Begin at the beginning, the King said, gravely, and go on till you come to the end; then stop.
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Theres something daunting about greatness it smacks of the museum, if not the mausoleum. Thats why Im drawn to works done by famous artists before they became congealed in their reputations. I like discovering the facility of Picassos youthful drawings, sinking into Antonionis 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 hasnt?), Im 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 Bellows 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 generations disaffection. And it introduces us to Bellows 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. Theres only one problem. It doesnt 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 isnt 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, Bellows talent is like a Ferrari stuck in second gear: You can already sense the power of its engine and wonder why hes driving us so carefully through this residential neighborhood when he should be blistering across America.
He obviously wondered, too. By his third novel, hed 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, thats 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, hes hardly the only big name who took time to find himself. Who would guess that John Le Carrés 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 hadnt yet harnessed it. To be fair, hes 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. Lawrences 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 Kunderas 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 hes ever written. Something similar is true of Don DeLillos 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; theres still room for the ordinary noise of frail humanity to leak through the refined mesh of his style.