Saul Bellow’s narrator Augie March – a 1930s working class, Chicago-born boy with vaguely European aristocratic connections – tells the story of his efforts to work out what to do with his life. Early on he develops an interest in high brow culture, though the books he reads are derelict Harvard classic cast offs, or books shoplifted in a scam designed to supply students at the local university. Shoplifting and other petty crime might not suggest a good person in the strictest sense, though with his warmth and inability to resist helping anyone in trouble, Augie often seems like a person who is too good for the rough world in which he lives. The writing itself presents a similar irony, breaking all kinds of grammatical regulations, and yet achieving beauty.
Amongst all this confusion you keep wondering how Augie is going to find his own path in life, particularly when he is always helping other, less selfless individuals achieve their own aims. He finds himself assisting a number of powerful people, who he realises manage to “intercept the big social ray, or collect and concentrate it like burning glass.” Tolstoy, in War and Peace, portrayed Napoleon in a similar way, as someone whose larger than life image was due to the way he caught the way things were looking, rather than deciding on the way things should look. Tolstoy suggested that a humble person, like Augie, free from all the “social rays” shining on Napoleon, would ironically have more control over his life. Saul Bellow, in the end seems to suggest the same thing.
By the end of Augie’s long journey it’s not clear if he has discovered the answer to finding a good path through life. The book does not provide any clear advice you can sum up in a review. This is not a self-help book you could call How to be Rich, Fulfilled, Powerful and In Charge of Your Life because categories of good and bad, wealth and poverty, power and humility, don’t make much sense in its pages. There is, however, at least a suggestion of that reassuring idea John Lennon described in All You Need Is Love, when he said: “there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.” It’s that suggestion which makes this book not so much a self help book, as a book that helps