If you get stuck, just write like Saul Bellow
April 29, 2013
Years ago, I got on a Saul Bellow kick and read several of his novels in quick succession. I believe those works were, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift and Henderson the Rain King. I had forgotten about this experience until recently when I saw his name a time or two and those references brought his work back to mind for me.
In the words of the Swedish Nobel Committee, his writing exhibited “the mixture of rich picaresque novel and subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession interspersed with philosophic conversation, all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age.” His best-known works include The Adventures of Augie March,Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler’s Planet,Seize the Day, Humboldt’s Gift and Ravelstein. Widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest authors, Bellow has had a “huge literary influence.” (footnotes omitted)
In this occasional series, we focus on the style of great writers in the hope that exposure to their works will kindle a spark in the deep recesses of some contemporary writers, who may file away something that may assist them in the writing craft.
Bellow’s iconic work, The Adventures of Augie March, is widely viewed as a watershed moment in American fiction writing, a book that ushered in a new “American” style.
As is our practice in this blog, we will let the author’s work speak for itself. Here is the first paragraph of The Adventures of Augie March.
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. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
That passage, which first saw the light of day in 1953, today sounds familiar to us as a vibe with which we are accustomed, the protagonist with an in your face attitude, who wears the energy of his province as a badge of honor.
I suppose such a selection is living proof of the power of a great stylist, one who with a few strokes of his pen reveals to us a new mode of expression.