There’s something daunting about greatness — it smacks of the museum, if not the mausoleum. That’s why I’m drawn to works done by famous artists before they became congealed in their reputations. I like discovering the facility of Picasso’s youthful drawings, sinking into Antonioni’s warm-blooded films of the 1950s, when his rigorous visual style still allowed his characters to breathe, or listening to the ardent playing of the young Miles Davis, before his cool had been elevated into Cool.
Because I once dreamed of being a novelist (who hasn’t?), I’m particularly fond of my favorite writers’ first books. Reading them is like coming across the childhood photos of a sweetheart. While a handful look exactly like the grown-up selves we already know (Hemingway was always Hemingway), and others seem like wholly different people (who knew V.S. Naipaul would get so sniffy?), the vast majority display almost-familiar features still in the process of being formed.
Saul Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, tells the story of a Chicagoan named Joseph who quits his job in anticipation of being sent overseas by the army. But the draft board delays his enlistment, and so while he dangles between his old life and his new, Joseph spends alienated days hanging out. There are many things to admire about Dangling Man. It is precisely written. It captures a generation’s disaffection. And it introduces us to Bellow’s lifelong preoccupations, from smells (his nostrils are more observant than most writers’ eyes) to the painstaking, self-conscious desire to winnow true meaning from the chaff of daily life. There’s only one problem. It doesn’t sound like Saul Bellow.
Just consider the opening sentence: “There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves frequently and felt no shame at making a record of their inward transactions.” Although this is clear, confident writing, it isn’t yet distinctive; it feels mired in a dated idea of “literature.” Reading such a line we would never foresee its author nabbing the Nobel Prize and plowing through wives the way Elizabeth Taylor does husbands. Here, Bellow’s talent is like a Ferrari stuck in second gear: You can already sense the power of its engine and wonder why he’s driving us so carefully through this residential neighborhood when he should be blistering across America.
He obviously wondered, too. By his third novel, he’d cast away his modesty and begun writing with a priapic swagger, beginning The Adventures of Augie March with a famous opening line that is a declaration of artistic independence: “I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way; first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”
Now, that’s Saul Bellow. But it took him a decade to get there. Where his colleague in that great Jewish literary firm of Bellow, Malamud, Mailer and Roth was a troublemaker from the beginning — reading Goodbye, Columbus today you can picture a cranky 70-year-old Philip Roth fulminating on everything from sodomy to political correctness — Bellow had to shed his habits of politeness.
Of course, he’s hardly the only big name who took time to find himself. Who would guess that John Le Carré’s debut, Call for the Dead, would be so formulaic and jejune or that the great meta-fabulist Italo Calvino began rooted to terra firma with a coming-of-age novel about World War II?
I still remember my astonishment that Salman Rushdie could turn out a first novel, Grimus, that was almost literally unreadable. A wondrous talent lurked somewhere in that pullulating mangrove swamp of words, but Rushdie hadn’t yet harnessed it. To be fair, he’s far from the only one. Even Gabriel García Márquez took a while to stir the magic into his realism.
Although most first novels are not good, let alone great, they have their abiding pleasures. D.H. Lawrence’s autobiographical first novel, The White Peacock, is often clumsy and obvious — Sons and Lovers treats Nottingham family life with far more depth and skill — yet it gives us the germ of his philosophy (“Be a good animal; trust your instincts”), and at its best, boasts a lyrical lightness that later got smothered by bullying bombast. Milan Kundera’s The Joke may lack the epigrammatic philosophizing that won The Unbearable Lightness of Being international praise, but it remains the most tender and moving book he’s ever written. Something similar is true of Don DeLillo’s Americana, which lacks the dark, hard-edged brilliance of, say, White Noise. Yet precisely because his prose is less immaculately tooled, this debut also has more feeling; there’s still room for the ordinary noise of frail humanity to leak through the refined mesh of his style.
Of course, fiction writers are hardly the most modest of creatures — they specialize in inventing worlds — and in the days since Bellow started out, the whole idea of the first novel has taken on a grandiose first dimension. Increasingly, one common feature of first novelness is the youthful impulse to redefine the entire world by sheer force of will — Jonathan Franzen made just such a stab (not successfully) in The Twenty-Seventh City.