By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

11. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 758-796

Chapter XV

They are off on their Mexican adventure, but Augie at least realizes what an odd couple they are.
We had all the luck in love we could ask, and it was maybe improved by the foreignness we found in each other, for in some ways Danaë or Flora the Belle Romaine couldn't have been stranger to me, while only God can guess what sort of oddity out of barbarous Chicago I was to her. But these differences I think reduced the weight of precious personality and the veteran burden that familiarity is always a part of.
On the other hand, he admits, "Thea and I had our troubles. She kept me uncertain, as I did her." Part of his uncertainty stems from the fact that he can't believe that her husband is divorcing her because of that fling with the naval cadet. "I figured in those high-up social circles a falling-off here and there was not of such importance." She admits that it's not the only reason for the breakup, but doesn't elaborate. She just assures him that "we don't have to think about that. Because nothing like you has ever happened to me." Still, Augie is not without his doubts: "Sometimes I reckoned that mere jealousy of her sister had interested her in me in the first place."

And then "the gilded and dallying part of the excursion ended in Texarkana," when they pick up the eagle. It turns out to be "as big as the one in Chicago," to Augie's dismay. Thea loves it, but acknowledges that it "looks full grown and must weigh twelve pounds." Augie guesses more like thirty, but he defers to her judgment. He doesn't trust the man who's selling him, however: "I hadn't sered around Einhorn's poolroom or had Grandma Lausch's upbringing for nothing, and I recognized him for a crooked old bastard and prick in his heart." The eagle lashes out at them when they approach it, and Augie winds up with lacerations in his arm.

Somehow they manage to get the eagle loaded into their station wagon. "I hated him beyond measure, at the start. In the night we had to be up because of him, and it was an interference with love." But for Thea, "He was right away her absorption and idée fixe, almost child, and he made her out of breath." They ride on through the heat of Texas, and they begin the training.
But before the eagle would take the hood he had to be thoroughly mastered, and I carried him on my arm some forty hours without sleep. He wouldn't drop off, and Thea kept me awake. This was in Nuevo Laredo, just over the border.
When they they him out of the station wagon, a crowd gathers, and the children scream out, "El águilda, el águila!" To Augie it sounds like "Caligula," which becomes the eagle's name.

Augie persists in the training, and gets his hand slashed several times. Caligula has to be carried everywhere, and the crowds make him nervous. They even try taking him into a movie theater, but the sound there makes him worse. But finally he submits to having the hood put on him, which "made him more docile. Henceforth he rode either my fist or Thea's and took the hood without using his beak on us."
Left alone all night, he was vicious in the morning, and Thea was by now so wrapped up in his career that for the time very few considerations took precedence. Because she was making history.... She kept reminding me how few people since the Middle Ages had manned eagles. I agreed it was terrific and admired her without limit; I thanked God I was even her supernumerary or assistant.
The bird makes them travel slowly, and they spend some time teaching him to fly after a lure -- a piece of meat tied to a horseshoe on the end of a rawhide line.

They travel on southward, and Augie becomes impressed with the depth of the sky over Mexico. "I thought it held back an element too strong for life, and that the flamy brilliance of blue stood off this menace and sometimes, like a sheath of silk membrane, showed the weight it held in sags." He admired Thea's "barbarous" look, and when she holds out her arm to receive the returning eagle, "I thought it was the most splendid human act I would ever see."

In Mexico City Thea has to see a representative for her husband's lawyer, and they stay a while in a cheap hotel that by night is "a house of assignation" -- "The closets were full of douche pans, the beds were heavily prepared with rubber under the sheets, which was an annoyance." But during the day they have the place to themselves, except for the maids. Augie is finding the experience eye-opening: "I thought the world was really much greater than I had ever fancied. I said to Thea, 'I don't actually know much, I begin to see.'" She asks, "how much are you obliged to know?" But he assures her there is a great deal.

As the training of Caligula continues, Augie begins to grow more attached to him: "He liked to be stroked with a feather. He became pretty tame, but all the same my heart picked up a few beats when we hooded him or struck the hood." They have the hotel maids line up and chatter with one another to get him used to human beings, which seems to work. Thea grows impatient to leave, so they can begin to train him hunt, and to accustom him to the presence of horses, which will be needed in the mountainous country where the giant iguanas are found, but she has to wait until she can see the lawyer.

"I assumed we'd get married when the divorce came through."

Chapter XVI

The chapter begins, unusually, with an epigraph from Antony and Cleopatra:
                                   And strange it is
That nature must compel us to lament
Our most persisted deeds.
They arrive at the house in Acatla, which as Augie reflects, he wasn't sure whether it belonged to Thea or to Smitty. "I thought I'd find out in due time." It is called "Casa Descuitada" -- Carefree House. They use the toilet as a mews for Caligula, perching him "on the waterbox or cistern where the sound of trickling seemed to please him. The bird fascinates the houseboy, Jacinto, though it terrifies his mother, who is the cook.

Acatla is not isolated. In fact, it has begun to attract a contingent of European exiles, "people who once went to Biarritz and San Remo but not wanted to be out of the way of politics." There is also a large American colony. Many of them congregate at the Carlos Quinto, a hotel next door managed by an Italian named da Fiori.

The time has come to train Caligula to catch lizards, and Jacinto is helpful in catching small ones for the training. Augie likes the lizards, which were easy to tame and actually grew affectionate after a while. "I wished we could leave them alone, thinking of that thunderous animal whose weight was on the toilet cistern, with his ripping feet and beak. But Thea mocks his sentimentality.
"Oh, you screwball! You get human affection mixed up with everything, like a savage. Keep your silly feelings to yourself. Those lizards don't want them, and if they felt the way you do they wouldn't be lizards -- they'd be too slow, and pretty soon they'd be extinct." 
She isn't particularly sentimental where Augie is concerned, either. "Unlike Lucy Magnus, she never called me husband, or by any domestic term." He likens her to Mimi in her lack of conventional attitudes toward marriage.

The small lizards are easy prey for Caligula, and Augie dislikes seeing them eviscerated by the eagle. And then Jacinto brings them a larger lizard, which turns on the attacking bird and opens its mouth, showing "a tissue of rage to the big beast over it, then snapped its jaws and hung from the bird's thigh, curved with the force of its attack and bite." Caligula is startled, and when he has torn the lizard from his leg he hops away. "I couldn't show it, but it did my heart good to see Caligula offended." Thea, however, is enraged at the eagle: "Oh, the dirty bastard! We can't let him run away from a little bit of an animal like that. What'll we do? Augie, don't you grin about it." Augie claims the sun is in his eyes, making him squint. Even after the dead lizard has been brought to him to eat, Caligula refuses it, angering Thea further: "Oh, that damned crow! Get him out of my sight!" She also seems to blame Augie for the bird's lack of ferocity.

Augie begins to get acquainted with the village's European and American exiles, who are representatives of "Greenwich Village, or Montparnasse, or the equivalent from a dozen countries. There is a woman named Nettie Kilgore, a pair of writers from New York named Wiley Moulton and Iggy Blaikie, a man named Jepson who was the grandson of an African explorer as well as "the second husband of Iggy's first wife." There is also a young Mexican, Talavera, a "handsome brown strong young chap" who is the only one who realizes how capable Thea is of handling an eagle -- everyone else assumes Augie is the bird's master.

Thea hopes to get Moulton to help her with the articles she plans to write about training and hunting with Caligula, but he says he has all the work he can handle with his assignments for a pulp magazine published by a man named Nicolaides. "I had a bid to go up and interview Trotsky last month and I let it go because I'd rather write for Nicolaides." He suggests that Iggy might be able to write the articles, "but this recommendation everybody knew was a joke, because Iggy specialized in blood-curdlers for Doc Savage and Jungle Thrillers. He couldn't write anything else." Augie likes Iggy, whose real name is Gurevitch, because he's a familiar type: "He had a real poolroom look."

Ramon Novarro
He's not so sure about Talavera. "I wasn't experienced enough to be suspicious of the young man and native of the place who attaches himself to the foreign visitors, especially to women." He looks like Ramon Novarro, "both soft and haughty, and was said to be a mining engineer by profession; that was never proved but he had no need of work, his father was rich, and Talavera was a sportsman." Thea and Augie are renting horses from Talavera's father, but they have trouble finding horses that don't shy around Caligula. Finally they find an old one named Bizcocho "who had been through the Zapatista rebellion and wounded in guerrilla battles."

They go to a plateau to practice with Caligula, and his performance pleases Thea. So a few days later they go into the mountains to hunt the giant lizards. They "were really huge, with great frills or sails -- those ancient membranes.... These beasts were as fast and bold as anything I had ever seen." Jacinto is there to drive the lizards out of cover and into a stony slope. Caligula spots one and makes his dive.
I saw the two sharp fierce faces, and as Caligula put his foot on the monster it opened its angular mouth with strange snake rage and struck the eagle in the neck. Jacinto cried, and Thea even shriller, at this sight. Powerfully Caligula shook, but only to get free. The iguana dropped and fled, glittering its blood on the rocks. Thea yelled, "After him! Get him! There he goes!" But the eagle didn't pursue down the slope; he landed and stood beating his wings. When the thrashing of the lizard couldn't be heard any more he folded them. He didn't fly to me.
Furious, Thea yells at Caligula, "You stinking coward! You crow!" and begins to throw rocks at him. Augie runs to stop her, afraid that Caligula will turn on her, and when she keeps throwing stones he gets the shotgun, to keep her from using it on the eagle. Finally the bird flies off. Augie tries to console Thea, who is now crying in rage and frustration. To himself, Augie reflects that "it was hard to take this from wild nature, that there should be humanity mixed with it; such as there was in the beasts that embraced Odysseus and his men and wept on them in Circe's yard."

They are certain that Caligula has flown away from good, but when they get home he is on top of the shed. Thea is finished with him, she says, but Augie feeds him and becomes "his sole custodian." Because he comes down with a case of dysentery and can't stray far from the house, Augie sees more of the eagle than he really wants to. Thea spends most of her time in the darkroom developing the photographs she has taken along the way. Augie finds an old book to read: "It contained Campanella's City of the Sun, More's Utopia, Machiavelli's Discourses and The Prince, as well as long selections from St. Simon, Comte, Marx and Engels." A rainy spell limits his ability to exercise Caligula, and Augie is able to immerse himself in "all that boldness of assumption and reckoning." Thea, of course, has no interest in the book.

One day he puts on raingear and goes into the village on an errand for Thea, and meets up with Wiley Moulton and Iggy, who are drinking with a man named Oliver and his girlfriend, Stella, a beautiful young woman. Moulton gives Augie a nickname, Bolingbroke. He learns that word has gotten out about Caligula's failure. "I had yet to find out how little people want you to succeed in an extraordinary project, and what comfort some have that the negligible is upheld and all other greater effort falls on its face." Oliver turns out to be a magazine editor, and Iggy suggests that he might be interested in the story of the eagle, but Oliver says the new owners of the magazine are only interested in political articles.

Augie goes back home "determined that we would not back down but fly Caligula and catch those giant iguanas." But Thea and Jacinto have gone out to hunt snakes, which she begins to collect, putting them in the cases that had been meant for the iguanas. "In time the porch became a snake gallery, so that the cook wanted to quit, fearing for her kid." But the snake-hunting also revives Thea's interest in the iguanas, so they take Caligula out again to the same spot.
Suddenly I got the idea of what it was to hunt, not with a weapon but with a creature, a living creature you had known how to teach because you'd inferred that all intelligences from the weakest blink to the first magnitude stars were essentially the same.
But just as Augie gets the signal from Thea to release the eagle, that the iguanas had been driven onto the rocky slope, he realizes that the place where he is riding is too steep for the horse. He finds himself going over the horse's head as Bizcocho tries to gain footing. "He was falling and so was I. I felt the push of Caligula's spring as he left my arm, and then I saw the color of my own blood on the slope of stones." Thea cries out for Augie to roll out of the way of the horse, who is kicking out trying to get up. "But one of Bizcocho's hoofs caught me square in the head and I was out."

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