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abril 2010

The Adventures of Augie March


By Saul Bellow, 1953
Penguin Books, New York
585 pp

“Tres cosas hay en la vida/Salud dinero y amor” writes Saul Bellow (390) when Augie March roams the streets of a little town in Mexico where he has arrived with a girl (Thea) and an eagle (Caligula); and hears through a loudspeaker attached to a gramophone the lyrics of that popular song that, in a certain way, summarizes the whole book.

Augie is the son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and the poster child of the Great Depression. He goes through life–and almost 600 pages–looking for health, money and love. We, the readers, follow him. Maybe because we fall easily for these kinds of characters: lads making all the stupid mistakes we all made.

His numerous family teaches Augie how to go through life. There is a bossy grandma, an almost blind mother, and an older brother: Simon. Simon, whom Augie loves and respects, believes that money and power are the only two dice that Americans need to play the game of life.

In a certain way, The Adventures of Augie March is more than anything else a novel about America. That is the reason why Bellow opens the first page with these words: “I am an American, Chicago born…” The March kids, Simon and Augie, have to learn first how to make money in order to make love later. Thus, a lot of the conflicts that Augie faces, come from an urgency to accommodate his own interests in life (books and adventures)with Simon’s interests (money and respectability.)

We follow Bellow, gladly, through the episodes. He is such a great writer. We go with Augie when he learns to ride a horse and to steal books. We follow Augie to the Navy and to the raft in front of the coasts of Africa where he discusses boredom with his fellow castaway. We discover with him, while he is making love to Stella, that in life “After much making with sense, it is senselessness that you submit to” (426).

However, at the end…What are we left with?: a summary of Augie’s tribulations. There is no big portrait of a generation. The Adventures of Augie March is the work of a genius but it is not a masterpiece. This is no more than the first big novel of a great writer in the process of learning to rein his horses (he was 38 when he wrote it). It is a comfortable trip, but not a memorable one.

Absalom, Absalom

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By William Faulkner, 1936
Vintage International, New York
313 pp.

Once upon a time there was a student at Harvard who felt guilty of belonging to a rotten society: the American south. In order to explain his guilt and to soothe it, this student tells his Yankee roommate the tragedy of a certain Thomas Sutpen: his efforts to fulfill a dream by concealing his black blood, hiding his criminal past, and protecting his daughter from an incestuous relationship. This could be one reading of Absalom, Absalom.

The book starts with young Quentin Compson’s first encounter with Rosa Coldfield. He was about to leave his little town to go to Harvard when he is summoned by Coldfield. She is an old woman confined to her house for half a century, who believes that by giving Quentin more details about the drama of the Sutpen’s clan, the whole tragedy of the South could be better explained to the world.

The narration develops in circles. Faulkner jumps in time and does sudden changes of voice. The sentences are long. The subjects and verbs are purposely muddled up. The same facts are told from different angles. This technique contributes to create a feeling of despair in the reader: The same kind of dismay that wraps up Compson when he narrates the story to his Harvard roommate.

At the end of the war the South of Absalom, Absalom has disappeared. The world of Coldfield has been vanquished and removed. Faulkner uses the tragedy of Sutpen, his clan, and his victims, to show us the dire dimensions of that collapse.

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