Monday, April 30, 2012

The Long And Short Of Sentences

This appeared in yesterday's The Sunday Guardian.

Take a deep breath before you start to read Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis: the first sentence of the novel is six pages long. (I would have counted the number of words, but then, I would have missed the deadline.) It’s a sentence that is both feverish and descriptive, the extended opening note of a hallucinatory anthem to Mumbai.

You’ll come across a comparatively shorter sentence – only about three pages long – in the Marquez short story, ‘Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’, from his collection, Leaf Storm. The rhythm of this single-sentence short story matches the ocean liner’s passage it describes, speaking of careful, patient craftsmanship. I don’t envy the translator, though.

In a recent article, Pico Iyer writes that he’s using longer and longer sentences “as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment”. With each clause of such a sentence, he continues, we’re taken further away from easy reductionism, realizing that meaning isn’t finite and bite-sized. As he – rather wonderfully -- says of Philip Roth: “His is a prose that banishes all simplicities while never letting go of passion”.

Long or short, sentences aren’t something that most Indian writers in English seem to pay attention to. This is not to say that they use them without regard to grammar – although that can be the case, too – but that, more often than not, they’re simple, declarative carriers of meaning and assertion. This is a style that sees the sentence not as a work of art in its own right, but simply one among a number of unremarkable bricks shoring up a prose edifice. The result is a novel constrained by the very materials that enable it to exist. I’m not upholding meandering late-Jamesian prose here; there’s music to be found in the sentences of Hemingway and Carver, too.

It boils down to a love and respect for language and the realization that it is capable of being fashioned to convey themes and plots with richness and complexity. Jhumpa Lahiri, in a piece co-incidentally written shortly after Pico Iyer’s, speaks of how she used to underline sentences she found notable for “their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment”. As she says, “In fiction, plenty [of sentences] do the job of conveying information, rousing suspense, painting characters, enabling them to speak. But only certain sentences breathe and shift about, like live matter in soil.” When she’s in the middle of a work, sentences arrive, “fully formed in my brain”: “I tend to hear them as I am drifting off to sleep. They are spoken to me, I’m not sure by whom.”

Such observations would please Stanley Fish. The American literary theorist – who’s been criticized for his relativistic take on the humanities, among other things, and who was the inspiration for the character of Morris Zapp in David Lodge’s campus trilogy -- lauds the art and craft of sentence-making in his new book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. It’s a primer for would-be writers to master the nuts and bolts of how words connect in logical ways to create memorable sentences. Or, as he puts it, the “skills of coordination, subordination, allusion, compression, parallelism, alliteration”.

Somewhat unusually, Fish encourages writers to use sentence structures as models, asking them not to, at the start, worry about meaning: “Content will be a distraction and…the skill of writing well-formed, clear, and tightly organized sentences will be acquired by focusing on forms”. Though there are many examples of classic sentences from writers such as Montaigne, Woolf, Stein, Hemingway and more, the book is marked by analytical enquiry, some of it tedious – without, however, getting lost in intricacies of grammar.

The one that stands out from the many that Fish quotes to illustrate sentence forms is by John Updike, from his piece on a 1960 Fenway Park baseball game during which batter Ted Williams hit a memorable home run. Twelve words: “It was in the books while it was still in the sky”. Marvellous. As for this column, it was on the page while it was still on my mind. 


Anonymous said...

Perhaps you're write. But I've taken a few creative writing classes here, and the instructors generally did focus on how to use the lyrical potential or the brevity of a sentence to convey more than the meanings of the words used to form it. For instance, one of my instructors, who was fanatical about Hemingway's sentences, would practically force us to use spare sentences like his. I'm not sure that's the right approach, but it does seem like the importance of the sentence is a focus at least in creative writing classes.

Unknown said...

That's good to hear. Perhaps more writers from here ought to attend them.

Nikhil Kumar said...

Sanjay, it would be great if you could post the links to Pico Iyer and Jhumpa Lahiri's articles. Thank you

Unknown said...