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on 5 April 2015
Can there even be a Great American Novel? Looking in from the outside, I'd argue otherwise. There are too many American experiences, and such a diversity of experiences across a nation the size and population of Europe that arguing a single novel can articulate them is futile. This is borne out by the way in which novels as different as The Great Gatsby, The Sound and The Fury, The Adventures of Augie March and Infinite Jest are all trumpeted as Great American novels. Given that these books have nothing in common given a common language and the nationality of their authors, perhaps it makes more sense to speak of Great Novels of a particular American experience - in which case The Adventures of Augie March is a triumph, articulating the interwar American experience of the working class to such a degree as to make it intelligible and resonant across the ages, long after the historical events informing the life and times of the aimless but highly intelligent Augie March have receded into history.Whilst this mightn't be the place to start with Bellow (mostly due to length, the much shorter Seize The Day provides a better introduction to his body of work), it's a great novel and the best of his I've read. All varieties of life are contained here, understood in joy,tragedy and madness through the eyes of Augie March, a deceptively intelligent everyman scattered by the winds of change.

There are strong parallels between Bellow's life and March's - in some ways Bellow uses the novel as a vehicle to understand the kind of man he'd have been were it not for his art, exploring the tensions created by an inability to specialize or focus when all around him manage to, much as Bellow went from a variety of odd jobs to joining the military to becoming an academic before choosing to pursue literature properly, much as March does, albeit in the manner of a Dedalus whose Bloom never truly arrives (apologies for the nerdishness). I feel that this is a book that it's worth buying a copy of, as I started reading a library copy of this before. Whilst it seemed great (if nothing else, Bellow is a good storyteller and witty with it). I didn't manage to finish it on time. I really enjoyed the chance to reread the chapters I had read, and to appreciate how strong Bellow's prose is: Martin Amis' claim that "his sentences seem to weigh more than anyone else" has some truth to it. Bellow manages to be incredibly articulate and learned without ever being ostentatious- every sentence feels necessary. Whilst I still suggest reading Seize The Day first so as to get a feel for Bellow and his themes, this book is outstanding and deserves the praise it receives.

The Great American Novel? No, but it's the great novel of a certain American experience, much as Updike's Rabbit saga is of the WASP experience Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby of the aristocracy and David Foster Wallace's work is of the MTV/Facebook generations.
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on 15 June 2001
In the Adventures of Augie March Saul Bellow gives us an insight into the reality of the life of the all american kid. March is a jewish kid growing up on the wrong side of the tracks during depression time Chicago. He strives to do his best by all around him whilst also trying to get a grip on the american dream. The two tier american society of the very rich and the also rans is exposed for possibly the first time in 20th century literatue. March tries to work both within the system and from without, with varying degrees of success. He flirts with education, crime, marriage and travel, all with startling results. The Adventures of Augie March is as accuarte a portrayal of the difficulties of growing up underprivliged in the US today as it was sixty years ago. An excellent read and a brilliant introduction to the fine prose of Bellow.
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I've finally finished it! And though it's a very dense read (not one to take to bed; you need to be 'on the ball' to cope with Bellow's prose), it's also extremely enjoyable.
The storyline follows our eponymous 'hero' from humble origins in Depression era Chicago, child of a simple-minded mother and unknown father, through a succession of jobs and relationships. From lowly work to getting 'taken up' by wealthier individuals, Augie's narrative includes wonderful, often very humorous, descriptions; interposed with his story are conversations on life which he has with his various acquaintances.
I don't pretend to have picked up on all the philosophical musings, but there's a lot of powerfully expressed truths in those I did. For example, on human dissembling:
"Even in a few minutes' conversation, do you realise how many times what you feel is converted before it comes out as what you say? Somebody tells you A. Your response is B. B you can't say, so you transform it, you put it through the coils of your breast. From DC to AC, increased four hundred volts, filtered. So instead of B, there comes out gamma sub one....Mind you, I'm a great admirer of our species. I stand in awe of the genius of the race. But a large part of this genius is devoted to lying and seeming what you are not."
A challenging book (536 p) but one I'm glad I read.
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on 2 December 2010
At the old age of 47 having read my way through most 20th century famous authors, I had, because of many misconceptions avoided Bellow. Then I downloaded the audio version of Augie March on my ipod and I was transfixed. There is no way to describe accurately the joy this writing brings to the heart. It is a long time since I finished a book and immediately wanted to read it again but that is just what happened here. I urge you to read this masterpiece. You won't regret it.
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on 23 March 2001
I had never read any Bellow before I opened this book, but it blew me away, and I can't wait to read more. It is the story of Augie March, a poor kid brought up by his overbearing grandmother and downtrodden mother in 1930s Chicago. As he grows into maturity, he starts to make ends meet on the very edge of the law, doing odd jobs, working for a series of well-meaning but self-important grandees who try to make him into a big success. But Augie has "opposition", and though he is smart and handsome, finds his ambitions unsatisfied by the big bucks that his brother begins to amass. Again and again he rejects other people's plans to make something of him, until he falls wildly in love with the beautiful, rich and free-spirited Thea, who carries him off to Mexico to hunt iguanas with an eagle. Bellow's language is sometimes difficult, but always exuberant and expansive, full of detailed description and colour, bursting with throwaway ideas. The novel has an abundance of hilarious minor characters, who appear and reappear as Augie muddles his way through his Bohemian and vaguely Bolshevik circles, making a buck here and there, more or less legally, and observing everything with a wry sense of humour, dauntless optimism and quiet integrity. I have not enjoyed a novel this much for a long time. It starts slowly, building up characters gradually, but pretty soon it is unput-downable. The ending is a bit weak, like so many of these rites-of-passage novels, and it becomes a bit glib and conceptual. But the first 350 pages represent some of the finest twentieth-century writing in English that I have read. It is a novel about the limits of the soul and the growth of a mind, about the trade-offs between adventure and pain, happiness and security, and the search for fulfilment in a time of global depression, when the world was doing everything it could to dampen the human spirit.
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on 24 July 2015
I suggested this for my book club. We all thought it was a good choice as no one had read any Saul Bellow and all agreed this was a gap which should be rectified. Not one person completed the book. It is interesting to note that when Mr Bellow was asked what this book was about he replied "about 200 pages too long"
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on 10 March 2014
I recently started making my way through Time Magazine's top 500 books and came upon this one as the first that I hadn't already read. I wish I could say I enjoyed it but I find it frustrating to read. Even the smallest interactions and laboriously described and the plot is often halted by reflections on the relationships between the characters, which I find tedious. I can read a book in a couple of hours and have had this one for months as I can't bear to put myself through reading any more. I shall be selling my copy and trying to find something more contemporary. I'm sure the author has been hugely influential but I'm not impressed.
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on 1 July 2009
The style of this novel was quite off-putting after reading more elegant and accomplished later works such as Ravelstein and Humboldt's gift. The usual old attempts to get 'behind' or create new types of language; being deliberately contradictory by describing things as 'black', not in terms of colour but by some alternative definition - these are things I find difficult to get past.
Ultimately, though, as with truly great writers, Bellow's idiosyncratic and truly unique characters and organic narrative flow rise this book above those early attempts at literary over-originality and, while not as good as Humboldt's Gift, this is a truly fascinating story, setting up many of Bellow's later pre-occupations e.g. the pre-occupation with Chicago underworld life; the narrator's fascination with powerful older men.
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Never having previously read anything by Bellow, I was directed to this by one of those "books you've probably never read but really should" lists in a newspaper. The eponymous character describes his life from its origins in depression-era Chicago, growing up with his mother, two brothers, and no father (hence his description of himself on p125, which I've used for the title of this review). On his way to (more or less) maturity, he meets a multitude of people who affect him in a way that gives the impression that (his) life is chaotic, with no plan or direction. This way in which things happen to him is one of the characteristics of a so-called picaresque novel (another label which has been applied to this book is Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel), but the effects aren't all in one direction: Augie does his best to make sense of them, and to live with them as he struggles to understand a world that can appear cold and alien, and control his own destiny.

To list all the people he meets, or things he does, or places he goes would be tiresome, but they give the tale a breadth and depth to qualify it as one of the contenders for the title of Great American Novel (although even that vast country isn't enough to contain all the action, which shifts down to Mexico and across to Europe). It's also noteworthy for the sheer quality of the writing, depiction of characters and storytelling: for example, a wealthy man has a wife who "is stupid as her own feet" [p137], the "most splendid human act" Augie would ever see "went around [his] soul like fine ribbon" [p339] and a distrusted associate has "blue whiskyish eyes in his tight-packed heavy face with its colour of bad good-health" [p524]. This book is packed with jewels such as these, which makes it a delightful reading experience that I strongly recommend.

[PS: I've never been so conscious of such a thing before, or felt the need to comment on it, but the typeface of my printing of this book [Penguin Modern Classics, 2001] appears damaged in places, which, for a paperback having a face value of £12, is surprising, and not concomitant with the high quality of the content].
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on 5 June 2017
I found it literally unreadable. The author is far more concerned with his own cleverness than with any communication with the reader. Gigantic indigestible walls of verbiage, either unbroken by paragraphs, or with paragraph breaks in arbitrary places. Rambling, parenthesis-riddled sentences that spiral off up their own backsides.

I bailed after a short while, I have to confess, something I rarely do. Some books - yes, you have to persevere with, and you are rewarded. A Confederacy Of Dunces comes to mind. But this one - sorry! Life's too short.

No clarity, discipline or, frankly, fun. Horrible.
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