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The Adventures of Augie March
Saul Bellow
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1953

refered to by:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer

Portnoy's Complaint
Philip Roth

Allah is Not Obliged
Ahmadou Kourouma

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The Adventures of Augie March burst on the postwar literary scene with the exuberance of a great American author finding his true voice. The most freewheeling of Bellow's heroes, Augie paints a fresh, gritty, comic view of the American landscape and poses anew the perennial questions: How do you reconcile freedom and love? How do you simultaneously find liberty and home in a chaotic world?

Bellow was already a well-known author when he began writing his third novel, but his early works, Dangling Man and The Victim, are very different books, written in a constrained, naturalistic form that he ultimately rejected as too limiting. Their central characters, introspective intellectuals trapped in claustrophobic circumstances, are reminiscent of Kafka's narrators. 'I was afraid to let myself go,' Bellow says of these works. He discarded the drafts of two additional novels because he felt they, too, were too bleak. Tired of the 'solemnity of complaint,' the plaintive tone he heard in the novels of his contemporaries and in his own first books, Bellow turned to his boyhood home in Chicago for inspiration.

The change proved immensely liberating and gave rise to the colorful cast of Augie March: Grandma Lausch, Einhorn, Five Properties, Dingbat, and many others, all of whom were rooted in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Bellow's youth. Augie, a poor but spirited boy growing up in Chicago during the Depression, leaves his mother and disabled younger brother to find his way in the world. He enters a wild succession of occupations - dog groomer, saddle soap salesman, smuggler, shoplifter, boxing coach - guided by an equally fantastic array of mentors. Each of these 'recruiters' attempts to determine Augie's lot in life, but whenever he is at risk of being taken by a person or profession, he slips away to a new misadventure, equal parts joiner and escapist. Not until his affair with Thea Fenchel does Augie begin to realize that love and independence are irreconcilable.

In one sense Augie is a characteristic Bellow hero, a young man with an ironic sense of the world, wary of taking direct action but certain that he belongs to a greater destiny. Like Bellow's other central characters, he is intent on finding a 'good enough fate' eager to write his own part on life's stage yet stubbornly resistant to the limits imposed by any scripted role. But he is also dramatically different from the brooding thinkers of Bellow's early works. Augie is playful, subversive, adventurous, and ever optimistic.
He is a new American Adam, innocently poised for a future full of promise in a land full of possibilities. No profession, no lover, no commitment can capture him. He risks his job as a book thief because he can't resist the desire to keep and read the books he has stolen. Although this very adaptability, this lack of firm obligations makes him hard to characterize or define, his first-person narrative conveys a compelling vision of American freedom, a fresh spirit of irresistible charm.

While Augie's character remains protean, the world he inhabits is painted with magnificent detail and texture. Infused with the vivid, hyperbolic Yiddish of his childhood, Bellow's narrative revels in the melodramatic people and language of 1920s Chicago. As Bellow said:

'The most ordinary Yiddish conversation is full of the grandest historical, mythological, and religious allusions. The Creation, the fall, the flood, Egypt, Alexander, Titus, Napoleon, the Rothschilds, the Sages, and the Laws may get into the discussion of an egg, a clothes-line, or a pair of pants.' The language of Augie March is likewise rife with heroic allusions, casting a mythic glow on Augie's smallest move. Augie's thoughts about his job as a labor organizer invoke John the Baptist, Stonewall Jackson, the Tower of Babel, and Gandhi's India in quick succession. Yet the extravagant metaphors sound uncalculated, falling as easily on the ear as a street-corner conversation. 'The great pleasure of the book was that it came easily,' Bellow said in an interview. 'All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it. That's why the form is loose.'

Praise for Bellow's ebullient new style was enthusiastic, if not unanimous, and he won the National Book Award in 1953. Augie March was compared to Ulysses and described as 'a howlingly American book.' Supporters and critics alike recognized in him a powerful voice, a vision of America that could not be ignored. The book brought 'a new sense of laughter,' wrote Alfred Kazin. 'In Augie, Bellow . . . discovered himself equal to the excitement of the American experience, he shook himself all over and let himself go.'

Ultimately Augie's vision finds a tamer, more mature expression in Herzog, Bellow's masterwork. But Augie March holds a unique place for its revolutionary joy and exuberance. This rollicking tale of modern-day heroism is not only a portrait of determination and survival, but also a keenly observed drama of one man's 'refusal to lead a disappointed life.'



Henderson the Rain King
Henderson has come to Africa on a spiritual safari, a quest for 'the truth.' His feats of strength, his passion for life, and, most importantly, his inadvertant 'success' in bringing rain have made him a god-like figure among the tribes.

Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life
Gustave Flaubert, 1857
Hopeless romantic commits adultery, in vain attempt to escape her dull marriage and Norman bourgeoisie.

Notes from the Underground
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, 1866
Nihilist denounces the decay of the modern world.

The Trial
Franz Kafka, 1925P
Accused man goes in search of his judges and his crime.

Jean-Paul Sartre, 1938
Historian in the provinces is disgusted by the bourgeoisie.

The Outsider
Albert Camus, 1942
An indifferent French Algerian shoots a man and then refuses to oppose his sentence.

Sister Carrie
Theodore Dreiser, 1900
Working-class girl uses sex appeal to climb the ladder and plunges her lover in disgrace.

Gimpel the Fool, and other stories
Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1956
In 1952, Bellow translated the story 'Gimpel the Fool' from the original Yiddish into English.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, 1884-1885
Humorous, picaresque novel - in dialect - about a boy who travels down the Mississippi on a raft with a runaway slave.

James Joyce, 1922
The ultimate modernist 'urban novel', where streams of consciousness flow freely: a day in the life of a Jewish advertising salesman in Dublin, 1904.

His Collected Stories
Anton Chekhov, 1880-1885
There are many - we'll try and list the various available collections separately. Stay tuned!

An intellectual-in-crisis evaluates his past and writes frantic letters (which he never mails) about the state of the world.

The Professor of Desire
Philip Roth, 1977
Literature professor in crisis pursues his Jewish roots.

Dubin's Lives
Bernard Malamud, 1979
Young woman turns the life of a biographer upside-down.

Leon de Winter, 1995
New York rabbi with midlife crisis grapples with (his) morals.

Zeno's Conscience
Italo Svevo, 1923
Neurotic businessman analyzes his life and non-well-being.

Blue Mondays
Arnon Grunberg, 1994
Problematic love life of a Jewish teenager in Amsterdam.

Barney's Version
Mordecai Richler, 1997
Memoirs of the profligate (fictional) television producer Barney Panofsky.

The Fall
Albert Camus, 1956
Monologue in which a lawyer confronts his own hypocrisy.

Margaret Atwood, 1972
Feminist classic about the salutary influence of the Canadian wilderness.

Money: a suicide note
Martin Amis, 1984
John Self (!) descends into the Hell of consumerist New York.

Among the Dead
Michael Tolkin, 1992
Crime and punishment of a young widower.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers, 2000
Postmodern orphan's tale: Dave Egger's parents died from cancer within a month of each other when he was 21 and his brother, Christopher, was seven. They left the Chicago suburb where they had grown up and moved to San Francisco. This book tells the story of their life together.

The Corrections
Jonathan Franzen, 2001
A suburban family falls apart and is chastened.

Dangling Man
Take a man waiting - waiting between the two worlds of civilian life and the army, suspended between two identities - and you have a man who, perhaps for the first time in his life, is really free. However, freedom can be a noose around a man's neck.
The Adventures of Augie March
Fictional autobiography of a rumbustious adventurer and poker-player who sets off from his native Chicago in the spirit of a latter-day Columbus to rediscover the world - and more - especially, 20th century America.
Seize the Day
New York novel about a man with an impossible father and a wasted life.
Mr Sammler's Planet
Mr. Artur Sammler, Holocaust survivor, intellectual, and occasional lecturer at Columbia University in 1960s New York City, is a 'registrar of madness,' a refined and civilized being caught among people crazy with the promises of the future.
Humboldt's Gift
A chronicle of success and failure, this work is Bellow's tale of the writer's life in America. When Humboldt dies a failure in a seedy New York hotel, Charlie Citrine, coping with the tribulations of his own success, begins to realize the significance of his own life.
The friendship between a writer and a rich, flamboyant intellectual.
The Dean's December
Alternating between Chicago and Bucharest, Bellow's novel tells the story of a college dean who witnesses unrest and corruption at home and abroad, first within the political community of Chicago, then under the oppressive communist rule of Romania.
The Victim
Leventhal is a natural victim; a man uncertain of himself, never free from the nagging suspicion that the other guy may be right. So when he meets a down-at-heel stranger in the park one day and finds himself being accused of ruining the man's life, he half believes it.
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