pull off Augie’s rhetoric of integrity, he stands before the reader as an undisguised schlemiel. His world does not permit the exercise of virtue. Even his estranged wife and children are only mistakes at the other end of a telephone line, duties that cannot be discharged. In sum it is steely naturalism, and quite well done over the book’s first half; it is the second half that gets tired of naturalism and edges toward the anxious conceptual ping-pong that presumably won Bellow the Nobel and which I’ve never been able to warm to, that perpetual half-turn toward qualified and insufficient emblems of redemption which over a novel’s length becomes perfectly maddening. To refuse your characters any public reckoning is to leave them the sole recourse of private catharsis. And as for thatwell, you have to take the writer’s word for it, don’t you?