Saturday, August 20, 2011

a stomach punch of a sentence

Check out this sentence from this sweet wedding vows story:
Years later, he felt, sort of, in a way, that he discovered Jacques Beaumont, now 86, when in December 1972 a mutual friend suggested that Mr. Townsend would be just the person to show Mr. Beaumont, visiting from France, around New York City for a perfect night on the town.
Oof.

As usual, the things that annoy us the most are the things that remind us of ourselves. When my prose fails me, as it frequently does, this is the way it most commonly happens: I try to build too grand a house of a sentence on a foundation that just can't support it. The rest of the piece, I should say, is written with a basic but admirable economy.

I recognize that she is echoing one of her subject's sentences herself in the initial construction, but it's there were she gets into trouble: her idea is more elegant than her words. Which happens to all of us, I think. Perfect symmetries in idea become disjointed by the vagaries of syllabification and how loaded sentences can become through meaning. The trick, I've come to believe, is to understand that ideas can be turned into good prose, but ideas about prose almost never can be turned into good prose. It's something I've had to learn only through experience: you can't keep a piggy bank of language. At times I've thought of these discrete phrases and constructions and admired them a little a terrible signand tried to hide them away for later, to put into appropriate arguments once I had found them. It's always a little like buying furniture for the house you haven't bought yet. You've got to let the words be a product of the argument, and you hope that the prose quality comes. Attend to your rhetoric first and the art will follow.

All of this, of course, has almost nothing to do with Anemona Hartocollis, who did write a charming portrait of an old gay couple with a minimum of condescension.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good god. It reminds me of Henry James. How I hated his work.

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