Bellow merged the tough-guy lyricism of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and '40s and '50s Hollywood with Jewish learnedness, comic resignation, and philosophical sophistication. His masterpieces—The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Humboldt's Gift, Ravelstein—give us postwar American English at its apotheosis, an apotheosis made possible by the novelistic genius of Faulkner and Fitzgerald and which coincided with the apotheosis of American power.
Bellow's achievement is easy to miss because his prose achieves art's rarest effect: effortlessness. It's an irony of effortlessness that it makes what the rest of us find impossible seem not merely possible but easy. Great artists are like great athletes in this regard.
Consider this passage from Herzog:
There was a certain wisdom in it, he thought, as if by staggering he could recover his balance, or by admitting a bit of madness come to his senses. And he enjoyed a joke on himself. Now, for instance, he had packed summer clothes he couldn't afford and was making his getaway from Ramona. He knew how things would turn out if he went to Montauk with her. She would lead him like a tame bear in Easthampton, from cocktail party to cocktail party. He could imagine that—Ramona laughing, talking, her shoulders bare in one of her peasant blouses (they were marvelous, feminine shoulders, he had to admit that), her hair in black curls, her face, her mouth painted; he could smell the perfume. In the depths of a man's being there was something that responded with a quack to such perfume. Quack! A sexual reflex that had nothing to do with age or subtlety, wisdom, experience, history, Wissenschaft, Bildung, Wahrheit. In sickness or health there came the old quack-quack at the fragrance of perfumed, feminine skin. Yes, Ramona would lead him in his new pants and striped jacket, sipping a martini. . . . Martinis were poison to Herzog and he couldn't bear small talk. And so he would suck in his belly and stand on aching feet—he, the captive professor, she the mature, successful, laughing, sexual woman. Quack, quack!I'll bypass the impulse to celebrate this passage line-by-line. (The ellipsis, by the way, is not mine but Bellow's.) Suffice it to say that damn near every paragraph in the book is this good: funny, dancing, kinetic, muscular, erudite, mournful.
Put another way, this brief excerpt contains all the effects of Bellow's celebrated contemporaries—Roth, Barthelme, Pynchon, DeLillo, Barth, even Morrison—without breaking a sweat.
Where the rest of us strive for style, Bellow writes.
Which brings me to Javier Marías.
I picked up A Heart So White after reading that Roberto Bolaño considered Marías Spain's best living novelist. He might be. He's a hell of a writer, and A Heart So White is a beautifully crafted novel. It negotiates the public and private spaces of our lives with elegance and philosophical brilliance. It's not afraid of novelistic fireworks, and I heartily recommend the book.
But let's not confuse Marías with Bolaño. Bolaño, had he lived, might have equaled Bellow's oeuvre, and with 2666 Bolaño did something for world literature that Bellow did not attempt.
Marías, on the other hand, is a stylist. He's a craftsman. He's a rhetorician. He has labored his novel into existence. In this regard he's like Don DeLillo, who is a formidable novelist but can be frankly difficult—or, more to the point, tedious—to read after Bellow.
Here, for example, is the opening sentence of Marías's A Heart So White. You can hear the carpenter's hammer:
I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn't a girl anymore and hadn't long been back from her honeymoon, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father's gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests.There are traces, I think, of Bolaño's effusiveness in Maria's prose, so it's possible Bolaño learned something about effusiveness from Marías, who preceded him—and now, tragically, succeeds him—as a novelist. But Bolaño's effusiveness rarely—almost never—feels like a rhetorical strategy. It feels like the way that the world, as constructed by contemporary Spanish, comes into being. Like Bellow, Bolaño rallies all the resources of his particular language in order to fully, effortlessly tell the world.
As with sports, so with prose: the question to ask is, Who makes it look easy? Bellow made modern American English prose look easy. Bolaño has done the same with prose in contemporary Latin American Spanish. Marías, for all his brilliance, does not make novel-writing look easy. Instead, he makes it look stylish.