By Charles Matthews

Monday, August 15, 2011

16. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 928-995

Chapter XXIV

Augie and Stella get married, but first Augie has to have one of his life-examining chats, this time with an Armenian named Mintouchian in a Turkish bath. (Bellow is perhaps making some kind of grim joke by putting an Armenian in a Turkish bath, but I'll resist exploring that.) Mintouchian is a wealthy lawyer, and his mistress, Agnes Kuttner, is a friend of Stella's. "These two, Agnes and Mintouchian, were the only people we ever saw when I got liberty from the base on weekends." Mintouchian and Agnes had met in Cuba, and he pays off her husband to make him stay there. But his chief role in the novel is a familiar one: "He was another of those persons who persistently arise before me with life counsels and illumination throughout my entire earthly pilgrimage."

And as usual, Augie resists the advice but finally gives in to it. When Mintouchian tells him tales of the woe that is in marriage, he asks, "how are these stories supposed to apply, just now, before my marriage?" Mintouchian back-pedals a bit, but Augie gets the point obliquely: "I would never agree that love had to be adultery. Never! Why, imagine! Even if I had to admit that many lovers were adulterers, such as Paolo and Francesca or Anna Karenina, Grandma Lausch's favorite. Which led my mind toward suffering that got mixed with love." As, so far, it has been in Augie's love life. He asks Mintouchian what he's getting at:
He answered readily, "Secrets. Society make us have some, of course. The brotherhood of man wants to let us out of them by the power of confession. But I must beget secrets. I will be known by secrets at my death, like St. Blas who was killed by wool combs and was made the patron saint of woolcombers."
So Augie opens up to Mintouchian: "I have always tried to become what I am. But it's a frightening thing. Because what if what I am by nature isn't good enough?" Mintouchian reassures him, "You must take your chance on what you are." Augie receives this advice with gratitude.

And then it turns out that Mintouchian himself needs reassuring. He has discovered that Agnes recently pulled a scam: She had claimed she was mugged in Central Park and a diamond ring was stolen. She collected five thousand dollars in an insurance claim, but Mintouchian has discovered that she faked the mugging even to the extent of choking herself with her own hands. One of her friends actually has the ring. Mintouchian doesn't know why she feels compelled to do such a thing when he provides all the money she needs. But once again, it fits with his notion that the world is full of secrets.

Including Mintouchian, of course, as Augie finds out when he meets Mrs. Mintouchian. She tells him, "I know that Harold has his secrets. I mean, he thinks he has. I really know all about him, because I think about him all the time. It isn't so hard if you spend all your time thinking about somebody. I don't even have to leave this room."  

Chapter XXV

So the wedding takes place despite any intentions Mintouchian may have had in discouraging it. And in fact he arranges the catering for the wedding luncheon and buys the flowers. Augie is "drugged with love." He remembers thinking, when he was recovering from the hernia operation in County Hospital a year ago, "how of all our family, including old Grandma, Simon was the only one who had managed to stay out of an institution. But now I didn't have any more reason to envy him." He had graduated from training at Sheepshead the day before the wedding, and the Merchant Marine had paid for new teeth to replace the ones that had been kicked out in Mexico. The only blot on the occasion is that Augie is due to ship out soon after the wedding, and that Stella is leaving for the Aleutians as part of a USO show. In addition to Mintouchian, the wedding party also includes Agnes (wearing a high collar to conceal her throat), Sylvester, Robey, and Frazer.

Two days later, Augie leaves for Boston to ship out. He reassures Stella that this new device called radar will protect the ship from any submarines. (And if you don't catch the foreshadowing there, you don't read enough fiction.) The ship, the Sam MacManus, is old, but Augie has his own office for his combined bookkeeping and pharmacist's duties. "In my privacy I read books and wrote an endless letter chronicle to Stella which I hoped to send from Dakar, out to Alaska. Of course there were guns and a radar ring to remind you of danger, but the time was very pleasant." He also becomes "ship's confidant" -- the guy people went to for advice. "Clem knew what he was talking about when he urged me to come into the advice business. Here I was doing it free of charge, and in dangerous conditions."

He listens to various worries and sexual confessions and the like. "If I dwell on these individual members of the crew it's in the nature of a memorial. For on the fifteenth day out when we were off the Canaries, the Sam MacManus was sent down by a torpedo." In the confusion he finds a lifeboat, but the mechanism for lowering it gets jammed. He climbs into the boat to try to free it, and it falls into the water and knocks him overboard. When he resurfaces he sees another boat a hundred yards away and swims toward it. Another man is clinging to it, and Augie helps him climb into the boat, but when he calls for the man to help him in, he gets no response. Finally he manages to clamber aboard and finds the man just sitting there. Angrily, Augie slugs him but he doesn't respond. "He lurched but otherwise didn't move, only turned up a pair of animal-in-the-headlights eyes. Augie curses him, but he still doesn't react.

Augie looks for the oars so they can row around and pick up survivors, but there is only one oar. "There was nothing to do but sit and drift.... And by the time night fell completely there wasn't the light of boat of [sic] raft to be seen anywhere." There is enough food and water to last two people for quite a while, and smudgepots and flares for signaling.

Finally his companion speaks, to say he recognizes him as "Mr. March, the purser." He identifies himself as "Basteshaw, ship's carpenter," and as a fellow Chicagoan. Augie recognizes the name: There had been a Basteshaw who had had some real estate dealings when Einhorn was in the business. It turns out to have been Basteshaw's father, who "was in the produce business. Basteshaw the Soupgreens King." Augie remembers that Einhorn used to call him "Butcher-Paper." Basteshaw the son has no fond memories of his father, which shocks Augie, whose mind is occupied with thoughts of family and friends, "whether I'd ever see Stella again, or my mother, my brothers, Einhorn, Clem." Basteshaw tells Augie his father drowned when he had a mild heart attack and fell into the water. On the day he died, Basteshaw "put on his old man's best Borsalino hat, he told me, and he took the Cadillac out of the garage and smashed it up. He drove it into a wall on purpose. For the old man would never let him have it and kept it like a Swiss watch." Augie feels sorry for the father.

Basteshaw also tells him that he broke up the engagement his father had arranged for him with his cousin Lee, with whom he had been sleeping. She had a fatal lung condition, "So I told her I couldn't possible marry her. Why string her along?" Augie is enraged at this: "He had hastened her death. I couldn't bear the look of him for a while." But even though he realizes that his boatmate is a creep or worse, Augie realizes he has to get along with him, so he continues to listen to his stories, including one of Basteshaw's narcoleptic Aunt Ettl, who slept for fifteen years, and then one day woke up and went about her business as if nothing had happened. For Basteshaw, this is a lesson in the value of inertia.
"The next poet laureate of England -- I figure -- prays God to teach us to sit still. You know that famous painting of the gypsy Arab traveler sleeping with his mandolin and the lion gazing on him? That doesn't mean the lion respects his repose. No, it means the Arab's immobility controls the lion. This is magic. Passivity plus power."
Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897
(The "next poet laureate of England" Basteshaw refers to is presumably T.S. Eliot, who never achieved that honor.)

Augie's estimation of Basteshaw begins to improve. "And then I had to bring to mind how many times, thinking myself right, I had been wrong." He asks how someone so obviously educated wound up as a ship's carpenter. Basteshaw tells him that "he was a biologist or biochemist; or psycho-biologist, which he liked best of all." And that he had been fired from six universities because of his "strange ideas." Going to sea gave him time to work on his experiments. He also tells Augie that his aim in life is to be a Renaissance cardinal, "A wicked one,smoking with life, neighing and plunging." And that he grew so bored because of his inability to fulfill this aim that he decided to study boredom itself and "become the world's leading authority on it." Augie is "stupefied. I watched hm climb around like an alpinist of the mountains of his own brain."

And then he claims to have created life in the laboratory: that's what the six universities threw him out for claiming. And he had continued his experiments on board the MacManus, so some of the protoplasm he had created is now floating in the ocean. Augie has a horrified thought that it might survive somehow and begin to evolve.

Soon Basteshaw begins to see what he thinks are signs that the boat is drifting closer to land. And then one day Augie thinks he sees a ship on the horizon. He gets a smudgepot ready to signal with, but Basteshaw asks why he wants to do that. Augie realizes that Basteshaw doesn't want to be rescued. He makes no move to help as Augie lowers the pot overboard and the signal smoke begins to rise. Augie loses sight of the ship, and Basteshaw claims he was hallucinating. He says they are drifting due east, and will land in Spanish territory. They will be interned, he says, and he can stay there for the rest of the war and do his research. Augie, he says, can be trained as his assistant. Augie wants no part of this plan.

The smudgepot is still giving off smoke, and when Augie turns to scan the horizon, Basteshaw hits him with the oar. "Then I made a rush for him, and the minute I got my hands on him I felt I'd kill him if I could, that much rage was in me." But Basteshaw is stronger; he overpowers Augie, and ties him up in Augie's own clothes. That night, when Basteshaw falls asleep, Augie manages to get loose. But when he goes to Basteshaw to tie him up, he discovers that Basteshaw is burning with fever and his heart is racing. Augie turns a piece of canvas into a makeshift poncho, and sits up with his adversary all night.

Basteshaw is out of his mind with fever in the morning, but late that day Augie sights a British tanker that rescues them. They are well past the Canaries and off the coast of Africa. The ship takes them to Naples, where they are hospitalized. After he tells Basteshaw that he saved his life, and that they were way off course, Basteshaw refuses to speak to him again. Six months later, Augie returns to New York, where Stella is waiting for him.

Chapter XXVI

Augie abandons his idea of a school and foster home, telling Mintouchian, "it was a goofy idea that I should educate children. Who am I to educate anybody? It wasn't so much education as love. That was the idea." Anyway, Stella isn't keen on the idea, and "Pretty soon I understood that I would mostly do as she wanted because it was I who loved her most." When the war ends, Augie and Stella move to Europe. At a cafe he runs into Hooker Frazer, who is working with the World Education Fund, and Augie tells him that Stella works in the movies and he has gotten involved, through Mintouchian, in a slightly shady business involving international trade. They have an apartment in Paris that they from "an old Britisher and his French wife."

One day, when Stella comes home from the film studio, she takes a bath and calls out to Augie for a towel. When he joins her in the bathroom, he has an epiphany.
It takes a time like this for you to find out how sore your heart has been, and moreover, all the while you thought you were going around idle terribly hard work was taking place. Hard, hard work, excavating and digging, mining, moling through tunnels, heaving, pushing, moving rock, working, working, working, working, working, panting, hauling, hoisting. And none of this work is seen from the outside. It's internally done. It happens because you are powerless and unable to get anywhere, to obtain justice or have requital, and therefore in yourself you labor, you wage and combat, settle scores, remember insults, fight, reply, deny, blab, denounce, triumph, outwit, overcome, vindicate, cry, persist, absolve, die and rise again. All by yourself! Where is everybody? Inside your breast and skin, the entire cast.
Through their friend Alain du Niveau Augie learns a few of Stella's secrets -- "I said that Stella lied more than average, unfortunately. She told me a number of things that weren't so; she forgot to tell me others that were so." One of them is about Cumberland, whose mistress she had been before she took up with Oliver. Augie had suspected something of his presence when he first knew Stella in New York, living in a style and an apartment that were somewhat beyond her means, and receiving mysterious bills and business correspondence. After du Niveau lets his name slip, he confronts Stella about Cumberland, and she confesses, though she reminds Augie of his own brushes with the law. He is set back: "Was I going to be wrong again?" But after he talks to Mintouchian, the matter is relegated to the bygone.

Simon and Charlotte come to visit in Paris, and Simon is impressed: "My kid brother has turned out to be a man of the world." When he asks Simon about Renée, Simon doesn't want to talk about it, but Charlotte clues Augie in: "Evidently Simon's trouble with Renée had been all over the Chicago papers, and she took it for granted that I had read about it. No, I hadn't heard a thing." Renée had sued Augie claiming he had fathered her child. But there were three other men who could be the father. All along, Renée had been planning to blackmail Simon, collecting matchbooks from the restaurants he took her to and writing the date inside the cover. In the end, she married someone else.

Augie has to drive to Bruges on a business deal, and he takes the maid, Jacqueline, with him so she can visit her family in Normandy. On the way she tells him, "the dream of my life is to go to Mexico!" The idea of it, that one person's dream may be another person's painful memories, causes Augie to laugh. But it also reminds Augie of the persistence of people's dreams and ambitions.
Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop in this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America.

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