Review deadlines have slackened for me in the past few weeks, so I’ve been spending a few days taking care of a huge blind spot in my reading: Saul Bellow‘s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March. I’m not sure how I’ve gotten along without it; in fact, it’s a little embarrassing to think that I’ve made any general statement about how class is portrayed in American literature without knowing Bellow’s big, beautiful book. March stumbles through life—in essence, the novel is a catalog of his screw-ups in work, family, and relationships—but he navigates it with his eyes wide open, and Bellow’s sentences overflow with astute observations about how your upbringing and your class and your temperament peg you in life, regardless of tax bracket.
March is an autodidact, and though his reading of the Great Books hasn’t improved his station, it’s allowed him to know it, which isn’t a small thing. That’s what he’s speaking to in the monologue below, as he talks to a friend about his experience working for an eccentric millionaire to research an inchoate tome about wealth and spiritual happiness. (Tentative title: The Needle’s Eye.) The passage below floored me, not just because it exemplifies Bellow’s famously sinuous sentences, but because it speaks so powerfully to the present moment, when there’s an ever-increasing amount of data and a greater concern about what good it is. Information overload has always been with us, yet nobody articulates its emotional impact quite like March:
“I thought if I knew more my problem would be simplified, and maybe I should complete my formal education. But since I’ve been working for Robey I have reached the conclusion that I couldn’t utilize even ten percent of what I already knew. I’ll give you an example. I read about King Arthur’s Round Table when I was a kid, but what am I ever going to do about it? My heart was touched by sacrifice and pure attempts, so what should I do? Or take the Gospels. How are you supposed to put them to use? Why, they’re not utilizable! And then you go and pile on top of that more advice and information. Anything that just adds information that you can’t use is plain dangerous. Anyway, there’s too much of everything of this kind, that’s come home to me, too much history and culture to keep track of, too many details, too much news, too much example, too much influence, too many guys who tell you to be as they are, and all this hugeness, abundance, turbulence, Niagara Falls torrent. Which who is supposed to interpret? Me? I haven’t got that much head to master it all. I get carried away. It doesn’t give my feelings enough of a chance if I have to store up and become like an encyclopedia. Why, just as a question of time spent in getting prepared for life, look! a man could spend forty, fifty, sixty years like that inside the walls of his own being. And all great experience would only take place within the walls of his being. And all high conversation would take place within those walls. And all achievement would stay within those walls. And all glamour too. And even hate, monstrousness, enviousness, murder, would be inside them. This would be only a terrible, hideous dream about existing. It’s better to dig ditches and hit other guys with your shovel than die in the walls.”