Life sentence

Subject, verb, predicate – what makes one group of words sound better than another, have more resonance, greater meaning or deeper impact? This post explores the sentences that sustain us.

Every year the cultural cognoscenti gather to award the literary arts’ most prestigious baubles: the Nobel, the Man Booker, the Miles Franklin.

There is criteria by which the awarded tomes are judged, but also intangibles. No one can say definitively what made one book prove more alluring, dazzling or intriguing than another. Yet a consensus is reached, somehow.

It’s certainly not judged solely on technical merit – on the quality, say, of individual sentences. And that makes sense. Sentences are writing’s basic building blocks, and you don’t assess the quality of a skyscraper merely on the impressiveness of its stone, steel and glass.

Also, what metric or index could be applied to assess sentence quality? Trying to explain what makes one group of words more memorable, meaningful or powerful than any other is incredibly elusive. Most people when asked can’t say why something sticks in their mind, or why it sounds “nicer” to them. They just know.

“I’m not sure how to describe what makes a good sentence for me,” says graphic designer Frank Ameneiro, a prolific reader. “I just feel it.”

Frank really likes this quote from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead:

“We cross our bridges as we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered”.

There is considerable restraint in that group of words, and as much power in what’s left unwritten as what’s penned. It’s also skillful in the manner in which it evokes smells and sensations and a sense of wanton destruction. Why were they burning bridges? Why only a guess as to lachrymose eyes?

Still working the Bard angle (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are side characters in Hamlet that Tom Stoppard put centre stage) Jonathan Irwin, a senior sub-editor at The Sunday Times, references a line from Shakespeare, a snippet from The Tempest spoken by Prospero:

“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”

Jonathan says, “For me it sums up the beauty, wonder and sadness of human existence, whilst inspiring by its genius and eloquence. I find the thought of sleep being our before and after very comforting too. It also implies an atheism that reflects my own.”

Sentences, Jonathan says, are good for different reasons. Text needs context. A group of words in isolation, however appealing, often won’t have resonance.

“My favourite sentence is wonderful on its own,” he says. “But seen in the context of the whole speech by Prospero, it becomes more powerful … as it does seen in the context of the whole play … as it does seen in the context of Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre. The Tempest is about a magician who creates characters, and was written near the end of Shakespeare’s career and life, so the poignant parallels with him as a writer are clear.”

Without explanation, Sophie Patrick put forward two nominations for this prosaic pantheon. They are two more from “Capital L” literature.

The first is from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

“This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.”

The second is from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

“The correction, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle let-down, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor.”

Although neither of these offerings are what could be described as pithy – compare “Jesus wept”, and “Call me Ishmael” ― they both offer astonishingly perceptive observations on the human condition in just a few simple lines.

They both have a certain something: cadence, flow, rhythm; call it what you will, both of these examples “sing” for want of a better expression. Sure, the sentiment they express could be conveyed more simply. But these are not sentences extracted from news stories, and their aim is not simply to pass on facts.

To return to the building analogy again: a nice sentence must have form as well as function. And while the former serves the latter, they both do matter.

Publisher James Weston has always liked this:

“Fame is fleeting, money has wings, popularity is yesterday’s child. The only thing that endures is strength of character.”

“Honestly, I have no idea where I read it,” James says. “It was in the front pages of a book – probably sport – that I read long ago, and it stuck with me.”

He has since discovered it was a derivation from a quote from Horace Greeley (1811–1872), editor of the New-York Tribune in the mid-1800s: “Fame is vapour, popularity an accident; riches take wings; those who cheer today will curse tomorrow, only one thing endures, and that is character.”

A couple of respondents to this article chose two samples of writing: one, like JW’s example, that means something to them, and inspires in moments when required – some words of wisdom. A maxim.

The other is an example of pretty prose that affects them in a way they can’t necessarily explain, in the same manner that great design might work its magic, even when you might not notice how.

Digital producer Finn Bradshaw provided two excellent examples, name-checking the great Dr J, non-fiction maestro David Halberstam, and the original gonzo scribe along the way.

“There’s a great quote by Julius Irving that went, ‘Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them’,”says Finn, quoting Halberstam on the high-flying hoopster’s work ethic.

From a purely “I like the sound of it” point of view, Finn gives us this from Hunter S. Thompson: “And that, I think, was the handle ― that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting ― on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave …
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark ―that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Perhaps it’s best not to try to analyse or deconstruct Thompson; one could go crazy attempting this. And you’d be ill-advised to attempt to mimic it. Thompson took his craft seriously (at least as seriously as his pharmacological experiments).

Yet his was an approach that was as self-styled as it was perspicacious. Your regular scribes should no more attempt imitation than a local ‘baller try to copy the balletic grace of Dr J on the hardwood. Best advice: master the basic moves first.

Like Finn, writer and owner of Resonance Communications Diana Elliott also puts forward two samples.

“From the time I visited Abu Simbel I’ve forever thought about the quote I heard there: ‘For you, the one for whom the sun rises every morning.’ It was the dedication by the egomaniac Ramesses I to his wife – well one of them – whom he loved the most, Nefertiti,” Diana recalls. “I always thought it was beautiful, and still do.”

The second sentence Diana nominates – “Planes are ships on borrowed time” –  is from her favourite book, Still, by Adam Thorpe.

“It’s a funny quote,” Diana says, “and one that I often think about when I board a plane!”

Sometimes a compelling word combination will stick in one’s consciousness in a way you can’t explain properly. It doesn’t need context; it might not even make much sense. But there it is.

Writer Melinda Sweetnam likes Top Gun’s “I feel the need, the need for speed.” It gets her going.

I encountered this while reading Murray Bail’s The Pages: “Hemmed in countries produce all manner of limps and missing limbs in their men.” There is a whole anthropology in that sentence, and yet it is offered with no further explanation or qualification. It is what it is. You deal with it as you will.

After much prompting, musician and teacher Angus Grant offered this, from liner notes by Julian Budden from The Operas of Verdi, vol 1.

“The instrumental palette is calculated to bring out all the velvet depths of the baritone voice-clarinets, horns, bassoons and pizzicato cellos. Flute, oboe and violins give an added sense of plangency to Gilda. The mood is cathartic, one of grief purged by weeping and transfigured into serene melody.”

Someone, somewhere must have done a collection of the best record liner notes. The combination of (usually) journalists writing about subject matter about which they’re passionate is often irresistible.

This quote from a recent newspaper article (Caroline James, The Age, April 16) about how life is changing for Australian circus families jumped out at me. It quotes Anna Gasser from Silvers Circus: “There were a few operators here in the 70s. It was tough. We only had our eldest son, three donkeys, two ponies and a midget, and did everything ourselves.”

You wonder how the midget and the Gasser boy like being including among the circus inventory. Still, I love the incongruous inclusion.

If you keep your eyes and ears open, there are wonderful sentences everywhere.

Using the examples of Finn and Diana, I’m offering two examples too.

For my “wise words” sample I like this from Seneca: “Count each day a separate life.”  When I’ve struggled to reconcile mistakes I’ve made, sometimes huge life-changing blunders, or if I fret about what’s coming, I come back to these words, or try to. What if today is all that there is? No past, no tomorrow, but only this moment?

As for word combinations that appeal, I could have chosen one of many from Stephen Marlowe, or Peter Robb, or Evelyn Waugh, or Elmore Leonard, but I went for this from Colin Harrison’s Manhattan Nocturne:

“I sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom. Oh, Jesus I do, I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos, and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and the vanities of the rich. Children falling from windows, subway trains afire, rapists fleeing into the dark. I sell anger and redemption. I sell the muscled heroism of firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold. I sell black to white, white to black. To Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Muslims and transvestites and squatters on the Lower East Side. I sold John Gotti and O.J. Simpson and the bombers of the World Trade Center, and I’ll sell whoever else comes along next. I sell falsehood and what passes for truth and every gradation in between. I sell the newborn and the dead. I sell the wretched, magnificent city of New York back to its people. I sell newspapers.”

It’s more than one sentence, of course. Indeed, it’s longer than a standard paragraph, but I like Harrison’s playful use of language, and his obvious reverence of it. I like its craft and heft, its rhythm and tone, its authority and acuity. I get drawn in by its sweep and scope, its roiling images and evocation of time and place. New York City as a character? It’s right there. And the idea that the narrator may not be upstanding and sincere; that’s there too.

The quest for a choice combination of words is one that doesn’t have to cease. I’ll keep looking and adding so long as I’m above ground, I suspect. By noticing what’s good in others’ writing, I hope I can improve my own.

And learning from wise words can’t hurt either. I love this simple philosophy found in The Sea, The Sea, from Iris Murdoch: “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of them can be inexpensive and quickly procured, so much the better.”

And one more from Seneca: “As long as you are alive, keep learning how to live.” That’s a good one.

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