Saturday, October 20, 2018

The 100 best novels No 73 / The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)

The 100 best novels 

No. 73

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)

In the long-running hunt to identify the great American novel, Saul Bellow’s picaresque third book frequently hits the mark. Robert McCrum explains why

rom the get-go – “I am an American, Chicago-born” – this turbo-charged masterpiece declares itself to be a heavyweight contender; and for some,The Adventures of Augie March is a knockout. Delmore Schwartz called it “a new kind of book”. Forget Huckleberry Finn (nodded at in the title); forget Gatsby; even forget Catcher in the Rye. This, says Martin Amis, one of many writers under Bellow’s spell, is “the Great American Novel. Search no further”. Well, maybe.
In retrospect, both JD Salinger (no 72 in this series) and Saul Bellow, who declared their originality at the beginning of the 1950s, stand head-and-shoulders above a rising generation of young contenders, from Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal to Kurt Vonnegut, and James Salter. No question: the great American postwar fiction boom starts here.
Augie March opens in 1920s Chicago during the Great Depression. Augie is “the by-blow of a travelling man”, and his adventures, loosely patterned after Bellow’s experience, are picaresque. This odyssey, in Bellow’s own words, traces “a widening spiral that begins in the parish, ghetto, slum and spreads into the greater world”, much as his own life did. Augie finds his feet through his engagement with a kind of America that had not been run to earth in fiction before. A sequence of brilliant set pieces narrates the footloose Augie’s upward drift. He becomes a butler, a shoe salesman, a paint-seller, a dog-groomer and a book thief, even a trades union shop steward.
He also revels, like Dickens, in some memorable characters – Augie’s Jewish mother; Einhorn, the fixer and surrogate father – and some seductive women: Sophie Geratis, Thea Fenchel (and her eagle, Caligula), and finally, Stella, whom Augie will marry. It’s a long book, some 500 pages. “It takes some of us a long time,” says Augie, “to find out what the price is of being in nature, and what the facts are about your tenure.” Quite so.
Augie enlists in the merchant marine during the second world war. When his ship, the Sam MacManus, is torpedoed, Augie experiences a long quasi-surreal episode on board a lifeboat in which he confronts matters of life and death in the company of Basteshaw, a weirdo. In the end, with persistent questions about identity and reality unresolved, Augie, the “travelling man”, declares himself to be “a sort of Columbus”, one who discovered a new world but who may himself be a flop. “Which,” as Bellow jokes in a brilliant closing line, “doesn’t prove there was no America”.

A Note on the Text

Saul Bellow published his first novel, Dangling Man in 1944, followed by The Victim (1947) – two works of fiction that reflect his marginal status as a Canadian Jew living in the US – but did not find his true voice as a novelist until he wroteThe Adventures of Augie March. Later, looking back, he recalled: “I was turned on like a fire hydrant in summer.” He had begun to write the novel in Paris, having won a Guggenheim fellowship. According to his first biographer, James Atlas, from whom he became estranged, Bellow found the spectacle of water flooding down a Parisian street to be the inspiration for the “cascade of prose” that gushed after his famous opening line: “I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that sombre city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way…”
He was, he said, revelling in “the relief of turning away from mandarin English and putting my own accents into the language. My earlier books had been straight and respectable. But in Augie March I wanted to invent a new sort of American sentence. Something like a fusion between colloquialism and elegance.” Philip Roth, who would sometimes struggle with Bellow’s influence, noted that this new style “combined literary complexity with conversational ease”. It was, like many literary innovations, from Mark Twain onwards, a high-low hybrid, and linked, in Roth’s words, “the idiom of the academy with the idiom of the streets (not all streets – certain streets)”.
The great, unfulfilled, hope of American fiction in the 1930s, Delmore Schwartz, put this explicitly: “For the first time in fiction America’s social mobility has been transformed into a spiritual energy which is not doomed to flight, renunciation, exile, denunciation, the agonised hyper-intelligence of Henry James, or the hysterical cheering of Walter Whitman.” Other critics, notably James Wood, have celebrated something equally universal – “the beauty of this writing, its music, its high lyricism, its firm but luxurious pleasure in language itself”.
The Adventures of Augie March encountered only one serious pre-publication critique (from Bellow’s British editor, John Lehmann, the celebrated founder ofPenguin New Writing). The upshot of this clash was Bellow’s determination to prevail. And he did. Augie March spoke directly to the new postwar generation, and would go on to influence writers as various as Cormac McCarthy, Martin Amis, Jonathan Safran Foer and Joseph Heller.
Bellow’s third novel was published by the Viking Press in 1953. In 1976 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, which identified this book as an important “novel and subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession interspersed with philosophic conversation, all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age…”

Three more from Saul Bellow

Henderson the Rain King (1959); Herzog (1964); Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970).

007 Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
014 Fair by William Thackeray (1848)  

Friday, October 19, 2018

The 100 best novels No 72 / The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger (1951)

The 100 best novels 

No. 72

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)

JD Salinger’s study of teenage rebellion remains one of the most controversial and best-loved American novels of the 20th century

JD Salinger in New York, November 1952. He was soon to move to Cornish, New Hampshire, where he became ever more reclusive. 
Photograph: San Diego Historical Society/Getty Images

JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield is to the 20th century what Huckleberry Finn is to the 19th: the unforgettably haunting voice of the adolescent at odds with a troubling world. Holden, the opposite of Huck, is an unhappy rich boy who has done a bunk from his posh secondary school, Pencey Prep, in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. He begins his first-person narrative in words that echo the famous opening of Twain’s novel (No 23 in this series), a frank disavowal of “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”.
Holden declares that he isn’t going to tell us “about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down”. Actually, that’s just what he does, writing (apparently in retrospect from California) about three days in December 1949 when, having been chastised by his school “for not applying myself”, he plays truant over a long and memorable weekend in Manhattan. Holden is tortured by the battle to come to terms with himself, with his little sister Phoebe, and their dead brother Allie. Like many adolescents, he feels that the world is an alien, hostile and comfortless place run by “phonies”.
One of the many remarkable things about Salinger’s portrayal of Holden Caulfield is that he seems to be fully inside the head of this troubled 16-year-old when the author himself was almost twice that age. Salinger had fought in Europe as an infantryman, after landing at Utah Beach on D-day, and later saw action at the Battle of the Bulge. Quite a lot of the downtown action in The Catcher in the Rye (a night out in a fancy hotel; a date with an old girlfriend; an encounter with a prostitute, and a mugging by her pimp) might almost as well describe a young soldier’s nightmare experience of R&R.
That’s just one reading. Salinger’s masterpiece (he published comparatively little after its appearance) has also influenced later writers with angry protagonists, from Martin Amis’s Charles Highway to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and many others besides. The Catcher in the Rye remains the crazy, and often very funny, distorting mirror in which generations of British and American teenagers will examine themselves. At the same time, it instructs them to give nothing away to “the phonies” who ruin all our lives. “Don’t ever tell anybody anything,” says Holden Caulfield, echoing Huck Finn again. “If you do, you start missing everybody.”

A note on the text (and its afterlife)

The Catcher in the Rye had some difficulty finding a publisher. One editor judged its protagonist simply “crazy”. The New Yorker, which had favoured Salinger’s stories, stalled with indecision. Eventually, it was published on 16 July 1951, by Little, Brown in Boston, with a famous, award-winning cover designed by E Michael Mitchell.
Salinger had been working towards his masterpiece, in sketches and drafts, for a decade and more. Some of his earliest short stories, written as a student, contain characters reminiscent of those in The Catcher in the Rye. Indeed, while still at Columbia, Salinger wrote a story, The Young Folks, that included a character described as a prototype of Sally Hayes (Holden’s old flame). In November 1941, Salinger also sold a story (Slight Rebellion Off Madison), featuring a disaffected teenager with “prewar jitters” named Holden Caulfield, to the New Yorker. After the outbreak of war, in which Salinger served as an infantryman, the piece was considered unpatriotic and did not get published until December 1946. Meanwhile, another story entitled I’m Crazy, containing material that was later used in The Catcher in the Rye, appeared in Collier’s magazine on 22 December 1945. Another long story about Holden Caulfield was accepted by the New Yorker for publication, although it never appeared.
The Catcher in the Rye continues to hold its place as the defining novel of teenage angst and alienation. My friend, the critic Adam Gopnik, says it is one of the “three perfect books” in American literature (the others are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, Nos 23 and 51 in this series). Gopnik says that “no book has ever captured a city better than The Catcher in the Rye captured New York in the 50s”. Book and author quickly acquired a mystique, partly abetted by Salinger, who cultivated his obscurity to the point of mania, becoming as secretive and self-obsessed as Holden Caulfield, in the words of the New York Times, “the Garbo of letters”. Apart from this novel, Salinger published just one collection of stories and two short books about the Glass family (see below), which some readers prefer.
However, between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye became more studied in the high schools and libraries of the United States than any other novel. By 1981, it was the second most taught book in the United States. Teenagers especially loved the book for what is taken as Holden Caulfield’s sponsorship of rebellion, combined with his promotion of drinking, smoking and sex. More seriously, there is the grimmer association of The Catcher in the Rye with the murder of John Lennon by Mark Chapman, and John Hinckley’s failed assassination of Ronald Reagan.
Salinger himself remained sequestered from the world in New Hampshire. “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing,” he said, some 20 years after he first fell silent.

Three more from JD Salinger

Nine Stories (1953); Franny and Zooey (1961); Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963).
The Catcher in the Rye is published by Penguin (£8.99).

007 Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
014 Fair by William Thackeray (1848)  

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Stephen Shames' best photograph / Robert Kennedy in his final days

 Robert F. Kennedy prepares to speak at DeFremery Park, Oakland, 1 June 1968. Photograph: Stephen Shames

Stephen Shames' best photograph: Robert Kennedy in his final days

‘This is Robert Kennedy at a rally days before he was assassinated. Notice how close I am. There wasn’t any security back then’

Interview by Dale Berning Sawa
Thu 18 Oct 2018 08.21 BST

took this shot of Robert Kennedy on 1 June 1968, four days before he was assassinated, at a rally in the run-up to the California Democratic primary.
You notice how close I am. Kennedy was standing on a platform in DeFremery Park, West Oakland. I jumped up and Jesse Unruh, who was speaker of the California State Assembly at the time, asked who I was. “A student,” I said and he let me stay up there. There wasn’t any security back then.
It was early afternoon. I took about 40 frames – a couple of rolls of film. Here, I think he may have been about to talk. He was looking at the crowd, nervously scratching his head.
Kennedy was a charismatic figure who could electrify a crowd. He was articulate and intelligent, which makes me almost want to cry if I compare him to whatshisname, whose name I won’t mention, now sitting in that office that Bobby was running for.
I was in my third year studying history and anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. As a freshman, my roommate convinced me to run for the student council. I got elected, but I hated it; I couldn’t stand the infighting. In 1966, I picked up my first camera, and I decided I wanted to be the artist of the revolution, not a leader.
I met Bobby Seale, the chairman of the Black Panther party, in 1967. He became a mentor to me. I started having my pictures published in the Black Panther paper and in the Berkeley Barb, the underground paper. If it hadn’t been for the Vietnam war, and the fact that I needed to keep my student deferment to not be drafted, I might very well have dropped out of school and just pursued photography. But I stayed and graduated.
My education, though, happened out on the streets. History was going on right in front of me. The campus was on strike for most of 1968 and 1969. There were anti-war marches and demonstrations to establish black studies. Everyone came through Berkeley. Name any important figure from the 1960s, I probably have a photograph of them. Tom Hayden, Martin Luther King, Stokely CarmichaelTim LearyCesar ChavezAngela DavisAbbie HoffmanJerry RubinJoan BaezJames BaldwinMike Bloomfield … At the time, though, we thought that was just life.

I don’t remember exactly where I was when Kennedy was shot. It was 5 June, the night of the primary. I was probably with friends watching TV to see who’d won. We were pretty sure the winner would become president. There was tremendous hope in the air. As members of the student movement, we were feeling optimistic and powerful. The very fact that Kennedy was running was a response to our protests against the war, which had led to Lyndon Johnson not seeking a second term. Kennedy had come out against the war. It wasn’t that we thought he was a revolutionary, but on issues such as civil rights and poverty, we knew he could make changes.
Mostly we knew he was a unifier. He was popular among white working-class voters, students and young people, African American and minority voters. We thought he could begin to heal the racial divides that had been tearing our country apart for ever.
Then he gets shot. And it’s like: “We’re never going to let this happen, this is America. You guys are naive.” Of course, this came right after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and not that long after JFK. That was a horrible period in the US. Progressive leaders were getting knocked off right and left. Kennedy being assassinated and Richard Nixon winning was the end of the hope.
There are clear parallels for me with what’s happening right now. Most 21 year olds are idealistic. Everyone grows up a patriot. You’re in school, you salute the flag, you read the sanitised history in your textbooks. Then there’s a polarising moment like this that shoves you into the real world.
In the US, beyond the election of Trump, which was a fluke, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the supreme court is one such moment. Young people here having their eyes opened. They are realising there’s a dark side to the United States. Their idealism is being shaved away.
 Power to the people: The Black Panthers photographs of Stephen Shames is at the Maison Folie Moulins in Lille until 6 January 2019.

Stephen Shames’ CV

Stephen Shames photographer
 Photograph: Heidi Gutman

Born: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1947.
Training: Self-taught. Mentored by San Francisco Associated Press Bureau and the Student Union Art Studio at the University of California at Berkeley. So I had art and photojournalist mentors.
Influences: Dorothea LangeW Eugene SmithJacob Riis, and many others
High point: Right now.
Low point: After the 1960s ended.