“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, gravely, “and go on till you come to the end; then stop.”
— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
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.
DeLillo once claimed that Thomas Pynchon raised the bar for his whole generation, and one understands why. While it took a world-class novelist like Bellow years to find his voice, Pynchon was one of those writers — like Thomas Mann in Buddenbrooks, or the James Jones of From Here to Eternity — who seemingly emerged from the womb full-blown. Published when he was only 26, V. remains an astonishing book whose virtues — historical sweep, merry hopscotching between high and low style, and emphasis on paranoid narcissism — became the template for decades of subsequent novelists. In a way, the book was almost too dazzling. Where countless first novels are cursed by an unruly outpouring of emotion that must be suppressed, then channeled, Pynchon spent 40 years struggling to fill his dazzling conceptions with feeling — and succeeded. Mason & Dixon is his most touching book.
Writing such a big book the first time out takes more than talent — it demands the headlong audacity of one who refuses to make the slow, conventional careerist climb to the pantheon but wants to strap on a jet pack and zoom to the top right away. And the ordinary careerists know it. It’s no accident that the Massachusetts politician John Updike has spent decades badmouthing Günter Grass. They both published their first novels in 1959, but where Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair was a pointedly “poetic” little novel about old people — the sort of academic tour de force you’d expect of a recent Harvard grad who’d put in a few years burnishing his prose style at The New Yorker — Grass brought out The Tin Drum. Over the decades, this great leviathan of a novel about sex and eels, Nazis and post-war Germany, has inspired countless other novels from Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (both won the Booker Prize) to David Grossman’s The Book of Intimate Grammar. No wonder Updike can’t stand Grass: He leapt while Updike looked for the safety net.
Rushdie once described the key lessons he’d absorbed from Grass: “Go for broke. Always try and do too much . . . When you’ve done it once, start all over again and do it better.” Grass did precisely that with Dog Years, but naturally, such advice is easier to dispense than to obey. For every fiction writer like Mann, Grass or Pynchon, who seems to skip from one ambitious work to the next, the literary world is stocked with those who were paralyzed, if not silenced by their first books’ success. Margaret Mitchell never wrote a book after Gone with the Wind; Jay McInerney got abused for not living up to the promise of Bright Lights, Big City (he’s an F. Scott Fitzgerald who never wrote The Great Gatsby or Tender Is the Night). Just last year, Mark Moskowitz devoted an entire documentary, The Stone Reader, to the story of Dow Mossman, who vanished from the scene after the critical acclaim for his sub-Faulknerian 1972 novel The Stones of Summer. In that film, the legendary critic Leslie Fiedler pointed out that Mossman’s literary silence was far from bizarre. “It’ s more typical for a writer to write one book and stop.”
Nobody felt the weight of his first book more publicly than Ralph Ellison whose 1952 Invisible Man may well be the greatest American novel of the last half century — a masterpiece of almost hallucinatory precision about race, alienation, identity, politics, identity politics and literature itself, whose riffs come steeped in Kafka, T.S. Eliot and the blues. To have written such a novel is achievement enough for anyone’s lifetime, yet despite its almost extraterrestrial excellence — it almost seemed to drop from the sky like one of the monoliths in 2001 — Invisible Man proved something of a millstone around its creator’s neck. Ironically, the book’s commercial and critical success made Ellison an all-too-visible novelist. He felt he had to live up to himself — while the whole world watched.
Still, it’s hard to imagine first-time fiction writers treating Ellison’s strange, accomplished, frustrating career as a cautionary tale. “I should be so lucky,” you can hear them thinking, as they dangle in literary limbo awaiting the verdicts of editors, critics and the book-buying public. And they’re right to think so. For even in these days when hardback novels have the same shelf life as fresh shellfish, writing fiction remains an act of enormous courage and vanity. And every first book still comes wrapped in an aura of promise: For the reader, the chance to glimpse a new vision of the world; for the author, a stab at greatness, which is both the tantalizing fruit of all literary achievement and, as Dangling Man’s Joseph so accurately notes, “the rock our hearts are abraded on.”