My latest academic article, ‘Chicago and the Contemplative Process in Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March and “Looking For Mr. Green”’, appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the Saul Bellow Journal (vol 25, no. 2).
The issue is available through the EBSCO Literary Reference Plus Database.
Here’s the opening:
“Give Chicago half a chance, and it will turn you into a philosopher”
– Saul Bellow, 1983 (Bellow, “Chicago” 245)
In Saul Bellow’s third novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), the protagonist’s encounters with Depression-era Chicago lead him to contemplate the very nature of city living and, beyond that, the twentieth-century human condition. The novel is an unusual bildungsroman. Education comes from many sources, sometimes through attempts to navigate Chicago’s industrial landscapes, mass transit systems, and modern architecture. These historical phenomena created unprecedented subjective experiences for the city dweller.
Bellow’s fiction represents not just a different approach to urban representation but also an uncommon optimism about the modern city’s possibilities for the individual. As Murray Baumgarten has said, “For Bellow, living in the city is a philosophical activity. Urban life makes possible the discovery of the self because it highlights the ways in which individuality is an event of consciousness as well as history.” Only in the city “one can be an individual and thereby participate in the enterprise of Western culture” (Baumgarten 399). Chicago is the modern American city par excellence, a center of innovation and new technologies, and an ideal setting for Bellow’s explorations of modern life.
Robert Alter’s exploration of urban fiction in his book Imagined Cities, although focused on nineteenth and twentieth century European novels, is a useful guide to studying Bellow’s fiction. Alter’s argument is that “new objective realities, from architecture to public transport to the economy” in nineteenth century European cities led to a change in the very “perception of the fundamental categories of time and space” (Alter xi). So how did novelists respond to these changes? Or rather, how did they create these new types of cities in prose? Alter observes a trend in nineteenth century literature: “The practice of conducting the narrative more and more through the moment by moment experience—sensory, visceral, and mental—of the main character[s]” (x). He calls this practice experiential realism, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. The subject of Alter’s book Imagined Cities is “the intersection of the subtle deployment of experiential realism and the emergence of a new order of urban reality” (x).
Augie March’s experiential realism is created through the protagonist’s retrospective first person voice, an exhaustively detailed prose combining unusual use of metaphor, (often comic) juxtapositions of grandeur and the mundane, sometimes grotesque evocations of the body, and casual sentence structure. Furthermore, Bellow uses this experiential realism not just to vividly recreate Augie March’s subjective encounters with modern urban phenomena, but also to lead the reader through the philosophical contemplations provoked by such encounters. In these encounters, Augie contemplates the 20th century human condition faced with modernity and city life. Bellow’s repeated illustration of the power of the modern urban environment to shape consciousness—and to stir it into contemplation—is one of the factors that makes The Adventures of Augie March a startlingly original twentieth century American novel of the city….
The latest issue of the journal also includes essays on Seize the Day and Mr Sammler’s Planet, as well as a roundtable on the Herzog years led by Gregory Bellow.
Joseph Kell was a pseudonym used by the British writer Anthony Burgess for two novels published in the early 1960s (One Hand Clapping and Inside Mr Enderby). Burgess sadly departed this realm in 1993, but I like to imagine Mr Kell lives on into extreme old age. He turned up in my novella Red Hills of Africa.
Of that appearance, Jim Clarke at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation wrote:
[Asprey] posits an alternative universe in which Kell (rather than Burgess) lived on into his eighties in Marrakesh, writing novels such as as Skin and Blister and Instruments of Darkness. A gregarious Kell invites an American academic home to interview him, and she arrives with a retinue of spurned husband, a one-night-stand and her one-night-stand’s one-night-stand.
He discusses ‘the confiscation of his Maltese villa and his friendship with Princess Grace’ and treats them all to a round of his Hangman’s Blood cocktail, which knocks most of the guests for six. Asprey’s novella is a jeu d’esprit, at once satirising the academy in terms not dissimilar to David Lodge while simultaneously capturing some of the brio and comedy of Burgess’s own depictions of the tourist let loose in Morocco in Enderby Outside.
And here is Joseph Kell’s reappearance in my new novella Angelique in San Francisco, which is available as a free ebook: http://tinyurl.com/cegkr4g or a paperback chapbook: http://tinyurl.com/cla3bd7.
The narrator is Angelique Ruark, a young Australian backpacker in San Francisco to attend the world’s first Festival of Dhaban First Wave Cinema. This film movement briefly flourished in the West African nation of Dhaba between 1969 and 1974, a period of creative freedom between repressive dictatorships. Adopted at birth to Australian aid workers, Angelique is in fact the daughter of Jean Bouchard (a French director and mentor of the movement) and the beautiful Dhaban actress Nafissa N’Diaye. Angelique is in town to learn what she can about her long-dead parents.
In the following sequence Angelique accompanies Miles Skarpås, the festival organiser, and Souleymane Foumo, one of the original Dhaban directors who escaped the tragic fate of his colleagues for success in French television, to their disastrous appearance on Leonard F. Boyd’s late night cable TV show. Joseph Kell is another guest. Angelique, Miles, and Souleymane have been drinking.
Leonard F. Boyd’s show was broadcast live from a shack like a demountable school room on the edge of the TV studio car park. There really was no set. Under the bright lights was the host’s thronelike brown armchair. There were three brown plastic chairs, straight from a high school classroom, for Boyd’s guests. There was no proper audience section, just a bench shoved against the back wall in the shadows behind two ancient beige TV cameras on tripods. I sat on the bench and waited for the show to begin. A girl with a nose ring sat beside me.
Leonard F. Boyd was already made up for the cameras. He was a tall old man with a hulking but sagging chest. The makeup made him look like a walking corpse, although he looked a little less dead on the TV monitors. A make-up artist, her bum like two inflatable beach balls, got to work on Miles and Foumo and the third guest, an elderly English novelist named Joseph Kell. I had read Kell’s violent little book Skin and Blister when I was a teenager. I had no idea he was still alive. He ignored the make-up lady’s order to extinguish his thin cigar. He was concerned mostly that the cover of his thick new novel All The Men and Women appear clearly on camera. “Your blasted lights are reflecting off the dust jacket in unusual patterns! I see flaring veronicas in that TV monitor!” The gaffer muttered something, climbed a ladder, and fiddled with the lighting rig. “These blasted book tours,” said Kell. “It’s a sad indictment of the state of literary conversation in America that we must convene after midnight. How many people watch this show?”
Boyd sprawled in his big armchair, acting more like he was watching TV than about to appear on it. “Surely it’s not how many, Mr Kell, but that it gets to the right people.”
“I imagine your viewers are isolated literate people stranded in motels, conference travellers, insomniac salesmen, other authors on book tours.”
“I don’t think we get those statistics.”
Kell was to be interviewed first, so he stayed in his chair. Miles and Monsieur Foumo waited in the shadows behind camera #1. The cameraman counted down from five, and after a fanfare of pre-recorded Switched-On-Bach, Boyd introduced Kell and mentioned a few of his numerous publications and honours. His sentence rhythm chugged from fast and insistent to slow and mellifluous, punctuated by widening eyes and flared nostrils and bared yellow teeth. Kell didn’t discuss his big new novel. Instead he told a funny story about hanging out with Ernest Hemingway in Spain. The show took a break to run a message for a program sponsor (Scott’s Lawn Products), and then Boyd introduced Foumo and Miles as, bizarrely, “two representatives of the Africa First Fund, in San Francisco for the organisation’s annual conference on economic development.” The men stumbled drunk from the shadows and sat in the plastic seats to the left of Kell. Miles had begun to say “I think you just actually made a mistake” when the girl beside me ran in front of the cameras and began yelling “Fuck the CIA! Fuck the AFF! Capital out of Africa!” She brandished two aluminium pie trays filled with shaving cream and pushed them into the faces of Foumo and Miles. As the show’s budget did not extend to security guards who would have dragged the girl away, she gave Boyd and his guests the finger and left the studio of her own free will. The make-up woman waddled onstage to hand Foumo and Miles a sheaf of paper towel each. They tried to clean their faces. Foumo began laughing. Miles looked pissed off.
BOYD: Is somebody calling the police? I must apologise to my guests.
SKARPÅS: I think there’s—
KELL: (waving cigar) What’s this about the CIA and AFF?
BOYD: A spoonful of alphabet soup, Mr Kell. Children like it for supper, although it has little nutritional value. May we continue?
SKARPÅS: I think there’s been a mistake, Len. We’re here to speak about the Dhaban First Wave, not the African—
KELL: Oh, Dhaba! I passed through Dhaba in 1954, same week as the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The frogs were losing their empire. We knew it would not be long until Dhaba gave them the boot. I came down with a case of amoebic dysentery. One should never drink the water. Never, never.
FOUMO: (to Kell) Sir, you may remember I interviewed you once on Antenne 2 in Paris.
KELL: Je ne me rappelle pas.
FOUMO: Mais cela date déjà de vingt ans.
BOYD: English, gentlemen. We may be on public television but we’re still in the monolingual U. S. of A.. D’accord?
KELL: You’ll forgive me, Len, but I live most of the year in Francophone Africa, in Marrakech, and one so very easily lapses into French.
BOYD: (To Miles) Gentlemen, if you’re not representing the AFF, the Africa First Fund, what are—
SKARPÅS: I organised a film festival in San Francisco to celebrate the Dhaban First Wave. Monsieur Foumo is a film director.
BOYD: I guess my producer was confused. I guess we’ll be talking about cinema and not the rejuvenation of African economies.
FOUMO: Please, we can talk about that.
BOYD: We really should—
KELL: Will somebody please tell me what is the Africa First Fund?
FOUMO: An organisation, they loan money to bankrupt states at crippling interest rates, but the deal is the governments must sell their assets, cut welfare spending, reduce taxes—
SKARPÅS: They’re evangelical capitalists, Mr Kell.
FOUMO: —deregulate the labour market, open the market to foreign capital. This sort of thing, also practiced by the IMF, destroyed the economies of Zimbabwe and Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, now the AFF have done a deal with the dictator Idris Kolo to drive the Dhaban people further into slavery.
BOYD: But surely you agree that Idris Kolo has been a unifying force in the region.
FOUMO: You’re speaking shit, sir.
BOYD: Mr Foumo, while I’m sure anybody up this late is old enough for profanity, we don’t want the FCC on our backs. Now while Omar Kolo wasn’t a particularly nice guy, you surely don’t think the sins of the father should be visited upon his son?
FOUMO: The son has many sins of his own to pay for.
BOYD: Idris Kolo has been a great partner in the War on Terror.
SKARPÅS: Actually, Mr Boyd, Idris Kolo has been condemned again and again by Amnesty International for human rights violations.
BOYD: Well, I imagine that when you have al-Qaeda cells running loose in Dhaba, setting off their suicide bombs on either side of the Mali border, human rights are sometimes less pressing than the greater security of the nation. But then I’ve never been to Dhaba. Enlighten me, Mr Foumo. What is it like to live under Idris Kolo’s rule?
FOUMO: I have been in exile since 1974 when all my friends were killed or chased away by Kolo, the father.
BOYD: You have no real connection to the place now, do you? No direct experience with which you can judge the performance of the son?
FOUMO (to Miles): Tout ça, c’est des conneries.
A producer came onto the stage. She handed Boyd a piece of paper. He read it and smiled.
BOYD: Well, for those in San Francisco, the festival of Dhaban First Wave cinema is running at the Castro Theatre over the weekend and I hear there are plenty of tickets available. We’ll be back after this message.
Readers of my new novella Angelique in San Francisco might be interested to read three related short stories (‘Georges and Ines, 22-VI-82′, ‘Ruark, 23-VII-80′, and ‘Ned Gets Lucky in Lagos, IX-73′) that I published at the very end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 on this blog. They’ve since been moved to my writing website under the collective title ‘West African Scraps’ as part of my ongoing Stolchlickoff Scrapbooks.
I call these kind of stories ‘narrative marginalia’ because they exist on the margins of other fictions, in this case Angelique Ruark’s San Francisco adventure.
“I am the daughter of a great Frenchman and an African actress everybody tried to conquer. My birth parents died long ago in Paris and Dakar, respectively. I never knew them— for a long time they were just three old photos on the bedroom wall in Sydney where I was raised by an Australian family. But in my twenties a film clip from one of my birth father’s movies turned up on YouTube and I got hungry. I began to dream about Nafissa, my lost mother, particularly as I got closer to a childless thirty. I heard about the world’s first Festival of Dhaban First Wave Cinema while backpacking alone through Mexico. I changed my plans and booked a flight to San Francisco.”
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The Lion and the Hunter blog has a review up of my 2011 novella Sonny’s Guerillas.
This sense of making a movie for next to nothing nicely parallels with the nearly broke narrator, who still manages to experience true Greece without the need for a lot of money. Asprey goes ‘behind the scenes’, as it were, to delve into an as yet explored backpacker literature that Asprey manages to expose in a politically ripe period. Despite the disarray of anarchic Greece, it’s all for the creation of art. We forget that the multi-layered story is written within the confines of a novella, given the breadth of storytelling, though I feel it works better as a novella than if it had been extended to a novel. It exists in a fleeting, almost dreamlike sense.