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Sentences

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.”

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I have been reading Thomas Pynchon‘s Vineland, and though it is not something that I will likely write about in any greater detail, I thought that I would share a particularly beautiful sentence:

“Emerging from a courtyard full of hanging flowers and caged birds just at the hour when the lights came on, and ghosts came out, they saw their fun-house shadows taken by the village surfaces drenched in sunset, as sage, apricot, adobe, and wine colours were infiltrated with night, and up and down the wandering streets they followed their noses at last to the waterfront, lampglow smeared about each municipal bulb up on the green-painted iron posts, music coming all directions, from radios, accordions, singers unaccompanied, jukeboxes, guitars.”

I am reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a book that I will certainly have more to say about in a future post, but I will pause in my reading long enough to share this sentence:

“And yet, in Raissa, at every moment there is a child in a window who laughs seeing a dog that has jumped on a shed to bite into a piece of polenta dropped by a stonemason who has shouted from the top of the scaffolding, ‘Darling, let me dip into it,’ to a young serving-maid who holds up a dish of ragout under the pergola, happy to serve it to the umbrella-maker who is celebrating a successful transaction, a white lace parasol bought to display at the races by a great lady in love with an officer who has smiled at her taking the last jump, happy man, and happier horse, flying over the obstacles, seeing a francolin flying in the sky, happy bird freed from its cage by a painter happy at having painted it feather by feather, speckled with red and yellow in the illumination of that page in the volume where the philosopher says: ‘Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.'”

I have been reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Collected Stories for my next meeting with Tom Able, and I came across one of those beautiful long sentences that I love, only this one is so long that I was not at first sure what to do with it.  It occurs in a story called “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship”, or rather, to be more accurate, it comprises the entirety of the story, from first word to last, something like six pages of text in my edition.  I will not impose the entirety of the sentence on you, but here is the opening section.  You will have to find your own copy of the story to find how it concludes.

“Now they’re going to see who I am, he said to himself in his strong new man’s voice, many years after he had first seen the huge ocean liner without lights and without any sound which passed by the village one night like a great uninhabited palace, longer than the whole village and much taller than the steeple of the church , and sailed by in the darkness toward the colonial city on the other side of the bay that had been fortified against buccaneers, with its old slave port and the rotating light, whose gloomy beams transfigured the village into a lunar encampment of glowing houses and streets of volcanic deserts every fifteen seconds, and even though at that time he’d been a boy without a strong man’s voice but with his mother’s permission to stay very late on the beach to listen to the wind’s night harps, he could still remember, as if still seeing it, how the liner would disappear when the light of the beacon struck its side and how it would reappear when the light had passed, so that it was an intermittent ship sailing along, appearing and disappearing, toward the mouth of the bay, groping its way like a sleepwalker for the buoys that marked the harbor channel until something must have gone wrong with the compass needle, because it headed toward the shoals, ran aground, broke up, and sank without a single sound, even though a collision against the reefs like that should have produced a crash of metal and the explosion of engines that would have frozen with fright the soundest sleeping dragons in the prehistory of the prehistoric jungle that began with the last streets of the village and ended on the other side of the world, so that he himself thought that it was a dream, especially the next day, when he saw the radiant fishbowl of the bay, the disorder of the colors of the Negro shacks on the hills above the harbor, the schooners of the smugglers from the Guianas loading their cargoes of innocent parrots whose craws were full of diamonds…”

I have just finished Days of Reading, a collection of essays by Marcel Proust. This is the first Proust I have read, so I will not yet judge him too harshly, but there was little in me that responded to the book. I could appreciate but not receive it. I found in Proust a perceptive and complex mind, but a mind that was too different from mine, not in its conclusions, with which I sometimes agree, but in its very movements, in its very processes. Of course, it did not leave me completely empty-handed. No book ever does. Much of his thinking on reading was quite interesting, for example, and he also left me with another of those sentences that I love so much, the ones that meander in digressions across whole pages and comprise a narrative in themselves. So, I will say nothing more about Proust, neither good nor bad, and offer instead this sentence, which I can praise without qualification:

“Then, at the risk of being punished if I was discovered, or of an insomnia which might last through the night once the book was finished, as soon as my parents were in bed I relit my candle to read; while in the street nearby, between the gunsmith’s shop and the post office, both steeped in silence, the dark yet blue sky was full of stars, and to the left, above the raised alleyway where one began the winding ascent to it, you could sense the monstrous black apse of the church to be watching, whose sculptures did not sleep at night, a village church yet a historic one, the magical dwelling place of the Good Lord, of the consecrated loaf, of the multicoloured saints, and of the ladies from the neighbouring chateaux who set the hens squawking and the gossips staring as they crossed the marketplace on feast days, when they came to mass in their turn-outs, and who, on their way home, just after they had emerged from the shadow of the porch where the faithful were scattering the vagrant rubies of the nave as they pushed open the door of the vestibule, did not fail to buy from the patisser in the square some of those cakes shaped like towers, which were protected from the sunlight by a blind – manques, saint-honores, and genoa cakes, whose indolent, sugary aroma has remained mingled for me with the bells for high mass and the gaiety of Sundays.”

Here, at least, Proust shows himself a master.

As I mentioned in my post on Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano, one of the things that I like most about this book is a single sentence, which I think may be the most exceptional sentence ever written in the English language. I did not have the space to quote it in that post, but I feel so strongly about it that I will quote it here, where it can stand apart in its own right:

“It is a light blue moonless summer evening, but late, perhaps ten o’clock, with Venus burning hard in daylight, so we are certainly somewhere far north, and standing on this balcony, when from beyond along the coast comes the gathering thunder of a long many-engineered freight train, thunder because though we are separated by this wide strip of water from it, the train is rolling eastward and the changing wind veers for a moment from an easterly quarter, and we face east, like Swedenborg’s angels, under a sky clear save where far to the northeast over distant mountains whose purple has faded lies a mass of almost pure white clouds, suddenly, as by a light in an alabaster lamp, illumined from within by gold lightening, yet you can hear no thunder, only the roar of the great train with its engines and its wide shunting echoes as it advances from the hills into the mountains: and then all at once a fishing boat with tall gear comes running round the point like a white giraffe, very swift and stately, leaving directly behind it a long silver scalloped rim of wake, not visibly moving inshore, but now stealing ponderously beachward toward us, this scrolled silver rim of wash striking the shore first in the distance, then spreading all along the curve of the beach, while the floats, for these are timber driving floats, are swayed together, everything jostled and beautifully ruffled and stirred and tormented in this rolling sleeked silver, then little by little calm again, and you see the reflection of the remote white thunderclouds in the water, and now the lightening within the white clouds in deep water, as the fishing boat itself with a golden scroll of travelling light in its silver wake beside it reflected from the cabin vanishes round the headland, silence, and then again, within the white white distant alabaster thunderclouds beyond the mountains, the thunderless gold lightening in the blue evening, unearthly.”

This needs to be read several times, aloud, slowly, accounting for the punctuation, like poetry.