Amis reinvigorates Bellow’s Chicago legacy

Novelist Martin Amis spoke this Tuesday about Saul Bellow’s novel The Adventures of Augie March at the main branch of the public library as part of this fall’s One Book, One Chicago series.

By Emma Broder

Novelist Martin Amis spoke this Tuesday with John Barron, the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, about Saul Bellow’s novel The Adventures of Augie March at the main branch of the public library as part of this fall’s One Book, One Chicago series. Barron joked shortly before the conversation began, “He’s made it past the deep-dish purveyors, but the wind might’ve gotten him along the way.”

Annie Tully, Coordinator of Special Projects for the public library, said that Amis was an obvious choice when the library began to brainstorm events for this season’s One Book, One Chicago program. “Amis came to mind immediately, because he’s written about Bellow, and had a personal relationship with him,” she said. Amis’s visit was a headliner event, even among the dozen programs the library has organized to celebrate One Book, One Chicago’s 10th anniversary. “I was very surprised he was willing to do this,” Tully admitted, adding that the writer’s relocation to New York City from London five months ago may have contributed to his availability.

Attendees of the event were happy with the synthesis of Augie March and Amis. Janet Jenkins, who moved to Chicago seven years ago, was there with her husband, Bruce. She said, “I think it’s the right time to acknowledge Bellow…. Writers who lived here and novels set here should be part of the program. generation is probably more interested in Amis than in Bellow, so this is a nice way to bring them together.”

Others in the auditorium were similarly pleased with the night to come. “I finished reading the book a couple minutes ago,” said Marty Zander, a retired Chicago dentist.

Amis, 62, is most famously the son of the British novelist Kingsley Amis and the author of the novels Money, London Fields, and The Information; these three books are often referred to as his “London Trilogy.” He also published an article about Augie March in the Atlantic Monthly, in which he praised it as the Great American Novel. Throughout his conversation with Barron, Amis quoted extensively from the novel, which he held up to be a nearly holy text. He spoke reverently about the end of Augie March, saying, “When you finish it, there’s almost nothing more to say about anything…. It hurls you onto the shore, and there you are, lying among the crabs and the seaweed.” Amis said he always thought that “Saul” was a misprint of the word “soul.”

Beyond his admiration for the novel and its author, Amis noted that Bellow’s writing has had a significant impact upon his own. Money, his best-received novel, was, he said, a literary liberation similar to what Bellow went through when he was writing Augie March as a young man living in Paris after World War II. Bellow, he said, taught him how to take pleasure in writing.

Augie March’s Chicago-ness was something Amis and Barron touched on frequently in their discussion. Barron’s parents were born in the 1920s in Chicago, when the city was not a flashy, touristy place. He connects to that spirit when he reads Augie, he said. Amis agreed, describing Augie as “a blank slate that receives Chicago.” He also said that Bellow thought of the people of Chicago as “loud, brilliant, and mean.” “There’s something meshuggah about Chicago,” he added, dropping the Yiddish term for “crazy.” From Tully’s perspective, the choice was helping natives and newcomers alike get to know the city. “Surprisingly, not a lot of Chicagoans have read it,” she said.

The considerable length (600 pages) of Augie March did not escape the notice of Tully, who noted that the novel is much longer than the library’s past choices. “We’re doing them over two months, not one,” she said of the citywide discussion groups that are the bread and butter of One Book, One Chicago. Despite the daunting brick of a novel, the initiative has drawn a remarkable number of readers this year. In the first week after Augie was announced as the official choice, 980 copies were checked out of the public library, and about 400 per week have been taken out since. “Unfortunately, it’s not a full, comprehensive report of what we do,” said Tully, since the library does not get sales feedback from local bookstores. She said that the programming has been well-attended, too, though not necessarily by the same people who are participating in discussion groups.

Sgt. Patricia Maher of the UCPD attended the event and said that her book club, which consists mostly of current or retired female police officers, decided to read Augie March when they learned that it was this season’s pick. A lifelong Chicagoan, Maher had never read the novel; of One Book, One Chicago, she said, “Some of them I’ve already read, sometimes they coincide with what we want to read.”

Amis brought the conversation to a personal level when he painted a touching portrait of his friendship with Bellow, which began in October 1983. He spoke with affection about Bellow’s personality, saying, “He loved jokes, and he enjoyed the fact that human beings make up jokes.” Of Augie’s power as a protagonist, he said, “You read about happiness and you’re thrilled by it…. It’s not clear whether Augie writes or thinks Augie March.” Amis continued by saying that he thinks Augie becomes someone capable of imagining the novel.

Towards the end of the talk, Amis told a story about a class the two taught at Boston University in 2002, when Bellow’s Alzheimer’s had progressed to the point where he could not read. “He couldn’t remember the beginning of a sentence when it ended,” said Amis, who said that he found it tragic that Bellow had had the “art of reading” taken from him. When the lesson reached its climax, the two men’s other co-teacher asked, “What’s Augie March about?”

“It’s about 200 pages too long,” answered Bellow.

Leaning back in his seat onstage, Amis said he always thought it was 200 pages too short.