Posted tagged ‘Great Writing’

Great Sentences: Daniel Deronda edition

December 30, 2011

Blogger’s note: What follows is some 1,200 words on writing and reading.  It’s part of a temporary redirection of my efforts more generally.  I’ve got a month to get out the door a book proposal that’s been languishing for laughably too long.  So I’m going to be doing my damndest to avoid all provocation from the usual suspects — I’m looking at you, Ms. MM, Mr. Brooks, Douthat, et too many al.  Instead I’ll be spending the next several weeks reading and writing in and around the eighteenth century, and as I find choice tidbits there, (and, as there is nothing new under the sun, I will) I shall be sure to share them with you.


Too many years ago to count, when I was just starting to think like a writer (instead of thinking of myself as a “writer”), I started to keep a notebook of other people’s sentences.

I remember the first one I listed, because it still seems to me to be as great an opening line as any in the English language. That would be the one Edward Gibbon used to launch The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:* 

In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.

O! That Augustan grandeur.  The balance of its clauses. Gibbon’s music, too.  Speak the line as you read it:  it rings.

And, of course, the sense of it, all the enormous structural potential energy bound up in the first words of a story of decline.  Gibbon leads us into his story at the point of the action, Rome in unquestioned glory.  Bam!  Like that, one sentence in, you know where we go from here.

That’s writing.

I lost that notebook, decades, homes, loved ones ago.  I’ve written a fair amount since, and I think I’ve gotten better at it over the years — or rather, that I learned to read myself more carefully, and bury more of the dross before it makes me wince in public.  (Blogging works against that training, as it happens; speed is not my friend.)  And most of all, the crab pincers of everyday existence have hacked my reading time — and much of my writing life — to shreds.

But in the last month or so, from somewhere (I think I know where, actually, and I’ll write about that in one of these posts soon enough) I’ve regained something of the habit of reading like a writer.  That is, once again, every day I carve  out time to read something really good — and not necessarily words associated with anything I’m working on or teaching.  And I’m watching as I go, picking up what the author is doing, what makes the engine go of whatever it is I’ve got in front of me.

When I do I look at lots of things.  Structure most of all, for reasons that I think are obvious.  (Basically:  the task of the writer is to make his or her readers feel compelled to go on as they come to  he end of  each paragraph/section/chapter —  up until they reach an ending arrives that is both satisfying and persuasively entailed by what has passed before. You get there through well-worked out structure.)

Then there’s language, down to the level of word choice, and things like qualities of description, use of metaphor and on and on — all the stuff that, properly stolen from others, can make me a better writer.

But while I’m doing all of that — think of it as the scales and chords I need to practice to maintain my chops as a writer — it’s always the exemplary sentences that leap out at me, that stop those worthy runs through all the sharps and flats.  Sentences are what writers make.  We use them to do all kinds of other things, but at bottom, our job is to assemble words into those essential, elemental units of meaning.  And when they’re beautiful, when they signify, the really good ones teach me so much.

As, for example, this one, the first I pulled out of the mix in this recent return to good writerly habits:

She was bending and speaking English to a middle-aged lady seated at play beside her:  but the next instant she returned to her play and showed the full height of a graceful figure, with a face which might possibly be looked at without admiration, but could hardly be passed with indifference.”

That’s from the first page or two of George Eliot’s “Jewish novel” — Daniel Deronda.** 


So what first caught my eye/ear there?  That would be the way Eliot managed to construct a physical space out of words — and then impose both design and motion upon it.  Gwendolen Harleth (to whom we’ve not yet been properly introduced), is “bending”…and then, in an instant returns both to her roulette game and to erect posture, “the full height of a graceful figure.”  That’s a delineation of three-dimensional space written by someone who’s looked at a lot of painting.  It presents a tableau (Gwendolen bending and speaking to a sitting player beside her…

and then it animates that set piece in a way that completes the visual description through motion:  Gwendolen returns to the game, and through that gesture reveals her carriage, her figure and her complicated beauty.  In writing classes we talk all the time about that old (true) cliché, the need to show rather than tell.  This is what it looks like, accomplished by one of the greats.

Next, I noticed  all the character-work this little string of words manages to do.  We know on meeting Gwendolen that she’s a gamester (as Jane Austen might have put it) — not just a watcher of the game, but someone enmeshed in the social web of the play, talking to her anonymous tribal kin within the temporary and artificial village about the tables.  Then we get that last piece of not-quite description:  a face that we are compelled to imagine, knowing only that it could be lovely — and that it is marked by some quality that arrests attention, and perhaps desire.

That is:  Eliot here invites the reader to enter into the space of her novel.  We must, constrained by only the merest touch of the author’s authority, construct Gwendolyn’s image.  Eliot does not restrict what we may imagine. All she tells us is that as we read, the woman in our head must hold both our attention and an ambivalence of judgment.  We know from the start that she is flawed, and likely a danger — to herself, probably, as well as others.  She may earn sympathy as well as curiosity; but we will have to read on to find out.

One damn sentence!

Maybe I’m overdoing it here.  Certainly, I’ve read the novel before (though, as noted, very long ago), and I know something of what to expect from and for Miss Harleth.  But as I opened up the book again just a few days ago, I tell you, this line stopped me in my tracks.  The use of just the suggestion of visual representation to orient us to scene, character and  plot is the work of a virtuosos.  Add to that the marvelously tricky way Eliot co-opts the reader into participating in the moment, and you have a writer’s master class in just fifty-two words.

It’s at moments like these that I truly love my craft, not to mention the company it lets me keep — even if all I can do, as here, is hold that master’s coat.

(Oh, and I suppose if you’ve labored this far, you’ve earned an open thread.  Have at it.)

*Properly, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” But I’ve always known it in the other way, so there it is.

**I picked up Daniel Deronda, after a lapse of decades since last I read it stimulated by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blogging on perhaps my favorite novel of all time, Eliot’s MiddlemarchTNC is doing much the same thing I am here, only in greater depth, and engaged with more of the book and Eliot’s technique.

Images: Annibale Caracci, Two Children Teasing a Cat, c. 1590

Caravaggio, The Card Sharps, 1594

Man, I Wish I’d Written Something This Nasty

December 11, 2011

They just don’t make invective like they used to.

I am something of an insomniac, and one of my tricks to get back to sleep when those 4 a.m. broadcasts from KFKD* just won’t let go is to pull out at random a volume from my copy of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  That’s the last pre-World War I version, and it contains some truly brilliant Edwardian (and Victorian) prose.  (See, for example, Swinburne’s entry on Mary, Queen of Scots.)

So on last Wednesday or Thursday night — or rather, on Thursday or Friday a.m., 0-dark-hundred — I found myself nose-deep in Volume V, Camorra to Cape Colonyand cam across this in the entry on Campbell, John Campbell, Baron, who in 1841 gained the post of Lord Chancellor of Ireland for a grand total of 16 days.  The controversy that arose over that appointment cast him into mostly self-imposed political exile for most of the 1840s.  As the Britannica entry put it, that was when “the unlucky dream of literary fame troubled Lord Campbell’s leisure.”

Now, y’all may know I enjoy the odd bit of invective.  I may even have been called a bit harsh in some of my commentary on a few of our scribbling friends of the rightish persuasion.  But I can only dream of scorching earth with the zeal, brio and sheer music of this, on Campbell’s project:

The conception of this work is magnificient; its execution wretched.  Intended to evolve a history of jurisprudence from the truthful portraits of England’s greatest lawyers, it merely exhibits the ill-digested results of desultory learning, without a trace of scientific symmetry or literary taste, without a spark of that divine imaginative sympathy which alone can give flesh and spirit to the dead bones of the past, and without whcih the present becomes an unitelligable maze of mean and selfish ideas.  A charming style, a vivid fancy, exhaustive research were not to be expected from a hard-worked barrister; but he must certainly be held repsonsible for the frequent plagiarisms, the still more frequent inaccuracies of detail, the colossal vanity which obrudes on almost every page, the hasty insinuations against the meory of the great departed who were to him as giants, and the petty sneers whcih he condescends to print against his own contemporaries, with whom he was living from day to day on terms of apparently sincere friendship.

Smokin’.  Just an orotund symphony of Victorian disdain.  I love it.

And strangely, I just can’t place who it is amongst us know that this characterization of Campbell’s work calls to mind….

(Don’t tase me, bro!)

Image:  English School, Mary, Queen of Scots, in Captivity, 1575

*Ann Lamott’s name for the radio station in your head

Quote for the Day: Junot Diaz/Thoughts to Think in the Midst of Interesting Times Edition

October 2, 2008

I have the very good fortune to call the wonderful writer and generous artist Junot Diaz my colleague (and friend).

A week or so ago, he gave a reading from his now famed-across-the-galaxy novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at MIT — it was kind of a homecoming after roughly a year of travels and talking in support of the book.

In introducing Junot to the crowd (and the world — the reading will be up on the MIT World site in fairly short order)  Professor James Paradis, head of MIT’s writing program, pulled out one of the less well-known bits of Junot’s work, the 2001 edition of The Beacon Best collection that he edited.

Paradis read a short passage from Junot’s introduction, and the quote so precisely catches the necessity of vigilance and the importance of art — never more vital than at those times when the self-styled “grown-ups” have so decisively lost their way.

Here, expanded, is that passage:


For the last couple of years I — a former five pages a day type guy — have not been able to write with any consistency.  The reasons for my “block” are numerous and not particularly relevant, but as a result I’ve had more time to read newspapers and watch television, more time to notice how the world is being represented by those whom we shall call for simplicity’s sake the powers-that-be.  I’ve been aware since about the Reagan administration of the gap between the world that they swear exists and the world I know exists.  What I hadn’t anticipated  — I guess I should have been reading more Chomsky — is how enormous that gap had become.

…[Junot uses several paragraphs to discusse his experience fighting the New York City Board of Education’s short lived school privatization scheme as a way into, inter alia, his framing of the work he had selected for the collection.  And then…]


During the last week of the anti-privatization campaign, when Edison and the Board of Education and the media and the politicians were turning up the heat, I would occasionally feel myself losign heart.  (There’s only so much exposure to the Official Story one can take before it starts to wear on you.)  I was very fortunate, however, for it was at this same time that I was reading these stories, these essays, these poems.  While those of us against privatization were being knocked about in newspapers and on the news, while we were being erased and distorted into cartoons, I was sifting through journals, printing pages out from e-mail, thumbing through blurred photcopies.  Would you t hink me sentimental if I said that the freshness and originality and humanity of these writers and their work renewed me?  When billions and billions of dollars are spent trying to convince you to see the world in one particular way, isn’t it something like salvation when you discover voices, brave and unwavering, who invite you to see it in another way?

Amen and amen.

Image:  Jan Davidszoon de Heem, “Still-Life of Books,” 1628.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.