The Perfect Sentence


My weekend writing class is a welcome break from my week of molecular biology. In my 10-week Gotham Writing Workshop entitled Fiction Writing I, we read short stories, by professionals and each other. We discuss sentences and their merits and flaws, debate what works in a short and what just doesn’t quite move the reader. I am currently reading around 5 or 6 stories a week as homework. It is challenging but I have discovered that when I find a sentence that “sings” as our teacher Mike puts it, my heart flows over. But how do you write the “perfect sentence”?

Yesterday on my way out of class a fellow student gave me an article published in the NYTimes by the acclaimed writer Jhumpa Lahiri. My life’s Sentences discusses her relationship with words and the structures you can make with them.

I remember reading a sentence by Joyce, in the short story “Araby.” It appears toward the beginning. “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once. It is full of movement, of imagery. It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.

I want to be able to measure, unguard and radiate with meaning. Now I am inspired. I want to find sentences that make my hair stand on end. I want to read how a wordsmith can conjure up vivid images on the page and make me smile at their genius. And I want you to help me. Have a little ponder on the best sentences or sections of prose that you have come across recently or in your distant past. Please share them so we can all marvel at the beauty of language (and by that I mean they don’t need to be in English).

Here are a couple of passages that I found after a quick browse on the Internet.

“Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being in love which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

“Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow, it was hotter then. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning; ladies bathed before noon, after their 3 o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go and nothing to buy… and no money to buy it with. Although Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself… That summer, I was six years old.”

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (is this the greatest opening to a book? I think it might be. Unless you can prove me wrong?) ‘The day was twenty-four hours long, but seemed longer” is just magnificent. Childhood recollections are often bathed in a soft hue of hotter, longer and safer. For me, Harper Lee achieves perfection in this simple phrase.

Other sentences that have stood out in my recent short story addiction include several examples in Roberto Bolano’s Labyrinth.

His face is round. it would be an exaggeration to say that this is the face of a fat man, but it probably will be in a few years’ time: it’s the face of a man who enjoys a good meal. An ironic, intelligent smile is hovering about his lips.

At first glance she could be Vietnamese. Except that her breasts, it seems, are larger than those of a Vietnamese woman. Hers is the only smile that allows us a glimpse of teeth.

Bolano plays with the reader, mocking us throughout the whole piece. His oddly straightforward descriptions of his characters are sometimes bizarre and therefore jolly good fun.

In Los Gigantes, T. Coraghessan Boyle shows us his skill.

I couldn’t see anything but her face in the mosaic shadow of the wire, but I could feel her shrug animate the mattress.

I came up off the bed, chains rattling loose around me, telling tales, and if the guard who must have been watching through a hidden peephole came hurtling into the room I barely noticed.

I could go on. But I am tired and I will be climbing into my bed now. More sentences please. Isn’t this just a great game?


2 responses »

  1. Lest you should think he never could recapture
    The first fine careless rapture!

    A quote from Robert Browning’s wonderful poem entitled Home Thoughts From Abroad.

    The complete poem is quite beautiful however these two lines make my heart sing and fill me up!!

  2. I’m reading The Book Thief at the moment and Markus Zusak has plenty to choose from but I particularly liked this one:

    “The first couple of times, he simply stayed – a stranger to kill the aloneness. A few nights after that, he whispered “Shhh, I’m here, It’s alright.” After three weeks, he held her. Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness, his thereness.”

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