Sentences

 

Let’s start, and stick pretty close to, the reading I asked you to do – Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory; the opening chapters. Why did I choose this?

No, let’s evade that for a moment – Why did I choose to talk about Sentences today? Last year, my lecture was on Sensibility – a subject that seems much vaguer. But it was one I decided hadn’t been covered by the rest of the course. I tried to ask and answer the questions, ‘What do we read writers for? What makes us love this writer rather than this other one?’ Their sensibility – that’s what’s important – their particular way of appearing, through language; their stance, within language.

I think that if you asked any of the other tutors, they would agree that the way the most promising writers on the course most clearly reveal themselves is through their obvious command of the sentence. These writers have what you might call a take on what sentences are and can do. They have a force behind what they write – a force that is the developing expression of their particular sensibility. And this, very often, can be revealed through reading just a single sentence of their work.

Conversely, the writers who are struggling elsewhere struggle most conspicuously in the sentence. Their rewriting of a story or chapter will result in something choppy, unsettled. They haven’t yet developed their sensibility; their sentences are still going in this direction, in that – falling under one influence after another.

As we I hope I’ll demonstrate, choppy, unsettled writing isn’t bad in and of itself. But the clearer you can be in your own take on sentences, the better your writing will become. (I could do something similar about paragraphs, too – but that would seem slightly more affected. Paragraphs are avoidable; sentences aren’t.)

Why did I choose The Power and the Glory? Well, because I’ve often referred to it in class, when talking about how writing on the micro level – punctuation – has to fit with that of the macro level – the story or novel as a whole. But it has been a while since I went back and closely examined it, line by line.

So, if the students who’ve heard this last term will forgive me, I’ll go over a little of what I usually say.

I had a lot of trouble getting into Graham Greene, to begin with. I was living in Prague where there was an English section to the National Library. It was quite out of date – had lots of books, for example, by Antony Powell – and so their holdings of Graham Green were almost complete. This is how it went: I would read the first page of one of his novels, be drastically unimpressed, return the copy to the library, hear again a few months later that he was worth reading, go to the library, etc.

Some of Greene’s opening are, I’d say, drastically unimpressive. This, for example, is the start of A Burnt-Out Case:

The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: ‘I feel discomfort therefore I am alive,’ then sat with pen in hand with no more to record.

I’m not talking about whether this is an enticing opening to a novel; I think ‘I feel discomfort therefore I am alive’ is about as rubbish a parody of Descartes as one could make – it suggests, to me, that this book has been written by someone uninteresting.

A Burnt-Out Case subsequently became one of my most-reread Greene novels, and although I am sure it isn’t as good as The Power and the Glory I found it more useful for what I was writing.

The first things of Greene’s that I managed to finish, and enjoy, were his autobiographies – A Sort of Life (1971) and Ways of Escape (1980). I liked them because they emphasized very much the role of boredom in his life – how it was partly boredom that caused him to become a writer.

I feel that very strongly, too. I began writing because, on a few particular afternoons, it was the least boring option. Greene grew up in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. I grew up in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, north of and adjacent to Hertfordshire. They are very similar no-particular-identity, got-to-get-out-of-here places; growing up there isn’t like growing up in North London or Sheffield or on the Isle of Iona. According to the AA Route Planner (classic) there are 27.7 miles of road in between Berkhamsted and Ampthill – most of it the M1 motorway.

Ways of Escape, as I remember it, contains some descriptions of the writing of The Power and the Glory. At some point, I returned to that particular opening page.

I had a conservative view of prose – I thought it should be well-written, just that. I loved symmetry in sentences, balance. There were certain things I believed. For example, with Kurt Vonnegut, I hated semi-colons. Vonnegut said:

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

(Vonnegut is so wrong here. Transvestitve hermaphrodites – quite frankly, the more of those anyone can get in their prose the better, really. And how is it possible a transvestite hermaphrodite could represent absolutely nothing? They seem to be overrepresenting, over determining, any number of things. Contradictions all the way from bottom to top, Kurt, I’m afraid. But at least it got a few laugh and scared a few nervous college kids into feeling even worse about their phoney-making educations.)

But, back in Prague, I agreed. What semicolons and colons do is make one part of a sentence lesser than another part. I thought sentences should be smoothly unbreakdownable. If they only contain a very few commas, sentences are more likely to have a feeling of polished integrity.

Also, I despised any repetition of words from sentence to sentence – the kind of thing that’s used to represent the laziness of speech. We’ll come back to this later with regard to David Foster Wallace.

Here’s an example of repetition I came across this morning – Ernest Hemingway writing in A Moveable Feast:

After Miró had painted The Farm and after James Joyce had written Ulysses they had a right to expect people to trust the further things they did even when the people did not understand them and they have both kept on working very hard.

If you have painted The Farm or if you have written Ulysses, and then keep on working very hard afterwards, you do not need an Alice B. Toklas.

This kind of thing used to drive me mad. I felt patronized, although Hemingway was doing it in the name of simplification – and of emphasizing a rhythm that’s within meaning, and of avoiding the falsity (in his opinion) of elegant variation.

Elegant variation, as I’m sure you know, is the deliberate avoidance of repeating, say, a noun in one sentence after another. One of the elements of Hemingway’s style that got imitated very often afterwards was his inelegant repetition. Because it is slightly infuriating to have the same word coming back and back, it’s a good way of building tension within a section of text.

Hemingway learnt this principally from Gertrude Stein, who is one of the world’s most deliberately infuriating writers. She has infuriated herself out of the canon – academics know she’s there, know she’s great, but don’t want to read The Making of Americans end to end.

Here’s just a little bit of Stein’s ‘If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso’:

If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him.

Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it.

If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. If I told him if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I told him would he like it would he like it if I told him.

This is more interesting writing than Hemingway, more infuriating, more extreme. Hemingway took it and did a pop version – then became Pop Hemingway.

Just these two things, hating sentences that aren’t all the one level and hating sentences that contain repetition – these decisions would lead quite a long way towards one particular style of writing. They imply a prose that keeps its distance from speech and from the way its subjects would clumsily express themselves. Again, I’ll come back to this.

For now, we’re ready for the opening page of The Power and the Glory:

This isn’t beautiful prose. It’s ugly. The rhythm is choppy; the style unsettled. There are two obtrusive colons in the first paragraph alone.

Let’s examine that opening sentence:

MR TENCH went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust.

It seems badly constructed in any number of ways. If you wanted a more elegant version, one that avoided the comma, you could have:

MR TENCH went out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust to look for his ether cylinder.

But this seems to emphasize how clunky those two descriptive phrases are – ‘the blazing Mexican sun’ and ‘the bleaching dust’.

Perhaps they could be integrated into the sentence if they weren’t there, just hanging around at the sentence’s end, being descriptive. How about this? –

Out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust came Mr Tench, looking for his ether cylinder.

They are still both a bit painful – ‘blazing Mexican sun’ because it seems to come straight out of pulp fiction, i.e.,

The tall handsome peon and the black-hatted gringo stood back to back beneath the blazing Mexican sun – ten steps, turn and fire, that’s what they’d agreed – last man standing.

‘Mexican sun’ is, it seems to me, a very cheap and cheerful way of conveying within the course of the first sentence that Mr Tench is in Mexico. By inserting Mexican between blazing and sun, it makes the cliché seem slightly less obvious. But it also raises some logical problems. Is this the blazing Mexican sun as opposed to another Mexican sun – the non-blazing Mexican sun? the gentle Mexican sun? No. So, the Mexican sun is logically always blazing when it’s shining at all. In which case, why not defer the information that this is Mexico, and just say the sun? Then, when we learn Mr Tench is in Mexico we’ll realize the sun must have been blazing.

The other phrase, by contrast, seems to be overliterary – ‘the bleaching dust’ – no, it’s not bleaching, not unless it gets into the weave of the cloth and makes it lighter in colour. It has a bleaching effect, with regard to the light and the way a fabric would look if it had become dusty. But this is always supposing that the observer was at a particular distance – too close, and they would be able to see that the fabric hadn’t been bleached but had merely become dusty. Given that Mr Tench, as he walks across the dusty ground, is likely to become bleached from the legs up; and given that any observer in the area is likely to have encountered the dust, and observed its properties; it is unlikely that anyone seeing Mr Tench with the bottoms of his trousers looking lighter in colour than the area around the thighs, would assume that he had deliberately bleached them, rather than that he had (as everyone walking on that surface does) got a bit dusty.

And so ‘bleaching’ seems to be a kind of stopgap word – a second draft word – something you’d put in there until you’ve thought of something better, more accurate.

Back again to the sentence. What’s say we do it as two sentences, for the sake of elegance:

Mr Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder. The sun blazed on the white dust beneath his feet.

That’s how a writer trying to avoid a weakly constructed sentence would do it. But Greene chose something else –

Mr Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust.

It’s clear that Greene, former cinema critic for Night and Day magazine, and writer of numerous screenplays, is writing cinematically here. The comma marks a cut from interior shot, looking at Mr Tench’s back going through the door, to exterior shot of the plaza.

This would read:

INT. MR TENCH’S OFFICE. MEXICO. DAY.

A preoccupied expression on his face, Mr Tench turns and walks out of the door.

EXT. TINY PLAZA. DAY.

The sun blazes down on pale, dusty ground. As Mr Tench walks, he kicks up the dust.

Let’s move on to the next sentence:

A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet.

Here the most noticeable thing is that Greene is using an extremely literary device, the transferred epithet. It is the vultures which are shabby, not their indifference.

Here’s another example of a transferred epithet from the opening lines of T.S.Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’:

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

The material in Greene’s sentence after the colon is emphatic (there for emphasis of what’s come before) –

A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet.

If the vultures are indifferent it is because Mr Tench is of no interest to them; what is of interest to vultures? – mainly what they can eat. Therefore the vultures aren’t interested in Mr Tench because they can’t eat him because he isn’t carrion. This is on the point of being overemphatic. You could say the first half of the sentence is Show, the second half Tell.

However, there’s something going on here. The first sentence puts us inside Mr Tench’s head: in the screenplay, we would only know he is going out to look for his ether cylinder if he said, ‘Now, where’s that bloody ether cylinder?’ or something like that. So, if the second sentence is attributed to Mr Tench’s consciousness, it becomes a little more interesting. He’s thinking, ‘I’m not carrion, not yet.’

A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr Tench’s heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly towards them.

This sentence has two subjects, the ‘faint feeling of rebellion’ and ‘he’, Mr Tench. We lurch from one to another, via the comma. It would be more pedantic, but logically clearer, if the sentence were to read:

A feeling of rebellion towards the vultures stirred Mr Tench to wrench up a piece of the road and toss it in their direction.

But by now it should be apparent that Greene is up to something by writing in this way. As I continued to read, those years ago in Prague, I realised that Green was writing about Mexico in a deliberately dilapidated prose – because the Mexico he is describing is a dilapidated country; he is also, in Mr Tench, describing a man who is falling apart. Therefore the sentences, when put under any kind of scrutiny, start to fall apart. Does this make them bad sentences? Again, I’d like to defer that question.

In avoiding writing ‘correctly’, Greene is doing something that many writers – particularly modern and post-modern writers – have done. (Not that it wasn’t a resource open to, say, Emily Bronte.)

There are other reasons for not wanting to write symmetrically, neatly, with conventional elegance.

In his Paris Review Interview (Winter 1966), Saul Bellow took the question directly:

My first two books are well made. I wrote the first quickly but took great pains with it. I labored with the second and tried to make it letter-perfect. In writing The Victim I accepted a Flaubertian standard. Not a bad standard, to be sure, but one which, in the end, I found repressive—repressive because of the circumstances of my life and because of my upbringing in Chicago as the son of immigrants. I could not, with such an instrument as I developed in the first two books, express a variety of things I knew intimately. Those books, though useful, did not give me a form in which I felt comfortable. A writer should be able to express himself easily, naturally, copiously in a form that frees his mind, his energies. Why should he hobble himself with formalities? With a borrowed sensibility? With the desire to be “correct”? Why should I force myself to write like an Englishman or a contributor to The New Yorker? I soon saw that it was simply not in me to be a mandarin. I should add that for a young man in my position there were social inhibitions, too. I had good reason to fear that I would be put down as a foreigner, an interloper. It was made clear to me when I studied literature in the university that as a Jew and the son of Russian Jews I would probably never have the right feeling for Anglo-Saxon traditions, for English words. I realized even in college that the people who told me this were not necessarily disinterested friends. But they had an effect on me, nevertheless. This was something from which I had to free myself. I fought free because I had to.

Here is the opening to The Adventures of Augie March (1953):

I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that sombre city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.

Everybody knows there is no fineness of accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.

Years after the Graham Greene, this was another prose style that I encountered and was deeply affected by. Bellow wasn’t writing about a dilapidated country – he didn’t have that excuse. He was redefining, for himself, what a good sentence was. He didn’t want it to be faux-European. He was writing about, he was writing out of, a non-classical, non-symmetrical self. Perhaps, you’d say, we’re all non-symmetrical. True, but some people like to show themselves off as if they are.

Here we’ve come up against the issue of mimesis – of sentences being fitted to, or aesthetically derived from – their subjects.

Bellow has been enormously influential on subsequent writers. If you take a look at a recent American novel like Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask and you’ll see Bellow in every line.

Bellow’s also influenced Martin Amis, for good and bad. But Bellow’s solution to the sentence isn’t backtrackable. It comes out as mid-Atlantic. Years ago, I wrote an attempt, a parody:

I am an Englishman, north London born – London, that unreal city – and I approach matters not higgledy-piggledy but in obedience to the best available models, and hence will write my autobiography accordingly: a place for everything and everything in its place; sometimes an innocent location, sometimes a not so innocent one. But, as Thomas Hardy says, ‘Character is fate’ – and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the display case by varnishing the oak or donning dark glasses.

That was just a bit of fun. It’s not an Amis parody – it’s a transposition of Bellow into Oxbridge English.

There’s one theory of the English language that asserts that it has for hundreds of years had three levels or styles, High, Middle and Low. It’s possible to read even a latterday American writer such as Bellow as being in constant struggle to integrate High and Low styles, whilst not being overwhelmed by the Middle.

Cyril Connolly wrote very piercingly about Mandarin English in The Enemies of Promise – High Style English; his argument, essentially, being that you couldn’t without great difficulty write a great novel in it any longer.

‘The Mandarin style at its best yields the richest and most complete expression of the English language. It is the diction of Donne, Browne, Addison, Johnson, Gibbon, de Quincey, Landor, Carlyle and Ruskin as opposed to that of Bunyan, Dryden, Locke, Defoe, Cowper, Cobbett, Hazlitt, Southey and Newman. It is characterized by long sentences with many dependent clauses, by the use of the subjunctive and conditional, by exclamations and interjections, quotations, allusions, metaphors, long images, Latin terminology, subtlety and conceits. Its cardinal assumption is that neither the writer nor the reader is in a hurry, that both are possessed of a classical education and a private income. It is Ciceronian English.’

Graham Greene’s relationship to the High Style – particularly the rhetoric of the High Style – in The Power and the Glory is one of parody. If we look to the next sentence down the page, we come across this sentence:

One [one of the indifferent vultures] rose and flapped across the town: over the tiny plaza, over the bust of an ex-president, ex-general, ex-human being, over the two stalls which sold mineral water, towards the river and the sea.

This is a much more formally ambitious, set-piece-y bit of writing than the three sentences preceding it.

To me, this is an obvious reference to a famous passage in Chapter 10 of Dickens’ Bleak House:

The day is closing in and the gas is lighted, but is not yet fully effective, for it is not quite dark. Mr. Snagsby standing at his shop-door looking up at the clouds sees a crow who is out late skim westward over the slice of sky belonging to Cook’s Court. The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden into Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

It’s a fairly notorious weak link, in which Dickens gets from one character (Mr Snagsby) to another (Mr Tulkinghorn). This, I’m afraid to say, ‘In another part of the city at just that same moment…’ is the kind of thing that Salman Rushdie is addicted to.

What makes it clear that this helicopter shot is a High Style parody is that, after a couple of bathetic sentences to finish off the paragraph, Greene begins the second paragraph with a fairly obvious parody of the monosyllabic, comma-avoiding Low style of Hemingway:

He said ‘Buenos dias’ to a man with a gun who sat in a small patch of shade against a wall.

Can you see what I mean about a jerrybuilt, ramshackle prose? This is stitched together, Frankenstein’s monster style, out of different styles of different ages.

The neutrality of ‘a man with a gun’ suggests the distance of a third person narrator – a narrator who can only see and say what she sees. But we’ve already established that Mr Tench’s consciousness dominates this chapter, until the two switches at the end (which are the point of the chapter). Yet it’s clear that Mr Tench knows a lot more about this man than that he is male and holds a gun.

But it wasn’t like England: the man said nothing at all, just stared malevolently up at Mr Tench, as if he had never had any dealings with the foreigner, as if Mr Tench were not responsible for his two gold bicuspid teeth.

Again, we’re back to an almost eighteenth century rhetoric of repetition and emphasis. But this is smack-bang against a sentence of slithery, unassertive modernity. The word malevolently sticks out here, particularly. It again takes us into a kind of pulp fictional writing – although this short circuits when one things about this as a genuinely Catholic book about the battle between good and evil. These men with guns, killing priests, are on the side of the Devil.

As a sentence, how differently it reads if one starts to minimalize it:

..the man said nothing, just stared up at Mr Tench.

Perhaps up is unnecessary, too, as we’ve already established that the man is sitting.

Just as malevolently, although it has a meaningful function in that sentence, is easily cuttable, in the next sentence we have sweating – another a clear example of overpacking the suitcase:

Mr Tench went sweating by, past the Treasury which had once been a church, towards the quay.

Sweating – Greene wants the word in, wants us to know Mr Tench is getting hotter in the blazing Mexican sun, but he doesn’t want to waste a whole sentence, or even a subclause, doing so. It creates a real awkwardness. You can sweat as you go by, and go by as you sweat, but how can you go sweating by?

The answer, really, is that here Greene is using some of the invisible commas that Henry James if not invented then patented. In his revisions to this novels, before publication in the New York edition, James habitually removed commas around subclauses – often leaving the reader needing to hear the sound of the sentence before they could pull apart its constituents and make sense of it.

Perhaps commas are too cumbersome, too pedantic, for Greene to include. But they would make the sentence grammatically better:

Mr Tench went comma sweating comma by comma past the Treasury etc.

Commas would detach sweating from went and force the reader back to Mr Tench as what’s doing the sweating. Greene’s fictional point, I expect, is that beneath the blazing Mexican sun, to go is to sweat.

The next mismatch is to put something approaching free indirect narration right up against something approaching omniscient third person narration:

Half-way across [the plaza] he suddenly forgot what he had come out for – a glass of mineral water? That was all there was to drink in this prohibition state – except beer, but that was a government monopoly and too expensive except on special occasions.

In the first sentence, the word suddenly seems to be forcing the drama; the event is more believable and I would say more dramatic like this:

Half-way across he forgot what he had come out for –

In the second sentence, the narrator clearly detaches from Mr Tench’s sweaty consciousness. There’s no way that Mr Tench is thinking the words ‘this prohibition state’ – he’s much more likely thinking ‘awful bloody fucking place’.

So far, Greene has stuck pretty much to conventional grammar, although the second colon in the first paragraph isn’t doing its usual job. If we look at the opening of the second chapter, we see Greene doing something more extreme:

The squad of police made their way back to the station. They walked raggedly with rifles slung anyhow: ends of cotton where buttons should have been: a puttee slipping down over the ankle: small men with black secret Indian eyes.

I can’t think of any other sentence constructed like this. Usually, to avoid confusion, only one colon is allowed in any sentence. The image I have for Greene’s jerrybuilt punctuation here is of nailheads – this is a badly put together shantytown shack, with pairs of nails jammed in all over the place just to stop the thing falling apart.

Is this bad writing? Is deliberately bad writing still not bad writing?

On my desk, a silverfish walks from the copy of The Power and the Glory, over my watch, around an HB pencil and onto to spine of the copy of Infinite Jest.

Not really, but it gets us there –

Infinite Jest, written by David Foster Wallace between 1991 and 1996, brings up a lot of questions that we’ve already raised. Those of the relationship between the class of the writer and the tone of the prose (DFW uses semicolons, so Kurt Vonnegut would rightly assume he’d been to college); those of the subject of the story and the level of mimesis of the prose; those of American writing and how it deals with American speech; those of correct grammatical practise seeming fussy, distancing, and a looser approach bringing a different life to the prose.

Like Bellow, David Foster Wallace’s prose attempts to integrate the Low and the High Styles. At points, this works against the ground-level believability of the characters – the vocabulary will be doing one thing (innocently misspelling or misspeaking words) whilst the syntax is doing quite another (turning post-Proustian cartwheels).

The tics of contemporary speech, contemporary speech as overheard by DFW, come into the prose of Infinite Jest even when it seems to be being narrated someone or something omniscient. Paragraphs start: ‘And but so…’ or ‘But so and…’ or ‘So but also…’, recalling offhand speech, speech which needs to recapitulate or pick up where it didn’t leave off.

However, the same paragraphs will also contain shortforms such as W/ for with, w/r/t for with regard to; Q.v., quod vide (‘which see’ – a way of flagging up cross-references) – shortforms that are unmistakably written.

The syntax is generally loose, although DFW can tighten to aphoristic writing when he wants (‘You can be at certain parties and not really be there.’ – p219). Some sections read as if they were written in note form – a kind of pre-prose:

‘1610h. E.T.A. [that’s the acronym, there are many many acronyms, for Enfield Tennis Academy] Weight Room. Freestyle circuits. The clank and click of various resistance systems. Lyle on the towel dispenser conferring with an extremely moist Graham Rader. Schacht doing sit-ups, the board almost vertical, his face purple and forehead pulsing…’

The basic form of this is the list – and the final sentence (‘doing sit-ups, the board almost vertical…) becomes a list within a list.

An aside here about the word and. One of the relationships you’ll have to establish in your prose is that between yourself and American writing. Ever since Whitman, and arguably before, American English – why don’t we just call it American? – has developed a different, more spacious syntax than English English. This is typified by the use of and which, I’d say, differs quite considerably. Without going into huge detail, an English and tends to place what follows more emphatically than an American and. That placing performed by the English and may be within a hierarchy – a hierarchy of importance socially, or within the society of the sentence – or that placing may be spatial or temporal.

The American and, particularly since Hemingway, since Gertrude Stein, is a more straightforwardly inclusive word – putting the matter in the sentence (and the sentence’s sense) but not necessarily forcing it to a location. The American and is more comfortable conjoining different grammatical elements within a sentence – for example, ‘He went to here and there and he saw this and this and this and this and it started to rain and he got very wet.’ An English list would tend to avoid constructing itself just around and… and… and... You might say that American ands are Republican; English ones are still semi-aristocratic, gentrified. Here’s a Hemingway sentence from ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ p71:

He waved to Helen and to the boys and, as the clatter moved into the old familiar roar, they swung around with Compie watching for wart-hog holes and roared, bumping, along the stretch between the fires and with the last bump rose and he saw them all standing below, waving, and the camp beside the hill, flattening now, and the plain spreading, clumps of trees, and the bush flattening, while the game trails ran now smoothly to the dry waterholes, and there was a new water that he had never known of.

Interestingly, Hemingway does put the pedantic commas around ‘and roared comma bumping comma along the stretch…’ whereas Greene left them out, you’ll remember, around sweating.

Similarly, Greene’s use of those three consecutive colons at the start of chapter two is a way of non-hierarchical linking. This and this and this and this. To use and would be to overHemingwayise himself.

(This talk of ands may seem a long way from your own practise as a writer. But if you throw in a sentence containing three ands, you’re going to encounter it; just as, if you decide to stick entirely to an acceptable English usage, you’re encountering the American and by avoidance.)

If I were rejigging the Birkbeck course completely, I would be very tempted by the idea of only giving you only European or only British and Irish writers to read. The Reading Guide is quite heavy on American writing. British and Irish short stories would show you the ways other writers have dealt with the language-problems you’re going to encounter; their choices are closer to the choices you’re going to have to make – because American prose writers, in this Late Imperial phase of their country, have a lot of the advantages of a superconductive popular speech. An Essex girl who has taken on the so I’m like and the you know of L.A. Valley girls is doing so about three decades after the linguistic fact. American’s where it is and was at, wordwise.

It’s probably time to start approaching some conclusions. One of them, which I’m going to give straight out, is that – following on from my revelation about why Greene was writing like he does at the beginning of The Power and the Glory – I don’t really believe that there are such things as good or bad sentences, there are merely sentences in the wrong or right place.

There are a number of examples of very well written very badly written prose; one would be Hemingway’s story ‘One Reader Writes’. Another, the semi-literate letter that Leopold Bloom receives from Martha in Ulysses.

Good prose, in and of itself, is of no use whatsoever. Sentences are about getting a particular job done at a particular moment in the text – fitting their place, smoothly or obstructively, in between the sentence before and the sentence after.

This relationship is a lot less linear-smooth than it used to be. One of the interesting developments in Infinite Jest is the creating of the page as a kind of suspension, a field in which sentences appear in a carefully controlled order but not necessarily in a flowing logical sequence. This kind of jumping around between two or three or more lines of thought is very hard to illustrate without a fairly long quotation, so I’ll quote at length. Don’t fuss too much about understanding what’s going on, just listen to how certain threads come in and then reappear five or six sentences later. Hal Incandenza, one of the novel’s main characters, is lying on his back on the floor (p897-898):

After a time, Sleepy T.P. Peterson put his wet-combed head in the door and said LaMont Chu wanted to know whether what was happening outside qualified as a blizzard. It took over a minute of my not saying anything from him to go away. The ceiling panels were grotesquely detailed. They seemed to come after you like some invasive E.T.A. patron backing you up against the wall at a party. The ankle throbbed dully in the snowstorm’s low pressure. I relaxed my throat and simply let the excess saliva run post-nasally back and down. The Mom’s mother had been ethnic Québecois, her late father Anglo-Canadian. The term used in the Yale Journal of Alcohol Studies for this man was binge-drinker. All my grandparents were deceased. Himself’s [that is Hal’s father] middle name had been Orin, his father’s own father’s name. The V.R.’s entertainment cartridges were arrayed on wall-length shelves of translucent polyethylene. Their individual cases were all either clear plastic or glossy black plastic. My full name is Harold James Incandenza, and I am 183.6 cm. tall in stocking feet. Himself designed the Academy’s indirect lighting, which is ingenious and close to full-spectrum. V.R.5 [Viewing Room Five] contained a large couch, four reclining chairs, a midsized recumbency, six green corduroy spectation-pillows stacked in a corner, three end tables, and a coffee table of mylar with inlaid coasters. The overhead lighting in every E.T.A. room came from a small carbon-graphite spotlight directed upward at a complexly alloyed reflecting plate above it. No rheostat was required; a small joystick controlled the brightness by altering the spot’s angle of incidence to the plate. Himself’s films were arranged on the third shelf of the entertainment-case. The Mom’s full name is Avril Mondragon Tavis Incandenza, Ed.D., Ph.D. She is 197 cm. tall in flats and still came up only to Himself’s ear when he straightened and stood erect. For almost a month in the weight room, Lyle had been saying that the most advanced level of Vaipassana or ‘Insight’ meditation consisted in sitting in fully awakened contemplation of one’s own death. I had held Big Buddy sessions in V.R.5 throughout the month of September. The Moms had grown up without a middle name. The etymology of the term blizzard is essentially unknown. The full-spectrum lighting system had been a labor of love from Himself to the Moms, who’d agreed to leave Brandeis and head up the Academy’s academics and had an ethnic Canadian’s horror of fluorescent light; but by the time the system had been installed and de-bugged, the gestalt of the Moms’s lumiphobia had extended to all overhead lighting, and she never used her office’s spot-and-plate system.

You might call this kind of prose fugal, bringing in different voices or subjects, turning them upside down, playing them backwards, the main theme becoming an accompaniment in the bass, a completely new subject entering late and turning out to be an earlier subject transformed beyond recognition.

You might also say that it’s a recent redoing of conventional stream-of-consciousness, familiar from, say, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, but I don’t think that’s true. Hal’s is an extraordinary consciousness, but we’re not meant to assume the phrase ‘the gestalt of the Moms’s lumiphobia’ is pinging around in his head.

DFW’s take on the sentence, to simplify, is that it should be a very practical thing, that should be able to contain the most widely varying kinds of language. The sound of it is far less important than the sense. It’s not quite the IKEA flatpack prose of Douglas Coupland, a writer who covers or tries to cover a lot of the same contemporary territory. But DFW isn’t going to fuss itself over whether three or four consecutive sentences start with the word ‘The…’ This isn’t about elegance, it’s about By All Means Necessary. However, it does bear some relation to Cyril Connolly’s description of the Mandarin: ‘It is characterized by long sentences with many dependent clauses, by the use of the subjunctive and conditional, by exclamations and interjections, quotations, allusions, metaphors, long images, Latin terminology, subtlety and conceits.’

Here’s a character, Gene Fackelmann, being introduced, late in the book (p912):

But from age like eighteen to twenty-three, Gately and the prenominate Gene Fackelmann – a towering, slope-shouldered, wide-hipped, prematurely potbellied, oddly priapistic, and congenitally high-strung Dialudid addict with a walrusy mustache that seemed to have a nervous life of its own – these two served as like Whitey Sorkin’s operatives in the field, taking bets and phoning them to Saugus, delivering winnings, and collecting debts.

This is, quite possibly, a like Saul Bellow pastiche.

What the long section (about Hal on the floor) I read just now conveys, as does the novel as a whole, is a mass of material all pressing at the same time to get in. It’s Bellow’s ‘first to knock, first admitted’ – teeming prose. Sometimes the sentences are so full of possible digressions, the only way for DFW to cope with them is by overflowing into pages-long footnotes. These, I think, aren’t a postmodern stylistic affectation (although you could say they are, in a way, mimetic of a teeming world) – instead, they are a very practical way of dealing with the need to say more at a particular point.

In conclusion, here are a few questions that you’re going to have to think about, with regard to how you address a sentence:

  • How important to you is fidelity to the action you’re describing as opposed to the linguistic elegance and grammatical correctness of the way in which you describe it? In other words, what’s your relationship to mimesis? Are you writing TV on the page or are you choreographing your reader’s mind or are you actually trying to punch them in the face?
  • How American or non-American or anti-American is your language, particularly your syntax, going to be?
  • How do the sentences you write relate to the sentences you speak? Are you trying to social-climb in your syntax? Are you using words you have to go to the dictionary to understand? Or, are you using words that you’ve never said aloud, even when drunk down the pub? (Not that your writing should be circumscribed by your speech, but that there may be a limit to how far you can convincingly stray away from it without turning as wooden as a ventriloquist’s dummy.)
  • Not ‘Am I going to write short sentences or long sentences?’ but ‘What’s my rhythm? Am I strolling or tapdancing?’
  • Are you reading passionately enough? Not for the sake of the story and who does what to whom, but for the sake of being inside the sentences and feeling exactly how they move and thinking about why they move that way?