By Charles Matthews

Sunday, August 7, 2011

8. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 655-708

Chapter XII

When cold weather comes, Simon starts making money and gets married -- officially. Augie, outfitted in his tuxedo, picks up his mother in Simon's Pontiac for the ceremony and takes her to the ostentatious hotel where the wedding is to take place, though he is somewhat underwhelmed by its luxury.
I know that I in, say, an ancient place like Venice or in Rome, passing along the side of majestic walls where great men once sat, experienced what it was to be simply a dot, a speck that scans across the cornea, a corpuscle, almost white, almost nothing but air.... But in this modern power of luxury, with its battalions of service workers and engineers, it's the things themselves, the products that are distinguished, and the individual man isn't nearly equal to their great sum. Finally they are what becomes great -- the multitude of baths with never-failing hot water, the enormous air conditioning units and the elaborate machinery. No opposing greatness is allowed, and the disturbing person is the one who won't serve by using or denies by not wishing to enjoy.
He has, however, fallen in step with Simon's plans: for him to marry Lucy Magnus, "who had more money even than Charlotte," to work for Simon, who will pay his tuition while he finishes pre-law at the university and then goes to John Marshall law school at night. "Eventually I could become his partner. Or if his business didn't suit me, we could go into real estate with our joint capital. Or perhaps into manufacturing." Simon even hints at the possibility of going into politics, noting that Henry Horner, who is Jewish, has become governor of Illinois. "He had come into a view of mutability, and I too could see that one is only ostensibly born to remain in specified limits." 

Simon's exercise in power sometimes becomes overbearing, as when he tries to take his mother's cane away from her at that wedding, claiming that it will mar the photographs. She resists, however, and Augie "approved of Mama's exhibition of will, wondering at the surprises the meek will pull." Simon has invited the Einhorns to the wedding, as well as Five Properties and his wife, Simon's former girlfriend, Cissy, "partly to show Cissy what he had gone out to do and also to subject Five Properties to a cruel comparison. At the reception, Five Properties makes a bit of a scene "because he and Cissy had been put at a little table apart behind a pillar." Augie is uncertain who made this arrangement: Simon or Charlotte.

Augie has grown used to the idea of marrying Lucy Magnus, who looks at him "in her unambiguously declarative way" during the ceremony -- they have been paired off as groomsman and bridesmaid. "In some way, not the deepest nor yet trivially, I was gone on her and as far as I was allowed gave her a real embrace that she returned, licking my ear and praising and promising me; she already called me her husband." He hasn't yet gained the family's full confidence, however. "I was, as at the Renlings', under an influence and not the carrier of it."

At the coal yard, Simon drives Augie hard. He is also convinced that Augie is having an affair with Mimi Villars. But he's okay with that as long as it's just sex, knowing that it will help keep Augie from trying to persuade Lucy Magnus to sleep with him. But Simon's controlling nature also gets him in trouble at the coal yard when he gets into a fight with a dealer named Guzynski whose truck breaks down and causes a jam of other trucks that extends out into the seat. Simon pulls a gun on Guzynski, who is drunk, and pistol-whips him. Guzynski leaves and, afraid that he'll call the cops, Simon calls his friend on the force, Lt. Nuzzo, who has Guzynski locked up pre-emptively. "Nuzzo, or Nuzzo's people, had put a deep fright him in their cellar below cellar," and Guzynski stays on his best behavior thereafter. At Christmas, Simon sends Guzynski a bottle of gin and his wife a box of candy. "Simon wanted to show me how justly he handled such crises, and how badly, by contrast -- because of chicken-heartedness -- I did.

Augie grows so obsessed with trying to stay on Simon's good side, that "Mimi Villars heard me talking in my sleep one night about prices and came in and asked me questions, as though in a telephone conversation. She quoted the prices back to me in the morning, all correctly. 'Brother! things must be bad for you,' she said, 'if that's all you dream.'" One night, late for a date with Lucy, Augie has a minor traffic accident, breaking the taillights on Simon's Pontiac. He is so shaken by it that Lucy notices: "She foresaw that Simon would raise hell about the damage -- as he did -- and what's more, no point of view but his seemed possible to her, and she was somewhat frightened at me, feeling that I had one." When Simon does raise hell, Augie replies:
"What are you fussing about? It wasn't much of an accident, and you're insured." This was just where the error was; it was that I had to feel bad about the back shell of the car and those crustacean eyes that were dragging by the wires, and it wasn't so much the accident as my failure to care as I should that he minded.
One evening Mimi Villars comes to his room with the news that she's pregnant. Her lover, Frazer, is out of town, and she wants to have an abortion before he returns. One of the waitresses she works with has given her the name of a doctor who is said to have an injection that will take care of it. Augie is skeptical about anything so untried, and asks why she doesn't have the baby. She scoffs at the idea of herself as a mother, and taunts Augie with the notion that he objects to the abortion because "you wouldn't be here if your mother had ideas like mine. Nor your brothers either." Why should she go through with the pregnancy?
"So the souls of these things shouldn't get after me when I die and accuse me of not letting them be born? I'd tell them, 'Listen, stop haunting me. What do you think you ever were? Why a kind of little scallop, that's all. You don't know how lucky you are. What makes you think you would have liked it? Take it from me, you're indignant because you don't know.'" 
He argues that life isn't so bad, saying, "I could tell you a lot about how pleasant my life has been." She retorts, "That's hunky-dory for you; maybe you like the way you are, but most people suffer from it." But her main point is that Augie is a man, and can't possibly know what she's going through: "she was the one for whom it was the flesh and blood problem."

So he agrees to go with her to see the doctor, who says that the injection causes contractions, and that it may succeed in aborting the fetus, but that there are no guarantees. She goes through with it anyway, paying fifteen dollars for the injection. She returns to her room, where she suffers cramps, but nothing more. She curses the doctor, and then realizes that she can't carry the child to term even if she wanted to: "I can't let it alone now and be born, with all the stuff I've taken. It might be hurt."

The next day when he gets home, Mimi tells him that she has found a way to get rid of the fetus legally:  She had gone to the clinic and said she was pregnant but was having difficulties. The doctor who examined her said "he was pretty sure I had a tube pregnancy. So I have to be examined again, and if they still think so they might have to operate." Augie doesn't see her for several days, being busy at work and then with Magnus family social obligations. But one day at work he has a call from a nurse at a South Side hospital with a message that Mimi is there and wants to see him. He tells Simon that he needs to leave early, and Simon immediately seizes on the truth that he's involved in some way with Mimi. All Simon is worried about is "If this gets around to them" -- the Magnuses. "I saw that he had already handled the consequences of this to himself; he'd repudiate me, and it would do him no harm."

In the hospital he finds Mimi, depressed because she has had an operation to resolve the tubal pregnancy, but during the operation they had found that the pregnancy was entirely normal. Everyone, she says, has been coming in to congratulate her. She sees no recourse but to return to the doctor who had given her the injection and to have him finish the job. They want her to stay in the hospital for ten days, but she insists that she won't stay that long and tells Augie to make an appointment with the first doctor for late in the next week.

They will need money, so Augie goes back to stealing books. Unfortunately, he gets caught. But the store detective who catches him turns out to be Jimmy Klein, his old partner in crime when they were caught skimming quarters. Klein makes up a story that Augie dropped the books when he was pursued, returns the books to the store, then meets Augie at a cafeteria. Augie learns that Klein is married to a girl he got pregnant: "The path of wretchedness as Mrs. Renling had drawn it for me when she predicted what would happen if Simon married Cissy." Augie tells him that he was stealing the books to pay for his friend's abortion, and Klein lends him the money he needs.

On the day of the abortion, Augie has a date with Lucy, but he manages to get out of it, promising that he'll be on time the next night when there is a formal affair for New Year's Eve. He meets Mimi after the abortion, and finds her so faint that he has to prop her up. "She was only two days out of the hospital, and the variety of decisions she had made alone, not counting pain and blood loss, was enough to have taken away her strength." As they are going down the stairs, they meet Kelly Weintraub, "the Magnuses' cousin by marriage who came from my neighborhood, the one who had threatened me about George." And the doctor, it turns out, is Weintraub's cousin. (Coming so soon after Augie's capture by Jimmy Klein, this is, perhaps, one coincidental close encounter too many at this turn of the novel.)

Augie doesn't have time to spare confronting Weintraub, but he's fully aware that damage has been done. He hurries back to the rooming house with Mimi, who hemorrhages when she is put to bed.
There have great things been done to mitigate the worst human sights and teach you something different from revulsion at them. All the Golgothas have been painted with this aim. But since probably very few people are now helped by these things and lessons, each falls back on whatever he has. 
So Augie copes. The hemorrhaging stops and the next morning "Mimi seemed to be very hot but normally asleep." Augie goes to work, where "Simon kept examining me, so that I wondered whether Kelly had already reached him." But it's only Simon's usual severe watchfulness. At the end of the day he tells Augie to take the Pontiac. When he gets home he meets the roomer next door, Kayo Obermark, who has been looking in on Mimi. She's running a high fever, but doesn't seem to be bleeding. Augie calls Padilla, who brings over some pills for the fever recommended by physiology students.

"Then Lucy phoned to ask me to come an hour earlier than arranged. I felt that there was trouble at that end too and said, 'What's up?'"  She doesn't say any more than to try to be there by eight. It's after six, so Augie shaves and starts to get dressed while talking with Kayo and Padilla about Mimi. Padilla says it might be septicemia or puerperal fever, and that Augie has to take her to the hospital. Mimi objects: "They'll try to get me to tell on the doctor," which she stubbornly refuses to do. But they hustle her into the car, and just as they are about to leave Simon telephones: "I just had a call from Charlotte, and Kelly Weintraub is spreading a story about you that you took a bim to have an abortion." Simon refuses to hear the truth about Augie's relationship to Mimi: "Don't try to tell me you're not horny. We all are, in our family. What do you think started us out in the first place?" He tells Augie that he's done with him, and that he won't stand up to the Magnuses on his behalf. "'You sonofabitch!' I yelled with tears. 'You shit! I hope to see you dead!'"

They take Mimi to the hospital where she had the operation, but are turned away. She reports that she was told, "We got no room in a place like this for people like you. Why didn't you have the kid? Go home and wait for the undertaker." But Padilla knows someone who works in a lab in a North Side hospital who might help. Augie goes in this time, and because he is in a tuxedo gets a little respect from the cop at the entrance: "I was in the clothes of a gentleman, and therefore why should he take chances?"

Padilla locates his friend, and tells the doctor that Mimi tried to abort the fetus herself. The doctor doesn't really believe him, but says, "Well, if the women live we don't look for the abortionist, because what good does it do the profession?" Padilla urges Augie to leave, and the doctor gives him his name so he can ask for him when he returns. Augie figures if Weintraub has already seen Uncle Charlie Magnus he won't be there very long.

When he reaches the Magnuses' he adjusts his tie in the mirror and sees "backward, by the drape in the living room, the tense belly of Uncle Charlie, his sharp feet prepared, and sitting waiting in the oriental mix-up of brass, silk, wool, and all that gave the place so much power, Lucy, her mother, and Sam, observing me. I felt there was a big machine set against me." He thinks for a moment that if, as she had always said, Lucy really loved him, they could go it on their own, without an inheritance. But "I saw she had been gotten to by her parents and that decisions had been made."

He is told, "you're not what we had in mind for Lucy." She doesn't go counter to them, and her father says, "No dough if she marries you!" As Augie is putting on his coat in the hall, her brother, Sam, tells him "that he would break my back if I bothered his sister, but with all his thickset hairiness and spreading keister, he couldn't make it mean anything to me."

Back at the hospital, he finds Padilla, who has given Lucy blood. Mimi has been taken upstairs, Padilla says. Augie gives him cab fare for the trip back, but he doesn't answer when Padilla asks why he's back from the party so soon. Upstairs he finds Mimi in a room in the maternity ward, the only available place. The doctor tells him not to attract attention or he'll get thrown out. "I think she's going to pull out of it though she did everything she could not to except cut her wrists and take poison."

As he waits, the New Year's celebrations take place, though the noise is distant and faint. Mimi wakes about one, and after they talk briefly Augie walks through the maternity ward, hearing the groans of women in labor and seeing a woman who had given birth on the way to the hospital wheeled in: "she and the baby appeared like enemies forced to have each other, like figures of a war." A nurse angrily tells Augie that he shouldn't be there, so after checking on Mimi he leaves.

On the way back he has a flat, and he can't figure out how to use the jack. He realizes that he is not far from the Coblins', for whom he used to work, so he goes there. When morning comes, he looks out at the Greek church across the way, outlined against the blue of the sky.
I passed over the church too and rested only on the great profound blue. The days have not changed, though the times have. The sailors who first saw America, that sweet the sight, where the belly of the ocean had brought them, didn't see more beautiful color than this. 
His Cousin Anna shows him a picture of Friedl, whom Augie was always supposed to marry. She is a student at the University of Michigan. Anna asks, "And why do you want to get mixed up with your brother's new relatives, those coarse people?"

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