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in the clearing

07.16.2012

Bellow stands, amongst the greats, as a great amiable beast (if he is like Faulkner, the difference is where Faulkner scowls, Bellow laughs). A pugilist of prose. Gut-hit sentences. But it’s not you that’s punched—as in Denis Johnson, say, or Bukowski—you watch it, and that’s how you feel it. Reading is the greatest of the spectator sports, after all.

And Chicago is the greatest spectator city? New York? The things a keen seer can see! After the fiftieth page of Augie March I could have stopped at any time and been absolutely satisfied. The fact that it continues for another five-hundred is a lesson in reader gratitude. Augie is only a welterweight to Humboldt’s Gift, or maybe it’s just that this early masterpiece wasn’t as well trained. It still throws many of the same punches, but fewer and farther between, though not far enough to not take your breath out of you nearly every other page. Bellow’s is exactly the type of prose I like a while to read. It all depends on how much you can take at one time. Twenty rounds? Thirty? That’s a lot of sweat and exertion and brute force.

Yet, even with all this, the prose is still swift, shapely, easy-flowing. In other words, floats like a butterfly.

So Bellow does his violence to the English language. As this was a language mercilessly forged from two widely separate traditions, it has a history of violence. It is meant to be beaten. It glows best that way.

Some of it, from Augie March

“He didn’t have the long-distance burrowing vices of people who take you in by mildness and then turn out to have been digging and tunneling all the while—as skeptical judges are proud to point out when they see well-thought-of heads breaking through the earth in dark places.”

“Maybe his reading was related to it, and the governor’s clear-eyed gaze he had developed. Of John Sevier. Or of Jackson in the moment when the duelist’s bullet glanced off the large button of his cloak and he made ready to fire—a lifted look of unforgiving, cosmological captaincy; that look where honesty had the strength of a prejudice, and foresight appeared as the noble cramp of impersonal worry in the forehead.”

“Maybe she herself was stupefied by what she had, her slaying weight. It must have pressed down on her thoughts, like any great vitality in nature. Like the aims that live in the blood of grizzly or tiger, bearing down on the mind of such beasts with square weight, a manifestation of one thing carried out completely, to the very stripes and claws.”

“He was white, thick, and peevish, and had the kind of insolence that sometimes affects the eyes like snowblindness, making you think there’s something arctic about having a million bucks.”

“I still had the craving that I had given into all summer long when I had lived on books, to have the reach to grasp both ends of the frame and turn the big image-making glass to any scene of the world.”

“He looked at me with a face in which some original beauty was turned down as a false lead.”

“I hadn’t had a look at Chicago yet since my return. Well, here it was again, westward from this window, the gray snarled city with the hard black straps of rails, enormous industry cooking and its vapor shuddering the air, the climb and fall of its stages in construction or demolition like mesas, and on these the different powers and sub-powers crouched and watched like sphinxes. Terrible dumbness covered it, like a judgment that would never find its word.”

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