SxS: Tucked in Tight


In William Trevor’s short story “The Women,” published in the January 14, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, Miss Cotell has fallen asleep on the train home:

The landscape Miss Cotell was unaware of, while she dreamed instantly forgotten dreams, faded into winter dusk.

What a delightful package this tight sentence is. With its doubling of loss (landscape and dreams), it reads almost like a fable about how much we inevitably miss as life rushes forward. In terms of craftsmanship, I admire how the dreaming Miss Cotell, set off by the commas, is tucked inside the moving sentence and the description of the landscape — just as her character in the narrative is tucked in on the moving train, and into her irretrievable dreams.

Although the train itself doesn’t figure in the sentence, the countering velocities in the narrative moment — the speed of the train and of the passing landscape (and even of the “instantly forgotten dreams”) operating in opposing conjunction with the calm of sleep and the gradually coming dusk — make the sentence a model for emulation. I think of Stanley Fish’s encouragement to work toward taking “appreciative measure” of such a sentence:

If you learn what goes into the making of a memorable sentence — what skills of coordination, subordination, allusion, compression, parallelism, alliteration … are in play — you will also be learning how to take the appreciative measure of such sentences. And conversely, if you can add to your admiration of a sentence an analytical awareness of what caused you to admire it, you will be that much farther down the road of being able to produce one (somewhat) like it.

                  — from How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One