By Charles Matthews

Saturday, August 6, 2011

7. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 613-654

Chapter XI

Augie pays his rent for his room in a student house on the South Side by answering the common telephone and distributing the mail, chores that the owner, Owens, considers beneath him. He gets regular visits from Clem Tambow, who, like others of his old friends, regards him as a slacker, "postponing everything." Augie admits that he "had some restlessness to be taken up into something greater than myself," but the path in that direction hasn't presented itself yet.

Clem's real reason for visiting Augie so often is that he is trying to hook up with Mimi Villars, a waitress who lives in the house. She is originally from Los Angeles, where her father had been a movie actor in silent films, and had come to Chicago "to study, but she was expelled from the university for going past the bounds of necking at Greene Hall, in the lounge." She has a boyfriend, Hooker Frazer, a graduate student in political science who is one of Augie's regular customers. Augie sometimes steals two copies of the books Frazer wants so he can talk with him about them.

Frazer is not yet divorced from his first wife, so he and Mimi can't marry, even if she wanted to. She opens up to Augie on all aspects of her life
I could see what a value she set on the intelligence of men. If they didn't breathe the most difficult air of effort and nobility, then she wished for them the commonplace death in the gas cloud of settled existence, office bondage, quiet-store-festering, unrecognized despair of marriage without hope, or the commonness of resentment that grows unknown boils in one's heart or bulbs of snarling flowers. She had a high, absolute standard, and she preferred people to miss it from suffering, vice, being criminal or perverted, or of loony impulse. 
Like Augie, she is a thief, stealing her clothes from department stores. "The thing I began to learn from her was of the utmost importance; namely, that everyone sees to it his fate is shared. Or tries to see to it." Clem Tambow becomes suspicious that Augie and Mimi are lovers, but they aren't. Augie is surprised to find that she used to be the sister-in-law of Sylvester, the man for whom Augie once passed out handbills: He had been married to Mimi's sister.

Meanwhile, Simon has gotten married, though from Augie's point of view the consequences are decidedly mixed. "In the peculiar fate of people that makes them fat and rich, when this happens very swiftly there is the menace of the dreamy state that plunders their reality." And in the case of Simon's marriage, there is a mixture of appearance and reality, for though he and Charlotte Magnus are in fact married, they have been forced by her parents to maintain the fiction that they are only engaged. Simon pays rent at a bachelor's club while in fact living with the Magnuses in their West Side flat.

He is better dressed now, and he drives a new gray Pontiac. He is learning the coal business at one of the yards owned by the Magnuses. The family has a tradition of arranging marriages for their daughters, believing they can control things better that way. Simon explains, "They'd rather have a poor young man. A poor young man gets up more steam and pressure. They were like that themselves, and they know." Simon's arrival to wealth is so new that "his shirt smelled of the store; it hadn't been to the laundry yet."

Augie goes with him to the "hot interior of lamps and rugs" that is the Magnuses' flat. "Everything was ungainly there, roomy and oversized." The Magnuses, too, are oversized, including Charlotte. When Augie is left alone with Simon and Charlotte, Simon jokes, "'Nobody's ever been laid better at any price.' It was so ambiguous and inside-out that it had to be taken as amusing, and she hurried and come down from a romantic, sentimental position and denied it all by pretending that this randy talk was the joke of sincerity and deep underlying agreement, a more realistic sort of love."

Underneath everything, however, "it came through to me that he was being tortured by thought of suicide, stronger than a mere hint, but simultaneously he could dive to clasp his compensations, such as his pride in audaciousness and strength of nerve and body or the luxury he was coming into." With the family Simon "was boisterous, capricious, haughty, critical, arbitrary, mimicking and deviling, and he crowed, croaked, made faces and had the table all but spinning in this dining room of stable and upright wealth." He tells Augie they were unlucky "not to have this kind of close and loyal family." Augie doesn't take this well: "I had a fit of hate for the fat person he was becoming." But he has to admit that he "was a sucker for it too, family love." He senses that he is very much the outsider in this gathering. "Well, they owned stores; maybe they smelled a thief in me." And he becomes even more the outsider when he reveals that he doesn't play pinochle, and is forced into a corner with the children who teach him the game.

Uncle Charlie Magnus is the owner of the coal yards. "He was white, thick, and peevish, and had the kind of insolence that sometimes affects the eyes like snowblindness, making you think there's something arctic about having a million bucks."
Nobody thought to remonstrate about children and young girls when Uncle Charlie said, "Sonofabitch, you're fo-kay, my boy, fo-kay. You got the goods. I think you can put it down between the sheets too, eh?" because this was just his usual manner of speaking.

Through Simon's influence, Augie becomes another potential husband for the Magnus daughters, "for there wasn't any lack of daughters to marry, some of them pretty and all with money." He finds Lucy Magnus, "slighter than most of her family," somewhat attractive, but "I had no special mind to get married. I saw Simon's difficulties too clearly for that." One strike against Augie, however, is his lack of a definable occupation. Simon has put it out that Augie is in the "book business" and that he's planning to go back to college. This doesn't go over particularly well with Charlotte's father.
"Goddammit the schools. There's schoolboys now until gray hair. So what are you studying for, a lawyer? Fo-kay! I guess we got to have them, the crooks. My sons don't go to school. My daughters go, so long as it keeps them out of trouble." 
Among the Magnus cousins Augie recognizes an old schoolfellow, Kelly Weintraub, who knows about the March family, including Simon and Augie's brother, George. But Simon is way ahead of him: He has told Charlotte about George, and he knows enough about Kelly to counter anything he might have to tell the Magnuses about himself.

Augie soon learns that Simon has plans to integrate him into the Magnus circles, taking him to "lunch with uncles and cousins in the rich businessmen's restaurants and clubs, fancy steakhouses." Simon also has plans, a sort of mental file, to settle old scores with people: "Did Cissy and Five Properties have a folder in it to themselves? I thought they must." Before he goes out with Simon, Augie has to undergo a kind of military inspection of his clothes and his person, and he goes with him to barbershops to have everything taken care of to Simon's specifications. "I had larger cleaning and laundry bills than ever before," which bothers Augie because he's saving for the university fees.

But the other side of Simon also shows itself: "he slept badly and was looking flabby and ill, and one morning when he came to fetch me he locked himself in the toilet and cried." He begins to refuse to come inside Augie's rooming house, which he detests. First he would honk his horn outside when he picked Augie up, then he began telephoning or even sending wires when he wanted him. He drives recklessly, and it becomes evident to Augie "that his feelings were suicidal from the way he drove and the way he leaped forward in arguments." He curses at other drivers and at pedestrians and keeps a tire tool under his seat as a weapon for traffic arguments.

In the spring he leases a coal yard. It is the end of the coal season, and he spends the summer making the repairs it needs. "By Simon's wish I had to spend afternoons with him studying the business. Especially since I had heard him weeping in the can Simon wasn't easy for me to turn down." Augie sometimes serves as lunch relief for the yard manager and weighmaster, Happy Kellerman. But Augie also notices the self-doubt preying on Simon: "The misery of his look at this black Sargasso of a yard in its summer stagnation and stifling would sometimes make my blood crawl in me with horror." But he retains his determination to succeed:
Simon was wised up as to how to do things politically -- to be in a position to bid on municipal business -- and he saw wardheelers and was kissing cousins with the police; he took up with lieutenants and captains, with lawyers, with real-estate men, with gamblers and bookies, the important ones who owned legitimate businesses on the side and had property.... I had to wait for his calls in the police station to tell the cops when a load was setting out from the yard, my first lawful sitting in such a place, moving from dark to lighter inside the great social protoplasm. 
Simon is on special terms with Lieutenant Nuzzo, "an Italian [who] brought the style of ancient kingdoms with him."

Sometimes Simon and Augie go swimming in the lake, and Augie notices the way Simon dives, worrying that "he threw himself in with a thought of never coming to the surface alive, as if he went to take a blind taste of the benefits of staying down." Augie makes a habit of not going in the water when his brother does, just in case he is needed to pull him out of the water. Simon also casts a lascivious eye at the women at the lake. "The girls were not always frightened of him; he had a smell of power, he was handsome, and I don't know what floors his bare feet left in shade-drawn hot rooms. Only a year ago he would not have given a second glance at such bims." But in Charlotte he has a mate whose "first aim and the reason for her striving was to make the union serious by constructing a fortune on it." For Augie her attitude recalls Lady Macbeth's "'Unsex me here!' A call so hard, to what is so hard, that it makes the soul neuter."

Sometimes when he is out with Simon they visit their mother. But one time Simon finds her affixing pins to Roosevelt campaign buttons, for which she is being paid ten cents a hundred and earning a few dollars a week. He goes into a rage: "I'll have you know that my mother isn't going to do any piecework for ten, twenty, thirty cents, or a dollar an hour. She gets all the money she needs from me." Even when his mother pleads that she asked to do the work, he won't give in. He also gets angry when he finds that a coat Charlotte has given her is missing from the closet, and when the director's wife explains that it was sent to the cleaners because his mother spilled coffee on it, and offers to alter its fit when it comes back, Simon protests, "She can afford a good tailor if she needs alterations."

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