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The Adventures of Augie March
Many people remember where they were and what they were doing when they read The Adventures of Augie March--the way people remember where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor or when the lights went out during the great blackout. The style of the book is as free and breezy as the way the hero careens through America of the post-war period. Bellow was among the first to see how life--externally, but internally as well, in the guise of attitudes and values--had changed radically after the war. The writing of fiction took a sharp turn after Augie March, and no one could have written in the same way after 1953--about life, sex, money, love, work, or anything--even if Bellow had not gone on to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976.
But there were people at the table near theirs that soon were of more interest to me--two young girls, of beauty to put a stop to such thoughts or drive them to the dwindling point. There was a moment when I could have fallen for either one of them, and then everything bent to one side, toward the slenderer, slighter, younger one. I fell in love with her, and not in the way I had loved Hilda Novinson either, going like a satellite on the back of the streetcar or sticking around her father's tailor shop. This time I had a different kind of maniac energy and knew what sexual sting was. My expectations were greater; more corrupt too, maybe, owing to the influence of Mrs. Renling and her speaking always of lusts, no holds barred. So that I allowed suggestions in all veins to come to me. I never have learned to reproach myself for such things; and then my experience in curtailing them was limited. Why, I had accepted of Grandma Lausch's warning only the part about the danger of our blood and that, through Mama, we were susceptible to love; not the stigmatizing part that made us out the carriers of the germ of ruination. So I was dragged, entrained, over a barrel. And I had a special handicap, because of the way I presented myself--due to Mrs. Renling--as if God had not left out a single one of His gifts, and I was
advertising His liberality with me: good looks, excellent wardrobe, mighty fine manners, social ease, wittiness, handsome-devil smiles, neat dancing and address with women--all in the freshest gold-leaf. And the trouble was that I had what you might call forged credentials. It was my worry that Esther Fenchet would find this out.
I worked, heart-choked, for the grandest success in these limits, as an impostor. I spent hours getting myself up to be a living petition. By dumb concentration and notice-wooing struggle. The only way I could conceive, in my blood-loaded, picturesque amorousness. But, the way a hint of plague is given in the mild wind of flags and beauty of a harbor--a scene of safe, busy peace--I could perhaps, for all of my sane look of easy, normal circumstances, have passed the note of my thoughts in the air--on the beach, on the flower-cultured
lawn, in the big open of the white and gold dining room--and these thoughts were that I could submit to being hung in the girl's hair--of that order. I had heavy dreams about her lips, hands, breasts, legs, between legs. She could not stoop for a ball on the tennis court--I standing stiff in a foulard with brown horses on a green background that was ingeniously slipped through a hand carved wooden ring which Renling made popular that season in Evanston--I couldn't witness this, I say, without a push of love and worship in my bowels at the curve of her lips, and triumphant maiden shape behind, and soft, protected secret. Where, to be allowed with love, would be the endorsement of the world, that it was not the barren confusion distant dry fears hinted and whispered, but was necessary, justified, the justification proved by joy. That if she would have, to prove, kiss, use her hands on me, allow me the clay dust of the court from her legs, the mild sweat, her intimate dirt and sweat, deliver me from suffering falsehood--show that there wasn't anything false, injurious, or empty-hearted that couldn't be corrected!
But in the evening, when nothing had come of my effort, a scoreless day, I lay on the floor of my room, all dressed up to go to dinner, with doomed patience, eaten with hankering and thinking futilely what brilliant thing to do--some floral, comet, star action, casting off stupidity and clumsiness. But I had marked carefully all that I could about Esther, in order to study what could induce her to see herself with me, in my light. That is, up there in sublimity. Asking only that she join me, let me, ride and row in love with me, with her fresh, great female wonders and beauties which would increase by my joy that she was exactly as she was, with her elbows, her nipples at her sweater. I watched how she chased a little awkwardly on the tennis court and made to protect her breasts and closed in her knees when a fast ball came over the net. My study of
her didn't much support my hopes; which was why I lay on the floor with a desiring, sunburned face and lips open in thought. I realized that she knew she had great value, and that she was not subject to urgent-heartedness. In short, that Esther Fenchel was not of my persuasion and wouldn't much care to hear about her perspiration and little personal dirts.
And then he fetched up his girl--a big dark girl named Cissy Flexner. I had known her at school; she was from the neighborhood. Her father, before he went bust, had owned a dry goods store--overalls, laborers' canvas gloves and long
johns, galoshes, things like that; and he was a fleshy, diffident, pale, inside sort of man, back in his boxes. But she, although in a self-solicitous way, was a beautiful piece of tall work, on colossal but careful legs, hips forward; her mouth was big and would have been perfect if there hadn't been something self tasting in it, eyes with complicated lids but magnificent in their slow heaviness, an erotic development. So that she had to cast down these eyes a little to be decent with her endowment, that height of the bosom and form of hips and other genetic riches, smooth and soft, that may take the early person, the little girl, by surprise in their ampleness when they come on. She accused me somewhat of examining her too much, but could anybody help that? And it was excusable on the further score that she might become my sister-in-law, for Simon was powerfully in love. He already was husbandly toward her, and they hung on each other with fondling and kissing and intimacy, strolling by the steep colors of water and air, while I swam by myself in the lake a little distance away. Also on the sand, when Simon, after he had rubbed his fine shield of chest hair, dried her back, he kissed it, and it gave me a moment's ache in the roof of the mouth, as if I had got the warm odor and touch of skin myself. She had so much, gave out so much splendor. As stupendous quiff.
But personally I didn't care too much for her. Partly because I was gone on Esther. But also because what came across as her own, that is, apart from female brilliance, was slow. Maybe she herself was stupefied by what she had, her slaying weight. It must have pressed down on her thoughts like any great vitality in nature. Like the aims that live in the blood of grizzly or tiger, bearing down on the mind of such beasts with square weight, a manifestation of one thing carried out completely, to the very stripes and claws. But what about the privilege over that of being in the clasp of nature, and in on the mission of a species? The ingredient of thought was weaker in Cissy's mixture than the other elements. But she was a sly girl, soft though she seemed.
And as she lay stretched on the sand, and the hot oil of popcorn and sharpness of mustard came in puffs, with crackling, from the stands of Silver Beach, she kept answering Simon, whom I couldn't hear--he was on his side next to her in his red trunks--`Oh, fooey, no. What bushwah! Love, shmuv!' But her pleasure was high. `I'm so glad you brought me, dear. So clean. It's heavenly here.'
I didn't like Simon's struggle with her--for that was what it was--to convince her, sway her, work her around. Nearly everything he proposed she refused. `Let's not and say we did,' and similar denials. It led him into crudenesses I hadn't ever seen him in before, the way he laid himself out, dug, campaigned, swashed, flattered her, was gross. His tongue hung out with the heat of work and infatuation; and there was a bottom ground where he was angry, his anger rising straight into his face in two flaming centers, under his eyes, on either side of his nose. I understood this, as we were covering the same field of difficulty and struggle in front of the identical Troy. This that happened to us would have given Grandma Lausch the satisfaction of a prophetess--the spirit, anyhow, of her; the actual was covered up in the dust of the Home, in the band of finalists for whom there was the little guessing game of which would next be taken out of play. So I recorded this seeming success of prediction for her. And as for Simon, all the places where he and I had once been joined while still young brothers, before there were differences and distances between us--these places began to act up, feeling, attachment near again. The reattachment didn't actually take place, but I loved him nevertheless.
When he was on his feet with the flowered cloth of her beach dress on his shoulders, it made something crass but brave, his standing up raw and sunburned, by the pure streak of the water, as if he were being playful about the wearing of this girl's favor.
I took them to the evening steamer, for she refused to stay overnight, and was on deck with them through the long working out of sunset, down to the last blue, devoid of other lights; fall weight and furrows in the clouds set cityward, let go from the power of the sun to sink down on the moundings and pilings of the water, gray and powerful.
`Well, sport, we may be married in the next few months,' he said. `You envy me? I bet you do.'
And he covered her up with his hands and arms, his chin on her shoulder and kissing her on the neck. The flamboyant way he had of making love to her was curious to me--his leg advanced between her legs and his fingers spread on her face. She didn't refuse anything he did, although in words never agreed; she had no kindness in speaking. With her hands up the sleeves of her white coat, hugging out the chill, she stood by a davit. He was still in his shirt, owing to sunburn, but wore his panama, the breeze molding the brim around.
Reprinted from The Adventure of Augie March by Saul Bellow by permission of Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 1949, 1951, 1952, 1953 by Saul Bellow. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.