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Sentences

This is one of those lovely long sentences that so fascinate me, this time from Gardner, who is one of American literature’s mostly forgotten gems.  I’m parsing out his books, one every couple of years, because I can hardly face the day when there are no more to be read.  The following sentence is a compelling argument for why I feel this way.

“There would come the magical exchange of rings, the lifting of the veil, the kiss, and then Aunt Anna would play the organ maniacally, tromping the pedals, not caring how many of the notes she missed, for Callie (poor Callie whom we all knew well) had died before her time and had been lifted to Glory — and the rice would rain down (Uncle Gordon ducking, trying to snap pictures, shielding the expensive camera he’d bought for taking pictures of the flowers in his garden and the prize turkeys he raised for the Fair) — rice and confetti raining down like seeds out of heaven, numberless as stars or the sands of the seashore, shining like the coins that dropped from Duncan’s pockets — and then the symbolic biting of the cake, the emptying of the fragile glass (Uncle Gordon taking more pictures, frenetic, even George Loomis the eternal bachelor smiling, joyful, quoting scraps of what he said was Latin verse): they would join her in all this, yet could no more help her, support her, defend her than if they were standing on the stern of a ship drawing steadily away from her, and she (in the fine old beaded and embroidered white gown, the veil falling softly from the circlet on her forehead), she, Callie, on a small boat solemn as a catafalque of silver, failing away toward night.”

 

 

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I’ve just finished reading Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated by my friend Stephen Henighan, and it’s a remarkable little book, the best I’ve read by an African writer not named Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and it has a human quality to it that even Ngugi rarely attains.  Go buy, borrow, or steal a copy wherever you can get one.

The book also has several examples of those long, eddying sentences that I love so much.  I’ll share one to go you a taste of what Ondjaki does.

“and in this way, with naked bodies feeling a soft breeze, looking at the kites that flew over our square in Bishop’s Beach, I, Charlita and Pi, better known as Comrade 3.14, jumped the shells and the holes of crabs that fled in fear of us, we who sought the experience of the salt water on our bodies, hungry for white surf in the dark sea at that moment of partying and laughter, we were there, in search of where our bodies were able to dance gently on the air in our lungs that had been spared by our shouts, and I remembered the elders who I had met and who sometimes weren’t capable of believing in the simple secrets of children, the elders who thought that the cries of the birds were those we heard in the morning or in the late afternoon, when birds are in a hurry to get somewhere and shout for other birds to get out of their way, but those cries, in spite of being shouted, aren’t very true, since birds are like children, they need to be beneath the water to give a true shout, it wasn’t a child who told me that, it was a bird, Charlita and Pi know it, we all heard the birds shouting beneath the water of the sea of Bishop’s Beach, but not that night”

 

It was Malcolm Lowry, with his impossible, perfect sentence, that started me on this strange business of collecting long and masterful sentences in the first place, and now here is another from Lowry, and entirely against all my expectations, since I had been told that he wrote only the one novel, Under the Volcano, and so never suspected that I would read anything more of him until I discovered a collection of his stories, Hear Us O Lord From Thy Dwelling Place, in a used bookstore the other day.  I have not read very far in my new treasure, and I have already run across several examples of sentences that I could add to my collection, but I will only share one.  Let it be read in the spirit that I am sharing it, both in honour of Lowry’s role in creating this strange obsession of mine, and also in celebration of discovering more of his beautiful writing:

“Ah, its absolute loneliness amid those wastes, those wildernesses, of rough rainy seas bereft even of sea birds, between contrary winds, or in the great dead windless swell that comes following a gale; and then with the wind springing up and blowing the spray across the sea like rain, like a vision of creation, blowing the little boat as it climbed the highlands into the skies, from which sizzled cobalt lightnings, and then sank down into the abyss, but already was climbing again, while the whole sea crested with foam like lambs’ wool went furling off to leeward, the whole vast moon-driven expanse like the pastures and valleys and snow-capped ranges of a Sierra Madre in delirium, in ceaseless motion, rising and falling, and the little boat rising, and falling into a paralyzing sea of white drifting fire and smoking spume by which it seemed overwhelmed: and all this time a sound, like a high sound of singing, yet as sustained in harmony as telegraph wires, or like the unbelievably high perpetual sound of the wind where there is nobody to listen, which perhaps does not exist, or the ghost of the wind in the rigging of ships long lost, and perhaps it was the sound of the wind in its toy rigging, as again the boat slanted onward: but even then what further unfathomed deeps had it oversailed, until what birds of ill omen turned heavenly for it at last, what iron birds with saber wings skimming forever through the murk above the gray immeasurable swells, imparted mysteriously their own homing knowledge to it, the lonely buoyant little craft, nudging it with their beaks under golden sunsets in a blue sky, as it sailed close in to mountainous coasts of clouds with stars over them, or burning coasts at sunset once more, as it rounded not only the terrible spume-drenched rocks, like incinerators in sawmills, but other capes unknown, those twelve years, of giant pinnacles, images of barrenness and desolation, upon which the heart is thrown and impaled eternally.”

After much begging, cajoling, and threatening, my local library has added several Roberto Bolano books to its collection, which I am now in the process of reading.  I will write more about them later, once I have finished the last of them, The Third Reich, but I could not resist posting a sentence from the one I have just finished, Night in Chile, a remarkable little novel.  It had several sentences that deserved being posted, and even one that I had initially planned to post until I ran across this one, which manages to summarize the entirety of the Allende regime in Chile while also running through an education in classical Greek literature, more than most people would attempt in an entire novel never mind a single, staggering sentence.

“I started with Homer, then moved on to Thales of Miletus, Xenophanes of Colophon, Alcmaeon of Croton, Zeno of Elea (wonderful), and then a pro-Allende general was killed, and Chile restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and the national census recorded a total of 8,884,746 Chileans and the first episodes of the soap opera The Right to Be Born were broadcast on television, and I read Tyrtaios of Sparta and Archilochos of Paros and Solon of Athens and Hipponax of Ephesos and Stesichoros of Himnera and Sappho of Mytilene and Anakreon of Teos and Pindar of Thebes (one of my favourites), and the government nationalized the copper mines and then the nitrate and steel industries and Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize and Diaz Casanueva won the National Literature  Prize and Fidel Castro came on visit and many people thought he would stay and live in Chile for ever and Lafourcade published White Dove and I gave it a good review, you might say I hailed it in glowing terms, although deep down I knew it wasn’t much of a book, and the first anti-Allende march was organized, with people banging pots and pans, and I read Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, all the tragedies, and Alkaios of Mytilene and Aesop and Hesiod and Heroditus (a titan among authors), and in Chile there were shortages and inflation and black marketeering and long queus for food and Farewell’s estate was expropriated in the Land Reform along with many others and the Bureau of Women’s Affairs was set up and Allende went to Mexico and visited the seat of the United Nations in New York and there were terrorist attacks, and I read Thucydides, the long wars of Thucydides, the rivers and plains, the winds and the plateaux that traverse the time-darkened pages of Thucydides, and the men he describes, the warriors with their arms, and the civilians, harvesting grapes, or looking from a mountainside at the distant horizon, the horizon where I was just one among millions of beings still to be born, the far-off horizon Thucydides glimpsed and me there trembling indistinguishably, and I also reread Demosthenes and Menander and Aristotle and Plato (whom one cannot read too often), and there were strikes and colonel of a tank regiment tried to mount a coup, and a camera man recorded his own death on film, and then Allende’s navel aide-de-camp was assassinated and there were riots, swearing, Chileans blaspheming, painting on walls, and then nearly half a million people marched in support of Allende, and then came the coup d’etat, the putsch, the military uprising, the bombing of La Moneda and when the bombing was finished, the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all.”

I have been reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a mixed experience at best.  It seems a juvenile book in many respects, immature, self-obsessed, desperate to make a name for itself, to do something original, to be something other than a book. What is most frustrating, however, is that it has moments of genuine brilliance where Miller shows himself capable of the best sort of writing, and I am left disappointed, wishing that he had done more and better, that he had written something that mattered more than Paris cafes and uninteresting roommates and cheap whores.  In any case, here is a sentence that shows what he can be at his best, one of those impossible sentences that I love so much:

“Tania is a fever too – les voies urinaires, Cafe de la Liberte, Place des Visges, bright neckties on the Boulevard Montparnasse, dark bathrooms, Porto Sec, Abdullah cigarettes, the adagio sonata Pathetique, aural amplificators, anecdotal seances, burnt sienna breasts, heavy garters, what time is it, golden pheasants stuffed with chestnuts, taffeta fingers, vaporish twilights turning to ilex, acromegaly, cancer and delirium, warm veils, poker chips, carpets of blood and soft thighs.”

This sentence is from Georges Perec’s A Void, which is why it does not include the letter ‘e’ anywhere in its substantial length.  It is a reflection on the idea of ‘the blank’, so it is also a reflection on the whole project of the novel itself.  It is a little difficult to follow at times, because of how Perec likes to play with words and with the voice of his characters, but I think its profounder moments make it worth the effort it might require.

“A blanks thus unfolds motu proprio out of its own contradiction, a vacant signal of that which is not in fact vacant, a blank such as you might find in a book across which its author’s hand ink’s an inscription implicating its own abolition: O, vain papyrus drawn back, unavoidably back, into its own blank womb; a tract of a non-tract, a nihilistic tract localising that oblivion, huddling, crouching, within a word, gnawing away at its own root, a rotting pip, a scission, a distraction, an omission both boasting and disguising its invincibility, a canyon of non-Colorado, a doorway that nobody would cross, a corridor along which no foot would pad, a no-man’s land in which all oral communication would instantly find, brought to light, a gaping pit consuming any possibility of a praxis, a bright, blazing conflagration that would turn anybody approaching it into a human torch, a spring run dry, a blank word put out of bounds, a word now null and void, always just out of sight, always contriving to avoid scrutiny, a word no mispronunciation can satisfy, a castrating word, a flaccid word, a vacant word connoting an insultingly obvious signification, in which suspicion, privation and illusion all triumph, a lacunary furrow, a vacant canal, a Lacanian chasm, a cast-off vacuum thirstily sucking us into this thing unsaid, into this vain sting of a cry arousing us, this fold wrinkling, on its margin, a mystificatory logic that still confounds us, tricks us, inhibiting our instincts, our natural impulsions, our options, damning us to oblivion, to an illusory dawn, to rationality, to cold study, to distortion and untruth, but also a mad authority, a craving for a purity which would synchronously affirm passion, starvation, adoration, a subtraction of unfactitious wisdom, of not-so-vain rumours, a human articulation at its most psychically profound point, as of a particularly clairvoyant spiritualist, or a saint, or any man not as moribund as most of mankind.”

I know that a sentence from Calvino was not among the many writing projects that I listed in my last post, but I was reading “From the Opaque” in The Road to San Giovanni this morning while drinking my coffee and watching my kids race toy cars down the slide, and I could  not resist sharing this sentence.

“Instead of considering the source of the rays or the rays themselves or the surfaces that receive them, one might consider the dapple of shadows the places that the rays do not reach, how the shadow sharpens in proportion to the strength of the sun, how the morning shadow of a fig tree from being tenuous and uncertain becomes as the sun climbs a black drawing of the green tree leaf by leaf expanding at the plant’s foot, that concentration of the black to signify the polished green the fig tree encloses leaf by leaf on the side turned towards the sun, and the more the drawing on the ground concentrates its blackness the more it shrinks and shortens itself as if sucked in by the roots, swallowed up by the foot of the trunk and returned to the leaves, transformed into white sap in their veining and stalks, until at the moment when the sun is at its highest the shadow of the vertical trunk disappears and the shadow of the umbrella of leaves curls up beneath, on the fermented squashiness of the ripe figs that have fallen to the ground, waiting for the shadow of the trunk to sprout out again and push it towards the other side lengthening out there as if the gift of growth, which the fig tree as fruit bearing plant has renounced, passed to this ghost plant stretched out on the ground, until the moment when other ghost plants grow so far as to cover it, the hill the ridge the coast flooding into a single lake the shadows.”