How Saul Bellow Broke Through a Crippling Writer’s Block
In 1949, Saul Bellow, thirty-three years old, with two books under his belt (Dangling Man and The Victim), was living in Paris on a Guggenheim fellowship, feeling pressured to produce a third book in line with the modernist minimalism that had ensured the critical success of the first two, and soon realized that he was harnessed to a novel for which he had no heart: the writing felt cramped, the vision received, the connection between himself and his material severely strained. The situation made his face ache. Every morning he went off to work at his rented studio as though he were going to the dentist. But one day, the sight of an unremarkable image changed everything. The Paris streets were flushed daily by open hydrants that allowed water to run along the curb, and on this particular morning Bellow noticed a dazzle of sunlight on the water that accentuated its flow. His spirits lifted, and he was made restless rather than depressed. Suddenly there opened up before him the memory of a kid from his boyhood who used to yell out, “I got a scheme!” when they were playing checkers; then he recalled this kid’s vividly abnormal family; and then the Chicago streets from which they had all sprung up like weeds pushing through concrete. An urge to describe that long-ago life overcame him.
Instantly, the gloom disappeared, the unwanted novel got put aside, and Bellow began to write “in a spirit of reunion with the kid who had shouted, ‘I got a scheme!’” Soon enough that kid got named Augie March, and around him an astonishing sentence structure began to form, one that instead of shaping the character seemed to release the character; and not just release him, but determine the course his adventures would take. Language and subject couldn’t chase each other fast enough. Bellow marveled at what was happening. It was as though these stories, these people, this word order had been locked up inside him for a lifetime. As he said years later of a character in Augie,“You might put it that he had been in hock for years; for decades. He and I together had been waiting for an appropriate language. By that language and only that language could he be redeemed.”
For the first time in his working life, Bellow felt he owned his writing. With those remembered rhythms in his ear, that syntax and vocabulary on his tongue—an amalgam of immigrant speech, tabloid reporting, and being told in school that “George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were your Presidents”—he could take a deep breath and exhale the poetic, ragged, semicriminal world full of hungry expectation from which he had emerged. This language that came out of him now was not, strictly speaking, English; it was American—his American—a language, he said, laughing, that “was mine to do with as I wished.”
The Adventures ofAugie March injected a sense of live movement into an atmosphere pervaded by the stagnancy of spirit—“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”—that had allowed Western literature to now live with itself. Alienation of the self was all well and good, Bellow’s intensely new American voice called out, but the fact remained that we were alive—alive and still yearning. If anyone could make clear the bottomlessness of human yearning, it was Augie March. Here he was, a first-class hunger artist, pushing his way out of a garishly populated disenfranchisement that was, in its own way, a war zone, to claim his right to “not lead a disappointed life.” In 1953 that thought was received, both in Europe and in the States, as a welcome aggression against the veneration of spiritual exhaustion that characterized serious literature of the moment. The aggression lay in the daring of the prose—the unexpected vocabulary, the liberty-taking sentences, the mongrel nature of its highbrow-lowbrow narration—in service, ultimately, to what felt like a piece of rescued wisdom about the meaning (that is, the origins) of a disappointed life.
From the get-go, Augie tells us that he’s never seen himself as anything other than a blank slate upon which “life” would write a story. “All the influences were lined up waiting for me,” he says. “I was born, and there they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself.” It hasn’t occurred to him until now that his headlong plunge toward raw experience might prove paradoxically fateful, in that he was not only being made by the world but was himself doing quite a bit of the making. In calculating the cost of what has been lost, injured, or cast aside as he has moved frantically through his on-the-run life, Augie at last takes into account his own emotional unsteadiness. He has not, after all, fled the ghetto in one piece; there’s a leak in his appetite-filled heart. An inability to love reliably has made him culpable in the accumulation of sorrow laced inescapably through not only his destiny but, we come to feel along with him, that of all humanity. Never again would a character like Augie March hold the page in a Bellow novel, speculating with more gravity than irony, more tenderness than grievance, on the terrible dynamic in human affairs that implicates us all.
For Bellow, the writing of Augie March was pure joy. It was the joy that made his protagonist entranced by the surge of life within and around him; one proposition in the book never in question is that to live in pursuit of experience, whatever the consequence, is of irreducible value. Vivian Gornick, Harper’s Magazine.
James Atlas: He liked to refer to his first books as his M.A. and his Ph.D. To my mind that’s an underestimation, a comic underestimation of those books which remind me of Dostoevski. They in themselves are not dutiful and earnest, but they do have a kind of moral patina about them. They’re narrow and confined, and the writing is spare and unadorned. With Augie, he has this fantastic breakout where, as he liked to describe it, he was walking down a street in Paris one day and he saw water running down along the curb– you know, how when they wash the streets there the water courses in rivulets through the gutters–and maybe he was just being fanciful and mythifying his breakthrough, but said when he saw that rivulet he realized that was his style, that he wanted freedom. He wanted freedom to write in his own voice which was full of these jazzy rhythms and borrowed as much from Swift and Fielding as from the more narrow constraints of the nineteenth century novels of, say, Dostoevski’s The Dead. He really wanted to break out and write in his own way, and when he realized that he didn’t have to be literary, as it were, when whatever he decided was literary was literary, that’s when he found his freedom. So, the book is great. He said later on that is was too sprawling, too exuberant, but that’s part of its charm.