Sunday, January 30, 2011

Great Sentences?

Thanks to Matt Tiffany at Condalmo for writing about this article on Slate: a little summary of Stanley Fish's new book, in which he "celebrates" some great sentences from several centuries of literature.

Here are a couple of the sentences he chose:
Jonathan Swift (from A Tale of a Tub, 1704): "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her appearance for the worse."

Ford Madox Ford (from The Good Soldier, 1915): "And I shall go on talking in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars."
I wouldn't have chosen Fish's sentences; I don't like any of them at all, actually. The Swift, for instance, isn't particularly clever or sly or whatever -- it's just grotesque, and if that's his point, fine. But I don't have to like it. And the Ford Ford is really just too much: the wind as a polishing black flood? Wind being wind is enough, for me.

In college I learned that a perfect sentence is a line of iambic pentameter, that the English language strives toward that shape. And I like surprises, simplicity, and deadly accuracy in sentences. I don't collect sentences, but I think Nabokov wrote my favorites. Here's one from Pnin that's painted on the wall of the Cornell English department:
The brook in the gully behind the garden, a trembling trickle most of the time, was tonight a loud torrent that tumbled over itself in its avid truckling to gravity, as it carried through corridors of beech and spruce last year's leaves, and some leafless twigs, and a brand-new, unwanted soccer ball that had recently rolled into the water from the sloping lawn after Pnin disposed of it by defenestration.
Gawd, I love that sentence. Not, for sure, an iambic pentameter, but so vividly specific, and heartbreaking -- Pnin bought that soccer ball for the son he had never met, wildly guessing what a teenage boy would like.

What do you like in a sentence?


Pete said...

I like the choice of "defenestration" in the Nabokov sentence!

Hugo Minor said...

I read Fish's book this week. He says that by focusing on "form" over content first, you will learn to right great sentences. By "form" he means understanding the basic structure (subject/verb/object, although he doesn't use these terms because they're too "technical"), and how everything else in the sentence gives you information about these three basics. He suggests using random words to practice forms on, so that you don't get hung up on content. Later, only much later, should you worry about content.

For me, I like sentences that surprise. A sentence that makes me see the world differently is from Felisberto Hernandez: "A pair of beveled windows watched me." I just love the surprise of having the windows be the subject instead of the other way around.

I'm reading Pnin now, and I love this: "He had a deep admiration for the zipper."

Hugo Minor said...

That should be "write" not "right" great sentences. I guess I was focusing on phonemes instead of content!

violentbore said...

Interesting topic. I'm not sure what elements are necessary in forming the 'great' sentence. Cadence, to me, is particularly appealing. Maybe it's the iambic pentameter jrl mentioned.

I'm drawn to simple, direct sentences as well as those so perversely long it feels as though the author can't - won't - allow the idea to fade. DFW and N. Baker come to mind to support the latter. For the short and sweet, give me Flannery O'Connor.

Her name was Maude and she drank whisky all day from a fruit jar under the counter. (Wise Blood)

violentbore said...

Ahem. Maybe it's the iambic pentameter (rmellis) mentioned.

Anonymous said...

rmellis is right!!

I do love Wise Blood, and that sentence.

I was once asked, in an interview, to name a favorite sentence...

Sean-Patrick Burke said...

"I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea." - Goodbye My Brother, John Cheever

Sung said...

Here's a very nice sentence:

"On windy nights the snow hurtled down through the mountain’s darkness and into the blue-white glow of the diner and the pink glitter of the neon sign and away again into the farther darkness and the woods on the other side of the highway."

It's from John Gardner's Nickel Mountain. That whole second paragraph is just gorgeous. But this sentence is my favorite for the moment, because it's snowy and cold right now and there's not a word that's out of place, not a word that isn't doing what it's supposed to be doing.

I never would've read this sentence nor this book if not for Stewart O'Nan, who talks about this very book right here:

- Sung

Ginger said...

This can't go on much longer; it can go on forever. --John Barth, "Lost in the Funhouse"

Though I'm generally a fan of the long sentences Proust, James, Faulker, DFW, etc. write, I love the compression in this one.

Susan said...

Here's another nice sentence. This is by Proust (Moncrieff translation):

"And after Francoise had removed her pins from the mouldings of the window-frame, taken down her various cloths, and drawn back the curtains, the summer day which she disclosed seemed as dead, as immemorially ancient as a sumptuously attired dynastic mummy from which our old servant had done no more than cautiously unwind the linen wrappings before displaying it to my gaze, embalmed in its vesture of gold."