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Two ‘Augie March’ Mysteries

In response to:

Bellow's Gift from the May 27, 2004 issue

To the Editors:

May I belatedly answer the two questions asked by J.M. Coetzee in his essay “Bellow’s Gift” [NYR, May 27, 2004]? Mr. Coetzee asked about two allusions in The Adventures of Augie March: “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?”

The answer to the first question seems to be the narrator of Jorge Isaacs’s novel María (1867; English translation, 1890), who in the opening paragraphs is sent off by his weeping mother and sister to study in Bogotá. Bellow’s memory seems to have added the detail that he studied Greek.

The answer to the second question is Irving Florman, United States ambassador to Bolivia from 1949 to 1951. Florman, who was also an inventor and songwriter, recommended that the city of La Paz (not Lima) should pump shellac through its water mains in order to seal off the rust that had created holes large enough to sully the water supply with dirt from the surrounding soil.

Edward Mendelson
Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities
Columbia University
New York City

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