A Question of Ratios
How to write a good sentence? This sounds like a useful initial question at a creative writing workshop, but what interests us is what it means from the perspective of literature. What makes a sentence individual, assertive, forceful? Can that sentence be translated into another language? If it can, does that mean the sentence isn't that important? If it cannot, should we be reading translations at all, relying only on works in languages we understand clearly? In This I Believe, Carlos Fuentes relates a conversation with his friend Milan Kundera. Have you read Kafka? Kundera asks. Fuentes replies of course. But have you read him in German? the Czech writer insists. No, Fuentes admits. "Then you have not read Kafka? By this reckoning many would not have read Kundera either, since most of his key books including The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being have been in Czech, a language very few people speak, as opposed to Spanish, French or German. Kafka was, of course, himself Czech, but wrote in German, a very deliberate German according to Kundera, a clumsier, unfinished German by J. M. Coetzee's reckoning. In looking at a new translation of The Castle, Coetzee notes: "In the second half of The Castle, in particular, Kafka slips on occasion into some very tired-sounding prose. Here is an extract from the reported narration of young Hans Brunswick." "I give it in Harman's translation," Coetzee says, "which reproduces Kafka's syntax and gives an indication of how light Kafka's punctuation is. "Father...had actually wanted to go and see K. in order to punish him...only Mother had dissuaded him. But above all Mother herself generally didn't want to speak to anyone and her question about K. was no exception to that rule, on the contrary, in mentioning him she could have said that she wished to see him, but she had not done so, and had thus made her intentions plain." Coetzee says, "in producing English sentences as slack as Kafka's own, Harman has in principle made the right decision." (New York Review of Books) Yet Coetzee nevertheless has reservations. Kundera believes that while the work may have been unfinished, the changes often made by translators to tidy it up would be countering Kafka's distinctiveness. What Kundera sees as vital to any translation of a writer's work is that "the supreme authority should be the author's personal style." Many translators have failed to respect this. Speaking of one passage in The Castle, Kundera says, "Kafka uses only one semi-colon, In the edition established by Max Brod there are thirteen. Vialatte reaches thirty-one. Lortholary twenty-eight, plus three colons." (Testaments Betrayed)
But how do we define a writer's personal style? Elena Ferrante talks about the sentence thus. "What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know." (Paris Review). She speaks of this in response to the interviewers saying that various critics including James Wood have talked about her sincerity, a difficult to place term since it can appear to rest beyond the work. If a writer praises unions in a novel and then insists on firing his maid when she wants to join one we might question the sincerity of his or her work. But that would be too simple. Firstly, we would be attributing the narrative aspect to the author's life, when there might be a very good internal reason within the novel why a character wishes to join a union; a very good reason beyond it why he doesn't want his maid to do so. We might insist the writer is a hypocrite, but that needn't at all affect the sincerity of the work. So where can sincerity be found? Ferrante says that in Days of Abandonment she reckoned the first two-thirds of the novel were fine; she understood exactly why her character gets into the crisis she finds herself in after her husband deserts her. But Ferrante says she "didn't know how to get Olga out of her crisis truthfully, as truthfully as I'd narrated her falling into it." If your character falls very deeply, then a light solution will make the work insincere. The book follows Olga's breakdown after her husband leaves her for a much younger woman who he would have initially met, years earlier, when the girl was only fifteen. Later in the book, a friendly neighbour looks like he might help her out the funk, but problems quickly arise and it is only much later still when she begins to see him from a perspective that might lead to the possibility of a relationship. The sincerity of the novel doesn't at all rest on this relating to Ferrante's own life. As she says, "it's not enough to say, as we increasingly do, these events truly happened, it's my real life, the names are the real ones..." "If the writing is inadequate, it invalidates the most honest biographical truths." What counts is that the writing acknowledges in the depth of the crisis it has created the difficulty of resolving it too quickly or too happily. This means there is a relationship between fiction and the real world, but this has nothing to do with its basis in a true story, and far more to do with the writer creating situations that are plausible within their own parameters partly because those parameters aren't that different from life. If someone were to tell you that their neighbour who'd had a collapse after their husband left them two months earlier had now met the love of her life, one might understandably wonder if that was likely, or whether the woman was so incapable of facing the pain of the break-up she had retreated into rather than advanced towards a new relationship. Obviously, a writer might want to show that this latter option is possible. But the burden of proof would rest on them to do so, or they might perhaps insist on an absurdist, exaggerated tone that deliberately refuses the usual psychological coordinates. Yet even if they were to offer the latter, much of the humour would be inclined to come from the countering of our expectations.
This doesn't mean a writer needs to be realist or absurdist to suspend our disbelief, but they have to play fair to an internal logic within the material (and a sense of plausibility beyond it, no matter how flexible). There is an anthropological structure of the imaginary, to use Gilbert Durand's phrase, that needn't fit into reality - so evident in anything from the fable where animals can take on human characteristics, or the fairytale, where pumpkins can turn into carriages. But when Ferrante talks about the sincerity of the novel, it lies in playing fair to the premises it has set up. Just as a writer interested in what words mean cannot easily write a sentence like "it never rains but it pours" as if offering is a new insight and formulation, neither can a writer interested in characterization generate a situation where the character is distraught one week and too easily contented the next. Ferrante sees that the problem can take months to work out, trying to see how sincerely you allow someone to escape their misery. Another way of looking at it though would be to see the problem earlier in the book, and changing the tone there. Salman Rushdie talks quite interestingly about this when saying: "For example, there's almost always a moment when I'm writing a book when it suddenly clogs and I can't go on. It sort of jams. One of the things I've learned through experience is when that happens, the problem is never there - the problem is never at the point where it jams. The problem is back somewhere." Rushdie believes, "there's been something wrongly imagined, you know, or under-imagined. The wrong thing has been set in motion or something that should have been set in motion has not been set in motion. Then you have to go back and find out where the blockage is. It's sort of like plumbing: you have to find out where the blockage is and then send the rooter guy. [Laughs] And once you've cleared the blockage then you find you can go on." (January)
Ferrante could have decided that for the book to achieve a happier conclusion it needed a lighter initial tone. She could have like Rushdie noticed that the problem didn't lie two-thirds of the way through, but much earlier on. But this is where the good writer is rarely a pragmatist who looks for the easiest solution but is one who tries to find where the book's most important problem resides. It would seem for Ferrante in Days of Abandonment it rested in those days of abandonment; not the days of recovery. Any recovery had to be true to the initial crisis for the writer; the nature of the crisis in the context of its resolution had to be consistent for the reader. This is where we might sense a writer remaining coherent within the context of the book, but less so from the perspective of the author. If a writer is someone who finds that their weighty books don't sell and then writes lighter novels which cheapen the earlier themes, the given books themselves might still be internally consistent but feel like 'sell-outs' within a broader literary context. The notion of sincerity in literature is complex, reliant on numerous variables and often requires the fuller context of the author's work and the expectations of the critic. If the critic thinks a writer has sold out, what does this mean?
Some might return to the nature of the sentence. Martin Amis, speaking at the 25th Chicago Humanities Festival insists that no sentence should repeat the same prefix of suffix: no sentence should have conform and conscience in it; no sentence should have engineering and reckoning in it. Of course, the above sentence has broken that rule, since we have put conscience and conform in the same sentence; have used both engineering and reckoning - and just done it again. Elsewhere. Amis indicates that you "don't start a paragraph with the same word as the previous one. That goes doubly for sentences." Never use 'amongst.' Never use 'whilst.' Anyone who uses 'whilst' is subliterate." (Writers Write) Is this technique or snobbery, we may wonder? How far into his presuppositions has Amis gone to arrive at these principles? If the writer happens to write sentences as long as Proust's, there is a far more reasonable chance that there will repetitions on suffixes and prefixes than if a writer utilises the shorter sentences Amis usually offers. Here is a sentence of Proust's, albeit in English, that fails Amis's rule, thrice. "Mamma, on the other hand, understood very well; she knew that a great deal of the pleasure which a woman finds in entering a class of society different from that in which she has previously lived would be lacking if she had no means of keeping her old associates informed, of those others, relatively more brilliant, with whom she had replaced them." We have entering and keeping (as well as lacking), previously and relatively, relatively and replaced. If Amis insisted that his position was merely his own this would be fine; making it a more general principle rules out writers whose significance is unequivocal, even if their sentences fail a narrow test that can leave Amis looking like a very parochial writer indeed. Personal principles are one thing - but generalizing from the creatively particular leads to statements that so many examples of good writing contradict. It could perhaps even make Amis appear, well, a little sub-literate.
One might say there is no ethos to Amis's claims; no sense in which the words on the page engage with the complexity of selves and situations a writer wrestles with. One could follow Amis's principles and write appalling sentences; one can ignore them and write beautiful ones. Thus we may believe his claims are empty snobbery rather than profound decree. Compared to Rushdie's suggestions, and certainly Ferrante's crisis of narrative construction, Amis's appear blithely prescriptive. We might also be reminded that many great writers don't always write well, a point Somerset Maugham addresses in Ten Authors and Their Novels. "No one, as far as I know, has ever claimed that Balzac, Dickens and Emily Bronte wrote with distinction. Flaubert said it was impossible for him to read Stendhal because his style was so bad. Even in translation it is obvious that Dostoevsky's style was slovenly. It looks as if to write well were not an essential part of the novelist's equipment." Maugham reckons of the ten novelists he investigated - Fielding, Austen, Dickens, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Melville, Bronte and Stendhal - "Flaubert alone seems to have made the effort to write well." If Maugham has a point, and if we can still see some significance in the sentence, where would it be likely to reside if not in the prefixes, suffixes etc that Amis claims are so vital? It rests perhaps in the accumulation of sensibility. Joan Didion says of Doris Lessing, "she does not want to write well. Her leaden disregard for even the simplest rhythms of language, her arrogantly bad ear for dialogue - all that is beside her own point. Mrs Lessing writes exclusively in the service of immediate cosmic reform: she wants to write, as the writer Anna in The Golden Notebook wanted to write, only to "create a new way of looking at life." Didion might scoff at this, but when Geoff Dyer questioned the brilliance of Amis he did so thus: "On the one hand I admire the way he works so hard, but this work all seems to take place at his desk. I don't get a sense of writing as part of a larger project of developing his inner life, I sense no yearning for enlightenment (he'd probably take that as a compliment), only a drive to keep improving as a writer - and this, for me, inhibits his capacity for doing so. As a result I simply read him; I might have been influenced by him but I've not been formed by him the way I have by the writers I love: Auden, Berger, Camus, Rebecca West, Kapuscinksi..." (Independent)
We can half agree with Dyer here, noting however that one can remain at the desk and still transform: that is the point of the writer as opposed to the adventurer. If anybody can follow Pascal's dictum All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone, (Pensees) it is surely the novelist. The question is what does a writer do when at their desk: do they write ever more precisely singular sentences, or ever more penetrating insights into the predicament of being? Didion may accuse Lessing of writing that demands cosmic reform but that wouldn't seem to be how Lessing sees it. Sitting quietly in her room for Lessing leads to writing and thinking, and this is what generates the need not at all for cosmic reform but for comprehending the self in its various manifestations. It may not be the same as creating characters but it might be the inverse of Amis's approach. "My natural response to things is quite optimistic, Lessing says, but then I start thinking - and that is a different matter altogether." ('Against Utopia') When Dyer says he "has never been impressed by him [Amis] as a thinker", It rests on the idea that the writing is well written but the same obligation is missing when it comes to the thought. We can notice this in what might pass for a typical Amis observation. Here his central character recently "had involved himself in an argument on his doorstep with a proselytizing Mormon (soon to be sent on his way with a taunt) who had never heard of Moroni: Moroni, the nineteenth-century American angel, the Messiah of the wild-goose chase in whose name the bearded ranter trudged from house to house. Big clue, that: Moroni. Moron with an I on the end of it. Moronic with the c." (The Information) This is from Money: "and with a chick on the premises you cannot live the old life. You just cannot live it. I know: I checked. The hungover handjob athwart the unmade bed - you can't do it. Blowing your nose into a coffee filter - there isn't the opportunity. Peeing in the basin - they just won't stand for it. No woman worth the name would let it happen. Women have pretty ways."
Would we call this thinking, taking into account Dyer and Lessing's remarks? Perhaps we can call it not so much thought as the prejudicial. The tone is assertive but the thought negligible. These are narrators obviously and not Amis, and different types of narrators: The Information is in the third person; Money the first person. But we can find similar remarks throughout Amis's fiction and non-fiction writing that insists on the comic generalization, the witty remark that indicates a writer conjuring up outrageous ideas without feeling obliged to hold to them as thoughts. They are the sort of remarks made not to develop one's own thinking but to check out the reaction on other people's faces. Here, by contrast, is Lessing in The Grass is Singing: "It is terrible to destroy a person's picture of himself in the interest of truth or some other abstraction, How can one know he will be able to create another to enable him to go on living? Mary's idea of herself was destroyed and she was not fitted to recreate herself." In the short story 'The Trinket Box', Lessing says, "when other people die, it is a thing of horror, swellings, gross flesh, smells, sickness. But Aunt Maud dies as a leaf shrivels. It seems that a little dryish gasp, a little shiver, and the papery flesh will crumble and leave beneath the bedclothes she scarcely disturbs a tiny white skeleton." In the Lessing examples, we feel a writer thinking her thoughts through to their depths rather than seeking their shallow assertiveness in the outrage of another. They seem to justify the term thinking. The sentences are as good as the thought that contains them. Sure, we can be ambivalent towards Lessing's prose style. Elizabeth Lowry says Lessing has been sharply criticized for the pedestrian quality of her prose, and as vigorously defended. In her defence, for example, Clare Hanson argued in 1990 that the inert language of The Good Terrorist should be read in the same way that we read Joyce's 'tired style' at the end of Ulysses: Lessing's book 'is a grey and textureless novel because it is "about", or speaks, a grey and textureless language: it is, surely, quite missing the point to see the drabness as the symptom of authorial laziness.' But Lowry says, "unfortunately this position becomes harder to maintain as Lessing's oeuvre increases and the leaden quality of the prose persists, regardless of its subject." (London Review of Books) Hanson has fallen into the fallacy of imitative form and Lowry is right to call her out on it. But the issue shouldn't be whether the prose bounces but whether it possesses a thought. If we were to say that "the characteristic quality in a good father is the fallible acceptance that he requires his family as much as the family needs him" it might read better than "there are many qualities a good father would need to possess, but one of the most underestimated is surely that he knows how much he needs his family just as they know how much they need him." The same idea is presented in both instances, but the first asserts, the second suggests. The first sentence has more force but this rests on a resoluteness that is nevertheless much less nuanced than the second. Lessing is a writer who offers this nuance far more often than Amis does. In this we sense a writer thinking in her room; Amis swivelling around in his chair.
This concern with the quality of the sentence is a means of imposing form on content, of course, but any work that wants to pass for the aesthetic is inclined to do that. It is all a question of priorities. Plenty of writers offer dull sentences; many sentences are buoyant with other people's prose styles and influences. James Wood puts it well in The Fun Stuff when saying "twentieth-century literature, violently conscious of mass culture [sees] this idea of the self as a kind of borrowed tissue, full of other people's germs. Among modern and postmodern writers, Beckett, Nabokov, Richard Yates, Thomas Bernhard, Muriel Spark, Don De Lillo, Martin Amis, David Foster Wallace have all employed and impaled cliche in their work." Writing on Paul Auster, though, Wood thinks he uses the cliches straight. "Cliche is under no significant pressure in his work; it just holds its soft hands with firmer words in the usual way." Wood quotes a passage from The Music of Chance and notes: "there are not semantic obstacles, lexical difficulties or syntactical challenges," but why should there be? This might seem like a nave response when so many writers have acknowledged that using prose which causes no difficulties is to fall into predictable patterns of thought. However, if we take the following sentence from Auster, we can see that it depends on the context. Take this sentence, "everything had changed". If someone is describing how they went off to war and came back; that their wife has left or they have lost the house, then this can seem like lazy hyperbole. A common phrase leading to unexamined situations. But when Auster uses it in The New York Trilogy, the thing he is describing has changed in every detail. He has returned to his house and discovered "the furniture had been rearranged. Where there had once been a table there was now a chair. Where there had once been a sofa there was now a table. There were new pictures on the walls, a new rug on the floor." It is what follows that most mundane of sentences which matters. If a writer were to describe the person's feelings, we would be in clich, but in describing a changing environment we are not. We could rewrite the sentence so that it is no longer predictable but still arrive at an obvious clich of sensibility. "My life was bedlam, turned upside down and inside out, my messy innards loose with despair, I didn't know whether I wanted to vomit or defecate but knew that was it. My life was over. My wife had left." The sentence avoids the predictability of "everything has changed", but doesn't add much to the hyperbole of everything having changed.
Amis would seem to us a master of the commonplace within uncommon wording, a writer so often given to taking a regular turn of phrase and giving it a good mastication. Here is an example from The Information. "He spent his first two hours in New York wearing an expression of riveted horror. This expression of riveted horror was not a response to American violence or vulgarity, to the disposition of American wealth, the quality of American politicians, the condition of American schooling, or the standard of American book reviewing (hopelessly variable but often chasteningly high, he would later conclude). No. This expression of riveted horror Richard came to know well. He looked horrified and riveted, and he knew he looked horrified and riveted, because he was staring into the riveted horror of his own face." Amis's paragraph introduces us to the horror of Richard's own visage; that there is nothing worse than an American hotel with a light above it and a light inside it. It is an amusing episode but we might wonder whether it is at all necessary to draw out aspects of American culture and play up the repetition of rivet and horror. There is a lot of employing and impaling of clich but to what end? If avoiding cliche is of such importance, then what does the avoidance serve? Amis's passage might be mildly funny but the only hint of insight comes in the next paragraph when he discusses the specifics of American mirrors. The opening paragraph is a prelude as red herring - a few words to warm us up before the main act as we find it doesn't have much to do with the main act at all, except to tell us he is Stateside. We might also note there is a sentence with a couple of suffixes that end with 'ing' - a deliberate attack on those philistines that wouldn't only include Proust, but also Amis's two favourite writers, Bellow and Nabokov?
We needn't be too hard on Amis; but only as hard as he might wish to be on other writers. One of our purposes here is to understand the sentence as so much more than a cosmetic problem. If we can show that superficially so many writers fail a certain criterion, then we can propose the criterion should lie elsewhere. If one of the advantages of a cosmetically brilliant sentence is that most can agree on it, nevertheless this is positivism in fictional form, a means by which to allow for agreement without testing too many underlying presuppositions. Nobody will argue that a word like wish has one syllable and a word like many has two, and one could choose to build a consensus about the good sentence on such a basis. We can all agree that the second syllable of any and many is the same, and then a great number would concur that a sentence that leads to a rhyme on any and many wouldn't be a very good one. For example: "when asked about money he said he didn't want any, but when asked about friends he said he wished he had many." Few would deny this is clumsy, and we could trace its clumsiness to the unequivocal fact that any and many are words of two syllables that end on the same syllable. But what about, "it rained in January, and in February it did not stop. If I set one foot off the top of the steps that came up from the flat, I sank in clay to the ankle." This is from Lessing's short story 'A Year in Regent's Park'. Did it really rain constantly for an entire month, and what about the stop at the end of the first sentence; the top that creates a clunky rhyme with stop; the sank that chimes with ank in ankle? It has none of the euphony or precision of this one from Nabokov: "He borrowed an aluminum flask from friends, repaired his soles, bought a belt and a fancy-style flannel shirt - one of those cowardly things which shrink in the first wash." ('Cloud, Castle, Lake') Nor this one from Joyce: "Polly was a slim girl of nineteen; she had light soft hair and a small full mouth. Her eyes, which were grey with a shade of green through them, had a habit of glancing upwards when she spoke with anyone, which made her look like a little perverse madonna." ('The Boarding House') The consonant f works well in Nabokov's sentence, 'flask from friends, 'fancy style flannel shirt", and the sentence contains within it a very original play on the word shrink. Cowards shrink from others, but of course, a shirt doesn't shrink from anybody, it just shrinks. It offers a fine sense of defamiliarization by playing on its meaning. Joyce's sentence is dense with description, precise in its delineation of character. The cadence of light soft hair works sonorously with a small full mouth, and slim, soft and small give the first sentence a sibilance that at the same time captures a gentle aspect of the person described.
Most would agree that the very brief passages from Nabokov and Joyce are better than the one from Lessing, but this would still be far from objective. The sentences are also taken out of context, the full story might insist that a more ornate style would ruin the general tone. Indeed, Lessing sees the inner workings of a story as so fundamental that she tries to remain within the continuity of the piece that she is writing. When asked if she writes from beginning to end, she says, "yes, I do. I've never done it any other way. If you write in bits, you lose some kind of very valuable continuity of form. It is an invisible inner continuity. Sometimes you only discover it is there if you are trying to reshape it." (Paris Review) Nabokov works very differently. When asked; "do you jump from one section to another, or do you move from the beginning through to the end," he replies "the pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose." (openculture.com) Lessing's approach would seem far more instinctive, and perhaps consequently sees the sentence as no more than a means to an end rather than a jewel in a very ornate crown.
Thus we are still left wondering what a good sentence happens to be; so much is down to taste and context. A character in Michel Houellebecq 's The Possibility of an Island reckons Nabokov's writing resembles a 'collapsed pastry'; a vivid image of pompous prose that we might think Nabokov himself might admire if it weren't applied to his own work. Houellebecq's casual remark nevertheless can prove more generally useful. Nabokov's sentences do sometimes seem to collapse under the weight of their own ingenuity, as though there is nothing underpinning the sentence that justifies the skill that happens to be put into it. Here are two from Nabokov's 'Spring in Fialta: "Again and again she hurriedly appeared in the margins of my life, without influencing in the least its basic text. One summer morning (Friday - because housemaids were thumping out carpets in the sun-dusted yard), my family was away in the country and I was lolling and smoking in bed when I heard the bell ring with tremendous violence - and there she was in the hall having burst in to leave (incidentally) a hairpin and (mainly) a trunk illuminated with hotel labels, which a fortnight later was retrieved for her by a nice Austrian boy, who (according to intangible but sure symptoms) belonged to the same very cosmopolitan association of which I was a member. There are a lot of parentheses in this second sentence, which we might link to the parenthetical role the woman has in the narrator's life, in the margins of the main text. But there are a lot of parentheses elsewhere in the story, and many in other stories in the same collection, Nabokov's Dozen. It isn't then a deliberate device for the sake of the paragraph, but a more general grammatical tool that Nabokov incorporates into his work. We don't want to condemn the parenthesis in fiction; only to suggest that Houellebecq's point could have been well made with an example such as this one. The sentences does seem to collapse onto itself in a heap. There appears to be nothing spinally strong enough to hold it upright. By contrast here is one by Proust: "This work of the artist, this struggle to discern beneath matter, beneath experience, beneath words, something that is different to them, is a process exactly the reverse of that which, in those everyday lives which we live with our gaze averted from ourselves, is at every moment being accomplished by vanity and passion and the intellect, and habit too, when they smother our true impressions, so as entirely to conceal them from us, beneath a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life." (Time Regained) Though Nabokov says while analysing Proust's work "Style, I remind you, is the manner of an author, the particular manner that sets him apart from any other author..." (Lectures on Literature), as he then goes on to discuss Proust's use of metaphor, subordinate clauses and parenthetical clauses, the style is only as good as the idea it contains, just as the most brilliant dance movements are impossible without the core strength that allows for such brilliance. An idea needn't be a philosophical one, of course, it needn't be an idea in any obvious sense of the term. When Fitzgerald says "so many writers, Conrad for instance, have been aided by being brought up in a metier unrelated to literature. It gives an abundance of material, and more important, an attitude from which to view the world..." (The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald) it is this attitude from which to view the world that is the core strength we are discussing. This may or may not concern experience, but it must at least, it seems, possess an attitude from which to view the world. A writer's style is part of this attitude, otherwise, sentences that are ostensibly well written will have nothing to sustain them, nothing to stop them collapsing on top of themselves.
In Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly disagrees with Maugham when the latter says, "I have never much patience with the writers who claim from the reader an effort to understand their meaning." Connolly believes that "this is an abject surrender for it is part of the tragedy of modern literature that the author, anxious to avoid mystifying the reader, is afraid to demand of him any exertions". Connolly like Nabokov thinks that style is important, "technique remains the soundest base for a diagnosis," he claims, believing that "it should be possible to learn as much about an author's income and sex-life from one paragraph of his writing as from his cheque stubs and his love-letters. Yet he also differentiates between what he calls the Mandarin style and the Vernacular, between writers who adopt an ornate or a less elaborate prose style. The Mandarin "style at its best yields the richest and most complex expression of the English language. It is the diction of Donne, Addison, Johnson, Gibbons, de Quincey" and others. "It is characterized by long sentences with many dependent clauses, by the use of the subjunctive and conditional...subtlety and conceits." But this is nevertheless troublesome when a writer becomes self-indulgent, as Connolly attacks (we might believe unfairly) Proust and Woolf. Proust's "hatred and contempt for the life of action suited the war-weary and disillusioned generation he wrote for, his own snobbery offered them both a philosophy and a remunerative career, he believed in art for art's sake." Woolf seemed to have the worst defect of the Mandarin style, the ability to spin cocoons of language out of nothing. The history of her literary style has been that of a form at first simple, growing more and more elaborate, the context lagging far behind, then catching up, till, after the falseness of Orlando, she produces a masterpiece in The Waves." (Enemies of Promise) Under the Vernaculars, Connolly includes writers as ostensibly diverse as Hemingway and indeed Maugham, quoting both of them on their own work to convey what he means by vernacular writing. Hemingway says, "No matter how good a phrase or a simile he may have, if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable, he is spoiling his work for egotism. Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the baroque is over. (Death in the Afternoon) Maugham more modestly announces: "I discovered my limitations and it seemed to me that the only sensible thing was to aim at what excellence I could with them. I knew that I had no lyrical quality, I had a small vocabulary and no efforts that I could make to enlarge it much availed me. I had little gift of metaphors, the original and striking simile seldom occurred to me." (Enemies of Promise)
However, while Connolly's distinctions are useful, they still seem to be too close to the surface of the prose. Unlike Amis, he is not telling us how to write a sentence, but he is still talking about the nature of the sentence as a linguistic construct. Some writers are ornate; others simple. Some use many metaphors and similes, others insistently or unavoidably eschew them. This is a useful way of understanding the type of writing it is, but many would insist that both Hemingway and Proust are masters while Maugham is not. This type of claim would appear to take place far away from the sentence, but how to explain this when writing, after all, is made up of words? Surely to understand great writing we have to understand the words that the writer puts on the page. Amis, Nabokov and Connoly all appear to make this point. But if we don't agree with Hemingway's assertive need for simple prose, we can agree with a point he makes within this insistence when he says "a great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge." Hemingway then suggests that this knowledge is present as no more, but no less, than a quicker ratio than others. "There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring." (Death in the Afternoon) Hemingway appears to offers this as knowledge of the world but also a knowledge that is more than just our experience of the world.
We may believe this does take the form of experience, but also, and maybe more especially, takes the form of perception. After all, we can perceive far more than we can experience, and there are those who experience a great deal and perceive very little. A football manager will not really experience the game, but he is likely to perceive it a great deal. His passive presence on the sidelines means that he is extra alert to the nature of the game. The player on the pitch is immersed in the experience to the detriment of perception: his chief purpose will be defence or attack. The niggly injury one of his teammates might be carrying will not be his chief concern, nor will the fact that his own goalkeeper is too far off his line. He thus experiences the game but the manager perceives it. Any notion of literature as experience shouldn't underestimate the idea of literature as even more fundamentally observation. This is why we only half agree with Fitzgerald's point when he talks about Conrad. It is the attitude more than the experience that matters, even if we are very sympathetic to Fitzgerald's claim that the two are fruitfully brought together in Conrad's work: the longtime sailor who then wrote many books about his experiences at sea. Conrad would unlikely have written such vivid novels about seafaring without having sailed for so long, and ditto Melville's in the context of Moby Dick and Billy Budd. But there will be many prosaic books written by people who have devoted even more of their lives to sailing than Conrad and Melville that haven't produced works of interest: they lacked that Fitzgeraldian attitude, that knowledge Hemingway talks about which seems so much more than experience.
Thus we want to get away from the pragmatism or even the positivism of the sentence to ask instead about its metaphysical content: the sentence's weight. This is hard to define of course but that is the very point and why even Amis must admit in the War Against Cliche, when looking at two sentences from Wordsworth, that "the most muscular literary critics on earth have no equipment for establishing that "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears" is a better line than "when all at once I saw a crowd." Yet we can note the latter seems to require little of that Hemingwayesque knowledge while the former appears full of it. We needn't say the former sentence is better than the latter, but we can muse over why the former would be much more likely to be quoted. There is observation in the latter but no insight and we can notice this happens so often to be the case in very well constructed sentences that have no ontological underpinning, no sense that they speak to our existence in the world singularly. This is vital to our gripe with both Amis and Nabokov; that they offer well-written frivolities which offer wonderful description but from the readily describable. When Nabokov says "when the movies and we were young" '(The Assistant Producer') he wittily makes us aware he is talking of silent cinema, a variation on the defamiliarization evident in the comment about the cowardly cloth. Yet it remains usually on the level of cleverness rather than the radical defamiliarization we find in Kafka, that takes further the effects Tolstoy achieves and that Shklovsky notes when saying "'Kholstomer' for example is a horse, and it is the horse's point of view (rather than a person's) that makes the content of the story seems unfamiliar." ('Art as Technique') This ostranenie (defamiliarization) is the opposite of anthropomorphism, which would be to familiarise as much as possible the animal in the context of the human. Tolstoy wants something else when he says, "only much later, when they separated me from the other horses, did I begin to understand. But even then I simply could not see what it meant when they called me 'man's property'. The words 'my horse' referred to me, a living horse, and seemed as strange to me as the words, 'my land', 'my air', ' my water'. Tolstoy wants to understand injustice at its base and finds a way of doing so by thinking of the helplessness of the horse. In Nabokov's example, we admire the prose; in Tolstoy's we think afresh. We can see the difference again if we think of a passage in Amis's Money and one from Fitzgerald. Amis says, "local rumour maintains that Little Italy is one of the cleanest and safest enclaves in Manhattan. Any junkie or Bowery red-eye comes limping down the street, then five sombre fatboys with baseball bats and axe-handles stride out of the nearest trattoria." Here he offers a mildly amusing, cliched-image from the cinema made vivid in prose. But can such a passage compare to this from Fitzgerald: "he did not like any man very much, nor feel their presence with much intensity - he was all relaxed for combat; as a fine athlete playing secondary defence in any sport is really resting much of the time, while a lesser man only pretends to rest and is at a continual and self-destroying nervous tension." (Tender is the Night) We can find in the Tolstoy and Fitzgerald quotes an attitude that seems missing from Nabokov's and Amis's, at least in these instances. However, the latter pair's many remarks on what they think literature ought to be would back up our claims. "There exist few things more tedious than a discussion of general ideas," Nabokov says, "inflicted by author or reader upon a work of fiction. The purpose of this foreword is not to show that Bend Sinister belongs or does not belong to serious literature (which is a euphemism for the hollow profundity and the ever-welcome commonplace)." Nabokov goes on: I have never been interested in what is called the literature of social comment (in journalistic and commercial parlance: great books). I am not sincere, I am not provocative, I am not satirical. "I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of thaw in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent." (Bend Sinister) Amis reckons, dismissively, "academic preferment will not come from a respectful study of Wordsworth's poetics; it will come from a challenging study of his politics - his attitude to the poor, say, or his unconscious 'valorization; of Napoleon." (The War Against Cliche) But is it an either-or issue? Only if the writer insists that literature is some abstraction which finds itself contaminated by social issues, political concerns and identitarian preoccupations. Yet books contain life; they needn't be contaminated by it. What Hemingway proposes is that life understood down to its deepest implications is what great writers concerns themselves with, and find the language to express it. When Fitzgerald notes, "sometimes when you feel very brave and defiant and haven't been invited to one particular college function, read the terrible chapters in Das Kapital on 'The Working Day' and see if you are ever quite the same." Fitzgerald later adds, "the world, as a rule, does not live on beaches and in country clubs." (The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald). This does not mean we should read Fitzgerald's books as left-wing, or even especially as anti-capitalist. What his remark suggests is a perspective that understands writing comes from somewhere and has a responsibility to more than the euphony of words on a page.
Perhaps we can think of the sentence in terms of its capacity to offer the observational, the perceptive, the insightful and the revelatory. Amis's passage about Little Italy is well-observed, but does it move far beyond the first level of awareness? Fitzgerald's from Tender is the Night seems at least perceptive, probably insightful. The great writer accumulates through these three categories - the observational, the perceptive and the insightful - and moves towards a sense of revelation, akin perhaps to what Dante called the anagogical. This needn't in our sense be associated with the spiritual, though it must be concerned with the feeling and the thought pushed to its limit: the limit of its own possibility. We have no sense at all of this in Amis's passage, but more than a hint of it in Fitzgerald's. It is close to what Maurice Blanchot says when discussing what literature is capable of: it is like the manifestation of a primitive state in which man would not know of the ability to think apart from things, would reflect only by incarnating as objects the very movement of his thoughts, and thus, far from impoverishing what he thinks, would penetrate into the richest, most important thought, the one most worthy of being thought." This leads Blanchot to claim: "thus literature can create an experience that, illusory or not, appears as a means of discovery and an effort not to express what one knows but what one does not know." (The Work of Fire)
In this sense, the sentence isn't there to be knowing but to incorporate the not-knowing when it becomes an aspect of literature, when it escapes the confines of ordinary, pragmatic language. Indeed, it is to the sentence that Blanchot turns to initially in the book from which we have just quoted. "When I find at the office where I work, these words, written by my secretary, in my memo book, "the head clerk called", my relationship with the words will be completely other than if I read the same sentence in The Castle. This indicates the sentence is of little importance initself if the same sentence can be used as a bureaucratic remark by the secretary and in one of the great works of modern writing. Some writers might insist that the sentence should be made literary. This is where someone like Nabokov meets Shklovsky. Nobody writing a few words on the memo pad would be likely to say "the head clerk called, and add, "apart from the lips, one of her chins, the smallest one but true, was the only mobile detail of her Buddha-like bulk." Nabokov's sentence insists on the literary; Kafka's does not. Blanchot's claim for Kafka's sentences would not often work for Nabokov's. But both Nabokov's books and Kafka's are works of literature. Literature takes place not in the sentence, necessarily, but in the context of the sentence, evident earlier in our claims concerning Paul Auster. The accumulation of those sentences, however simple or complex in themselves, leads to the literary work. Such an approach can allow us to avoid the anxieties of the perfect sentence and, for that matter, the perfect translation. When Kundera suggests, perhaps quite facetiously, that Fuentes has never read Kafka because he hasn't read him in German, we would be more inclined to say that someone who has read Metamorphosis in German but hasn't finished the story hasn't read Kafka. This might raise bigger questions over what constitutes reading - more complicated than most in the case of Kafka since so much of the work was not completely finished. Nevertheless, our claim is that reading is finally more contextual than textual, which is why for example we would prefer eight books by a translated author rather than one book with eight translations, each of which attend to different nuances of the writer's work, feeling that the other translators have somehow 'missed' something. Equally, we believe that the writer's fetishization of the sentence is a little suspect since the most simplest of sentences, as Blanchot notes, can exist in the most complex of works. What we seek is the accumulated weight of words, the existence of a sensibility. It is a sensibility at least as inclined to hesitancy as authority. Blanchot expresses it well, quoting Kafka saying: "my powers are not enough for even a single sentence...not one word, when I write, goes with another...my doubts surround each word even before I can make it out..." Blanchot says, "at this stage it is not the quality of the words that matters, but the possibility of speaking: that is what is at stake, that is what one experiences." (The Work of Fire). It is the extreme end of defamilarization, where the words seem to have nothing to do with the thoughts and feeling we possess, but somehow they must, however tentatively, find their expression.
© Tony McKibbin