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Bellow’s Gift

Allbee disappears from Leventhal’s life. Years pass. By degrees Leventhal sheds the guilty feeling that he has “got away with it.” It was uncalled for, he reflects, for Allbee to envy him his good job, his happy marriage. Such envy rests on a false premise: that to each of us a promise has been made. No such promise was ever made, by God or by the state.

Then one evening he runs into Allbee at the theater. Allbee is squiring a faded actress; he smells of drink. I have found my place on the train, Allbee informs him, but not as conductor, merely as a passenger. I have come to terms with “whoever runs things.” “What’s your idea of who runs things?” asks Leventhal. But Allbee has disappeared into the crowd.

Bellow’s Kirby Allbee is an inspired creation, comic, pathetic, repulsive, and menacing. Sometimes his anti-Semitism seems amiable in a bluff kind of way; sometimes he speaks as if he has been taken over by his own caricature of the Jew, who now lives inside him and speaks through his lips. You Jews are taking over the world, he whines. There is nothing for us poor Americans to do but seek out a humble corner for ourselves. Why do you victimize us so? What harm have we ever done you?

There is also a patrician American twist to Allbee’s anti-Semitism. “Do you know, one of my ancestors was Governor Winthrop,” he says. “Isn’t it preposterous? It’s really as if the children of Caliban were running everything.” Above all Allbee is shameless, id-like, unclean. Even his moments of ingratiation are offensive. Let me touch your hair, he pleads with Leventhal—“It’s like an animal’s hair.”

Leventhal is a good husband, a good uncle, a good brother, a good worker in trying circumstances. He is enlightened; he is not a troublemaker. He wants to be part of mainstream American society. His father did not care what gentiles thought of him as long as they paid what they owed. “That was his father’s view. But not his. He rejected and recoiled from it.” He has a social conscience. He is aware of how easily, in America in particular, one can fall among “the lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined.” He is even a good neighbor—after all, none of Allbee’s gentile friends is prepared to take him in. So what more can be demanded of him?

The answer is: everything. The Victim is Bellow’s most Dostoevskian book. The plot is adapted from Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband, the story of a man accosted out of the blue by the husband of a woman he had an affair with years ago, someone whose insinuations and demands become more and more insufferably intimate. But it is not just the plot that Bellow owes to Dostoevsky, and the motif of the detested double. The very spirit of The Victim is Dostoevskian. The supports for our neat, well-ordered lives can crumble at any minute; inhuman demands can without warning be made of us, and from the strangest quarters; it will be only natural to resist (Why me?); but if we want to be saved we have no choice, we must drop everything and follow. Yet this essentially religious message is put in the mouth of a repulsive anti-Semite. Is it any wonder that Leventhal balks?

Leventhal’s heart is not closed; his resistance is not complete. There is something in all of us, he recognizes, that fights against the sleep of the quotidian. In Allbee’s company, at stray moments, he feels himself on the point of escaping the confines of his old identity and seeing the world through fresh eyes. Something seems to be occurring in the area of his heart, some kind of premonition, whether of a heart attack or something more exalted he cannot say. At one moment he looks at Allbee and Allbee looks back and they might as well be the same person. At another—rendered in Bellow’s most masterfully understated prose—we are somehow convinced that Leventhal is teetering on the point of revelation. But then a great fatigue overtakes him. It is all too much.

Looking back over his career, Bellow has tended to disparage The Victim. If Dangling Man was his BA as a writer, he has said, The Victim was his Ph.D. “I was still learning, establishing my credentials, proving that a young man from Chicago had a right to claim the world’s attention.” He is too modest. The Victim is within inches of joining Billy Budd in the first rank of American novellas. If it has a weakness, it is a weakness not of execution but of ambition. He has not made Leventhal enough of an intellectual heavyweight to dispute adequately with Allbee (and with Dostoevsky behind him) the universality of the Christian model of the call to repentance.


Augie March, hero of the third novel in the collection, is born into the world around 1915, the year of Bellow’s own birth, into a Jewish family in a Pol-ish neighborhood of Chicago. Augie’s father makes no appearance, and his absence is barely commented on. His mother, a sad and shadowy figure, is nearly blind. He has two brothers, one of them mentally handicapped. The family subsists, somewhat fraudulently, on welfare and on the contributions of a boarder, Grandma Lausch (no relation), Russian born, a woman with cultural pretensions. Young Augie fetches books for her from the library. “How many times do I have to tell you if it doesn’t say roman I don’t want it?… Bozhe moy!

It is Grandma Lausch who in effect brings up the March boys. When her fondest hope is disappointed—that one of them will turn out to be a genius whose career she can then manage—she sets her sights on turning them into good clerks. She is dismayed when they grow up “common and rude.”

Like most boys in the neighborhood, Augie commits petty crimes. But his first organized heist leaves him so miserable that he drops out of the gang. Looking back on this childhood from the perspective of his mid-thirties, when he commits his story to paper, Augie wonders what effect it had on him to grow up not in “shepherd-Sicily” but in the midst of “deep city vexation.” He need not have worried. The strongest parts of the book of his life grow out of an intense reliving of his childhood, a childhood rich in spectacle and social experience, of a kind that few American children today enjoy.

As a young man in the Depression years, Augie continues to flirt with crime. From an expert he learns the art of stealing books, which he then sells to students at the University of Chicago. But his heart remains pure, more or less. Like many students, he is able to rationalize the theft of books as a benign variety of larceny.

There are also good influences on Augie, among them the Einhorns, who employ him to do “unspecified work of a mixed character.” The fatherly William Einhorn presents Augie with a slightly spoiled set of the Harvard Classics, which he keeps in a crate under his bed and dips into. Later he will act as a research assistant to a well-to-do amateur scholar. Thus, although he never goes to college, by one means or another his adventures in reading continue. And the reading he does is serious, even by University of Chicago standards: Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Weber, Tocqueville, Ranke, Burckhardt, to say nothing of the Greeks and Romans and the Church Fathers. Not one romancier on the list.

Augie’s elder brother Simon is a larger-than-life man of appetite. Though no philistine, Simon pinpoints Augie’s reading as the chief obstacle to his plan that Augie should marry a rich girl, go to law school at night, and become his partner in the coal business. In obedience to Simon, Augie for a while lives a double life, working in the coalyard by day, then dressing up and venturing forth to hobnob with the wealthy. During his time under Simon’s wing, Augie has a chance to taste the good life, and in particular the silky warmth of expensive hotels. “I didn’t want to be just borne down by the grandeur of it,” he writes.

But…finally they [the appurtenances of the hotel] are what becomes great—the multitude of baths with never-failing hot water, the enormous air-conditioning units and the elaborate machinery. No opposing greatness is allowed, and the disturbing person is the one who won’t serve by using or denies by not wishing to enjoy.

No opposing greatness is allowed.” Augie is clearsighted enough to see that whoever denies the power of the great American hotel simply marginalizes himself, no matter how many authorities from the Harvard Classics he can cite in his support. The Adventures of Augie March is not the summing-up of a life but a mid-term report. By the end of the report Augie is still not sure whether he is for or against the hotel, for or against the American dream. “But then how does anybody form a decision to be against and persist against? When does he choose and when is he chosen instead?”

The grandiose philosophizing and gaseous language signal the presence at Augie’s elbow of Theodore Dreiser, Bellow’s great predecessor as witness to Chicago life, and the strongest influence on Augie March. In such characters as Carrie Meeber (Sister Carrie) and Clyde Griffiths (An American Tragedy) Dreiser gave us uncomplicated, yearning Midwestern souls, neither good nor bad by nature, sucked into the orbit of big-city luxury—access to which requires no credentials, no ancient blood, no connections, no education, no password, nothing except money—and, in Clyde’s case, ready to kill to hold on to it.

Clyde is a drifter in the Dreiserian sense: he does not choose his fate, he drifts into it. Augie is in danger of being a drifter too: a personable young man whose lifestyle rich women are all too eager to subsidize. If a foundation in Grandma Lausch’s Russian novels and William Einhorn’s Harvard Classics avails naught against the power of the great hotel, what is there to distinguish Augie from any other semi-acquiescent consumer of luxury?

To this question The Adventures of Augie March offers only a Proustian reply: the young man who begins his story with the words “I am an American, Chicago born…and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way,” and ends it recalling how he wrote those words and comparing himself to Columbus—“Columbus too thought he was a flop…. Which didn’t prove there was no America”—is not a flop, even if he can excogitate no opposing power to the power of the hotel. Why? Because the achieved memoir itself constitutes such a power. Literature, Bellow believes, interprets the chaos of life, gives it meaning. In his readiness first to be swept along by the forces of modern life and then to re-engage with them through the medium of his “free-style” art, Augie, we are given to understand, is better equipped than he knows to oppose the seductions of the hotel, certainly better than the thinker cloistered in his study. In this respect Augie and the Joseph of Dangling Man are at one.

One element of Dreiser that Bellow does not take over is the deterministic machinery of fate. Clyde’s fate is somber, Augie’s is not. One or two careless slips and Clyde ends up in the electric chair; whereas from whatever perils befall him Augie emerges safe and sound.

Once it becomes clear that its hero is to lead a charmed life, Augie March begins to pay for its lack of dramatic structure and indeed of intellectual organization. The book becomes steadily less engaging as it proceeds. The scene-by-scene method of composition, each scene beginning with a tour de force of vivid word painting, begins to seem mechanical. The many pages devoted to Augie’s adventures in Mexico, occupied in a harebrained scheme to train an eagle to catch iguanas, add up to precious little, despite the resources of writing lavished on them. And Augie’s principal wartime escapade, torpedoed, trapped with a mad scientist in a lifeboat off the African coast, is simply comic-book stuff.

Which is not to say that Augie himself is an intellectual cipher. By conviction he is a philosophical idealist, even a radical idealist, to whom the world is a complex of interlocking ideas-of-the-world, millions of them, as many as there are human minds. We try to advance our own idea, each of us, by recruiting other people to play a role in it. Augie’s guiding rule, developed over the course of half a lifetime, is to resist being recruited into other people’s ideas. As for his own world model, this embodies a principle of simplification. The modern world, in his view, overburdens us with its bad infinity. “Too much of everything… too much history and culture…, too many details, too much news, too much example, too much influence…. Which who is supposed to interpret? Me?”

What form does simplifying, as a response to the challenge of his times, take in his own life? First, “become what I am”; second, buy some land, get married, settle down, teach school, do home carpentry, and learn to fix the car. As a friend comments, “I wish you luck.”

Dangling Man and The Victim had brought Bellow to the attention of literary circles, but it was Augie March, winner of the National Book Award for 1953, that made his name. By his own account he had a great time writing it, and for the first few hundred pages his creative excitement is infectious. The reader is exhilarated by the daring, high-speed, racy prose, by the casual ease with which one mot juste (“Karas, in a sharkskin, double-breasted suit and presenting a look of difficulties in shaving and combing terrifically outwitted”) after another is tossed off. Not since Mark Twain had an American writer handled the demotic with such verve. The book won its readers over with its variety, its restless energy, its impatience with the proprieties. Above all, it seemed to say a great Yes! to America.

Now, in retrospect, that Yes! can be seen to have come at a price. Augie March presents itself as, in some sense, the story of the coming to maturity of Bellow’s generation. But how adequate a representative of that generation is Augie? He hangs around with left-wing students, he reads Nietzsche and Marx, he works as a union organizer, he even considers a job as bodyguard to Trotsky in Mexico, yet the broader world picture barely registers on his consciousness. When war arrives, he is stunned. “Wham! The war broke out…. I went off my rocker, I hated the enemy, I couldn’t wait to go and fight.” At what point does his absorption in the here and now turn into idiocy? To what extent has Bellow had to dumb him down to make him into a positive hero?

The Library of America compendium comes with fifteen pages of notes by James Wood. These notes are particularly useful in the case of Augie March, where names and allusions are strewn like confetti. Wood nails down many of Augie’s glancing references, but there are plenty left over. Who was it, for example, who was set on a horse by his weeping sisters to go and study Greek in Bogotá? What ambassador from what country blew shellac through the water pipes of Lima to stop the rust?


Two ‘Augie March’ Mysteries April 28, 2011

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