How Are Those Things Connected?

From a patient look into the history of our relationship with opening sentences comes the following: 

Very often, a successful literary first sentence involves some sort of odd yoking. The beginning of Orwell’s Coming Up For Air is typical: “The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.” Not only is there the vagueness of “the idea”; there’s also the question of just what sort of fascinating idea could come from false teeth. Marquez, whose sentences always make the lists, is a master of this technique. His most celebrated novel, 100 Years of Solitude, opens, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Sure, there’s killing going on, but what you want to know about is a simple childhood experience. His second most celebrated novel, Love in the Time of Cholera begins, “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” Again, the mystery is human, slight. Like with Orwell’s teeth—how are those things connected?

Read the whole history at Electric LitIn Search of the Novel’s First Sentence: A Secret History, by Andrew Heisel.

Extruding What Is Incipient

Gordon Lish talks about “consecution,” about pulling the language and subject matter out of the previous sentence. Each sentence, even down to its syllabic and acoustical shape, embryonically contains the next. I don’t do it at that microscopic level, but I like to work incrementally with plot, extruding what is, I believe, incipient. Just accruing one small detail after another. The big stuff takes care of itself. What seems like audacious structural or narratorial swerves often aren’t, at the time of construction—they’re just the next step you need to take.

—Colin Barrett, "The Right Kind of Damage" (Interview), The Paris Review

SxS: From Beginnings to Ends to In-Betweens

We open Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and read:

The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin. Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.

So much to enjoy about these two sentences, which constitute the first paragraph of the novel and, in opening our introduction to Professor Pnin, provide a head-to-toe portrait of the man. One of the immediate effects for me is delight in Nabokov’s patient precision, which has me not so much reading the sentences as experiencing them. Pnin is traveling on that train, and I am traveling as well, with expectation, from beginnings through middles to ends.

The playfulness with beginnings and ends is of course explicit in the verbs of the second sentence: Pnin “began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his … but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.” We leave the station at the dome (“impressively”) and arrive at the feet (“disappointingly”).

Now take a look back at the opening sentence and see that it, too, is built for arrival, but of a different kind. We begin with “the elderly passenger,” isolated for consideration by our narrator, and isolated as well by those empty seats around him, but not until we’ve reached the end — and have experienced the emphatic drum roll of “none other than,” a moment of withholding — do we have a name for the man, professional title included.

In each case we are in a different place come the period; we have traveled and arrived. The sentence itself is an act of discovery (for us), movement toward revelation.

What has been revealed, interestingly, is quite a lot of in-between about Pnin: He’s elderly, but if you get close enough — step inside that first set of parentheses — you’ll see the “infantile absence of eyebrows.” He is “ideally bald,” with additional features that our narrator modifies as “apish,” “thick,” “strong-man,” and yet look at those “spindly legs” and “frail-looking, feminine feet.” (At the close of the next paragraph of the novel we will learn that “except for a soldier asleep at one end and two women absorbed in a baby at the other, Pnin had the coach to himself.” He’s not only physically composed of both the masculine and the feminine; he’s physically positioned between the masculine and the feminine.) 

And naturally, as a traveler on that moving train, Pnin is in an in-between place. I want to say that Nabokov promptly places us in a kind of in-between place as well with the repetition of the demonstrative “that”: “that inexorably moving railway coach,” “that great brown dome of his.” We’ve only just begun this novel; we don’t know anything, really, about this train or this particular man on it; but in these instances we’re spoken to as if we do know. We’re at once distant, observing, and close, knowing. 

That’s where Nabokov wants us: we’re about to know something more that will make us understand what’s especially inexorable about that train, and that will worry “that great brown dome.” We’ll arrive at the knowledge before Pnin does:

"Now a secret must be imparted," Nabokov writes at the start of paragraph three. "Professor Pnin was on the wrong train." 

That’s a whole new kind of in-between. We read on, inexorably.

(For more from the Characters-on-Trains file, click here.)

The Promise of the Single Sentence

I’m just back from teaching several craft sessions at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference, at Arizona State University, and I am reflecting again on this:

The writers I have taught who have enjoyed the most success have found their stories inside of single, compelling, well-crafted (and -revised) sentences of narrative charge. They have found character and setting and predicament, and have subsequently, and unexpectedly, come upon specific moment and momentum from the sustained empathic imagining that a single sentence has demanded. They have proceeded to unpack a story across sometimes twenty or thirty pages, addressing the narrative questions their initial sentence prompted. In starting story-making with what the crafting of a single sentence demands, we’re not limiting the imagination. We’re both deepening and sharpening it — and at the same time encouraging practice toward the agility and versatility a profitable sentence-maker must have.

SxS: From Out of the Darkness

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jonathan Harker looks out from the coach that is taking him toward his first meeting with the Count:

Each moment I expected to see the glare of lamps through the blackness, but all was dark. The only light was the flickering rays of our own lamps, in which the steam from our hard-driven horses rose in a white cloud.

A few years ago, preparing to teach a new fiction course and compelled to begin with image-making (and to impress upon my students at the start that writers must consider themselves visual artists), I began to ask the question why certain images made from words on the page are particularly vivid. What makes them so? The question returned me to Elaine Scarry’s brilliant Dreaming by the Book, in which she offers several answers. Among them is what she refers to as “radiant ignition,” when (to simplify) we are asked, first, to “[i]magine nothing, just an empty expanse of black — the dusky emptiness in the midst of which images form but which are being kept away at the moment.” Then light shines and produces movement against the black. There’s the darkness, the anticipation, and the ignition of motion. Of course.

This example from Stoker is particularly instructive, I think, and it extends a bit my simplified description of what’s behind this kind of successful image-making. There’s Harker’s expectation in the dark (“[e]ach moment”), which is our expectation for something visual. That we’re asked to imagine the anticipated “glare of lamps” and then this is erased — this is not seen — makes the resultant darkness all the more dark. And then “flickering rays” ignite movement. Yes, we can see the light of the lamps themselves against the dark, but that’s not what makes the image-work here especially effective (and it’s not very interesting). What we are asked to see are how the rays play on the steam rising from the (unseen) nostrils of straining horses. The interplay of different speeds — the “flickering rays” are many, fast, and sharply shifting, while the “white cloud” is singular and slower — and the white-on-black contrast are what lends this small moment of seeing particularly vivid power. The exertion of those horses is palpable even as they remain off-screen.