Before the author Saul Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 for what the Foundation called “the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work,” he had written a novel entitled The Victim, which the critic Lionel Trilling described as “a work of extraordinary achievement” (A Company of Readers, The Free Press, 2001, p. 100). “It was striking in its conception,” Trilling continued, “and it was marked by an originality of observation and a vivacity of moral insight.” In reading that novel lately, one such passage of original observation caught my attention as instructive for both writers and readers.
The passage illustrates what results from the judicious choice and use of verbs. As you read this passage of four sentences, think of the second and third sentences as transitional from the events named in the first and the scene painted broadly in the fourth. The very different mood you feel between action and description is caused by the verbs Bellow chose and how he employed them. The central character, Leventhal, has just returned home to his apartment:
He flung away his hat and his jacket, pulled off his shoes, and went to open the windows and push aside the curtains. It had turned into a beautiful night. The air was trembling and splendid. The moon had come out; there were wide-spaced stars, and small clouds pausing and then spinning as the cool gusts broke through the heat. (Saul Bellow, The Victim, Viking Press, 1956, p. 66]
That first sentence comprises a balanced sentence, with the conjunction and serving as the fulcrum, twelve words on one side, ten on the other. We are with Leventhal as he enters his apartment, in the midst of all he is doing, because every act we are told of, with the exception of one, is transitive: four of the five verbs have objects, and so the character’s moves name direct results. The two verbs of the first half of the sentence are phrasal, meaning the verbs work with adverbs, which together target a direct object: he flung away hat and jacket, and pulled off his shoes. Read the sentence aloud and you’ll hear the momentum building in the cadence these phrasal verbs create. And then in the second half of that same first sentence, the two verbs that name objects, open the windows and push aside the curtains are infinitives for the intransitive verb went. That single intransitive verb is what accounts for the briskness we feel as we follow the character. We are moving, almost rushing, because we are unobstructed now by any direct object—until we reach the purpose of our going: to open windows and push aside curtains, again both transitive actions that bring termination and purpose.
What has ended now is the character’s arrival home, and what ensues is the peace he feels there. Neither of the two verbs of the second and third transitional sentences, had turned and was, is transitive, and so we rightly sense an impression rather than an impact: a beautiful night and splendid air. That night and air englobe a new scene of objects, the moon and stars and clouds, and the rush and bang of our arrival gives way to an expansive, surrounding peace. The moon is night’s light, its own illumination only a reflection of the only brilliance there really is, now far away for a time. And that leaves the stars, not merely stars but wide-spaced stars, and this marks again the contrast between the tight, almost concussive transitive action of the first sentence and the encompassing, open peace within which such commotion was occurring. Only one transitive action occurs after the first sentence of this passage, again in the form of a phrasal verb: cool gusts broke through the heat, and that action has not a human agent filled with intent, but a natural one, simply being.
Our best writers provoke such reflections because they have worried over, consciously or not, the structure of their composition. Grammar is sometimes compared to geometry, a measuring of verbal configurations. That comparison is apt, and when applied to the best of our literature, can draw out unexpected insights from the shape and design of an accomplished author’s language.