The Books: Twenty-Eight Artist and Two Saints, ‘Finding Augie March’, by Joan Acocella

On the essays shelf:

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays by Joan Acocella.

I have some huge gaps in my reading history – and one of them is mid-late 20th century American authors. I have read Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, Flannery O’Connor. But I have not read Philip Roth, I have not read John Updike (although maybe I read Witches of Eastwick, can’t remember), I have not read Thomas Pynchon, I have not read Saul Bellow. I am not particularly proud of this, it’s just one of those gaps that I become aware of from time to time. Like when I realized, “Why have I not read ANY Evelyn Waugh? This must be rectified.” I’m pretty good with the 19th century writers, and excellent with the modernists, and early 20th century people. I pick up the trail in the 80s and 90s. I love John Irving. I’ve read Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy. I don’t enjoy trendy fiction, so I tend to stay away from flavors-of-the-month unless they come highly recommended from a specific source (I don’t take book recs from just anyone.) You know, life is not particularly long and I am a giant and voracious reader, but even I miss stuff. Besides, I get on tangents that sometimes take up years of my life. For one entire year I read everything I could get my hands on about Central Asia. This year, I have read 10 books about Elvis (maybe more). So my ongoing Must-Read-Someday list gets put off. I have to go which way the wind takes me. However: Philip Roth haunts me. Saul Bellow haunts me. My brother loves Thomas Pynchon and I suppose I should give it a go, although Pynchon doesn’t quite haunt me in the same way. I have a feeling I will LOVE Saul Bellow. That’s the problem. I wish there were two or three of me. I could sic my second self on the novels of Saul Bellow, while my first self loses herself in every Elvis memoir ever written. But such is the life of a big reader.

Saul Bellow is so omnipresent in our culture that he is used as a reference point constantly, which shows his pioneering style and accomplishments (another reason to freakin’ read the guy already). I have assimilated him and what he is about through osmosis, but that is not enough. It would be like hearing the word “Joycean” thrown around every other day (as you do), and knowing what it means – even if you haven’t read a word of James Joyce. Sheila not down with that! I like to know things first-hand.

Joan Acocella’s essay on Saul Bellow just exacerbates the issue. Published in The New Yorker in 2003, it heralds the publication of the Library of America’s edition of the early novels of Saul Bellow (only the second time that the Library of America chose a living author to highlight). What is interesting and great about Acocella’s piece is that she analyzes Bellow’s development through his first two novels (The Dangling Man and The Victim), pointing out their shortcomings and their strengths, theorizing that he was just gathering his forces, casting out his net for his voice, his “way in”, until finally he hit paydirt with The Adventures of Augie March. Acocella walks us through that process (and you know I’m all about process). What happens when a writer (seemingly) suddenly finds himself? What happens when he finds the confidence to let it all hang out? AND … what is it about Saul Bellow’s work that is so important, so ground-breaking, so essential to understanding the American experience?

I’ll get to Bellow one day. I can’t have him haunting me forever.

Here is an excerpt.

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays, ‘Finding Augie March’, by Joan Acocella

[Bellow], too, was a second-generation Jew, and he was entering a field, the English-language novel, in which Jews were felt to have no place. (When, after graduating from Northwestern, in 1937, he was thinking of doing graduate study in English, the chairman of the department said to him what Allbee says to Harkavy: “You weren’t born to it.” Do something else.) Today, Philip Roth can fill a novel with Newark Jews and posit their generational history as the story of America – indeed, call the book American Pastoral – and we don’t blink an eye. But such a situation was unforeseen in the 1940s. In that context, it was courageous of Bellow, who longed to enter the big leagues, to make anti-Semitism the subject of his second novel, but the only way he could see to do it was by imitating European models: Dostoevsky (the interiority, the Devil, the double), Flaubert (the factuality, the polished sentences). When he was older, he described both The Victim and The Dangling Man as “victim literature”, by which he meant that he was victimized, by his insecurities, as a Jewish nobody from Chicago: “I was restrained, controlled, demonstrating that I could write ‘good’.”

But he didn’t know that in 1947. All he knew was that he was vaguely dissatisfied with The Victim, and crushed by its poor sales. Then his luck changed. Viking, a prestigious firm, came after him, and offered him a flattering three-thousand-dollar advance on his next novel. He also won a Guggenheim fellowship, after having been turned down twice. He and his wife decided to spend the fellowship year in Europe. In 1948, they moved to France, where Bellow applied himself to a new book, called The Crab and the Butterfly. Only one chapter of that novel survives. According to James Atlas’s biography of Bellow, it is a bleak narrative about two men talking to each other from adjacent beds in a Chicago hospital. Bellow was soon having trouble with it. Furthermore, he hated Paris. The weather was gray; the French were snotty. “I was terribly depressed,” he said.

Then, as he recalled, he experienced an epiphany: “I had a room in Paris where I was working, and one day as I was going there after breakfast, a bright spring morning, I saw water trickling down the street and sparkling.” The shining stream, he said, suggested to him the form of a new novel. Perhaps so, but a few other circumstances should be taken into account. This was the time, the postwar years, when American art came into its home country. Not just Bellow but many others walked out from under the shadow of the European masters and invented new, personal styles. Bellow was part of a Zeitgeist, and the stay in Europe encouraged his enlistment. The more he hated France, the more he loved America, and wanted to make an art that was like America – big and fresh and loud.

Furthermore, he had received a great deal of encouragement. When he was starting out, Bellow was friendly with New York’s intellectual community, both the Partisan Review crowd and a more louche gang in Greenwich Village. These people, many of whom were Jewish, and pained at the exclusion of Jews from America’s mainstream intellectual life, were very impressed by Bellow – by his brio, his erudition, his ambition, his seeming confidence. “He examined Hemingway’s style like a surgeon pondering another surgeon’s stitches,” Alfred Kazin remembered. The New York crowd stumped for him. When I read what Elizabeth Hardwick wrote about The Victim in Partisan Review – “It would be hard to think of any young writer who has a better chance than Bellow to become the redeeming novelist of the period” – it seems to me that she is hoping as much as describing. Manhattan’s young literati desperately wanted a redeeming novelist to rise from their ranks, and they all but begged Bellow to take the job.

Finally, simply, the time had come. For years, Bellow had been old; now, in his thirties, he could be young. He laid The Crab and the Butterfly aside and started a new novel, The Adventures of Augie March. He wrote the first half very quickly, revising little. “The book just came to me,” he said. “All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it.”

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4 Responses to The Books: Twenty-Eight Artist and Two Saints, ‘Finding Augie March’, by Joan Acocella

  1. seang says:

    I sat in a class with Bellow at BU around 2002. He was wearing purple socks. He’s a Dandy! Love your blog, Sean

  2. seang says:

    Bellow was teaching a Lit. Appreciation class with James Wood for a semester. I was just a “guest” sitting in for that one day. And, get this—he was talking about Ulysses and Dubliners on that day–Can you believe that?!

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