'Augie March' Returns; Revisiting Saul Bellow's Early Novels

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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. …