A Perfect Sentence or Two

In a beautifully written essay in last Sunday’s New York Times, the novelist and short story Jhumpa Lahiri cites an unforgettable sentence from a story by James Joyce titled “Araby.” Here it is:

The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.

The heads of writers are filled with sentences – the unforgettable ones they’ve read along their life’s path and the nascent ones forming for their own stories. Here’s why Lahiri likes that sentence by Joyce:

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.

photo of James Joyce

James Joyce, grandmaster of the sentence.

How you respond to this sentence of Joyce’s is a pretty good test of whether you have it in you to be a fiction writer. Let’s say you want to write and you think writing a story is all about characters, plot points, suspense, epiphanies, dialogue, authenticity, fantasy, steampunk, and all kinds of amazing things in your head. You’re not entirely wrong, but at its most fundamental level creating a story is about playing with words on a page. As Lahiri puts it, “The most compelling narrative, expressed in sentences with which I have no chemical reaction, or an adverse one, leaves me cold.”

I agree.  A story without the glory of memorable words is no story at all. So this is the daily lot of writers: to craft sentences and revise them and string them together and rearrange them and then tinker with them some more.

photo of Potter Stewart

The man who knew it when he saw it - Justice Potter Stewart.

I also agree with Lahiri that Joyce has given us an exceptionally fine sentence, but every reader and writer will have a different set of memorable sentences. I’ve been asking myself what makes a perfect sentence, and finding it very hard to come up with general principles. Yes, a metaphor is often involved. Visual images and physical actions that imprint on the mind’s eye of the reader can be powerful. Many times emotion is expressed in a way that magically touches some emotion in you. But there are so many exquisite sentences in the universe, and of such variety, that at bottom I think a grand sentence is very like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography, “I’ll know when I see it.”

For years I’ve been jotting down sentences I like in my journal and for purposes of this post, I’ve mined a few favorites. Here are eight sets of sentences I’ll match up with anyone’s favorites.

“The evening paper rattle-snaked its way through the letter box and there was suddenly a six o’clock feeling in the house.”

From The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

“My older brother says that when I eat it sounds like an army marching through muck.”

From “The Trojan Sofa” by Bernard MacLaverty

“Except for a bumpy bulbous nose with a few broken blood vessels here and there on its bright red surface, his face is smooth and white, with the shiny licked look of a dog’s favorite bone.”

From Cockfighter by Charles Willeford

“Goodbye to the uniforms so heavy for a little girl, manly shouldered blazer and tie, black cow-hoof shoes.”

From The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai as her protagonist leaves a convent school

“They ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.”

From All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

“We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed  only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all that night, nor the next, nor the next.”

From Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.”

From The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

“Darwin could cook a breakfast fry like no one Arthur had ever seen. He was quick and quiet and before a person had his boots tied right, the sound and smell of bacon was in the morning air and then the skillet eggs with onions and ham, sometimes with the sharp cheddar he bought in the village in a big brick, and the thick fried bread, close to burned the way Darwin had learned the other two men liked it.”

From Five Skies by Ron Carlson

What are your favorite sentences?

9 Responses to A Perfect Sentence or Two

  1. These are great. They pack so much reality into so few words. And they flow easily.

    Like music and other art, a sentence feels wonderful to the extent that the reader experiences something wonderful from it. And yet, that is subjective: the same sentence will cause an amazing feeling in one person but not so much in another. True, fine sentences are entertaining to most people. They are universal.

    But I find that when I am particularly moved by a sentence or a song, other people I share it with often don’t have exactly the same response.

    I guess what I am saying is that we writers like to think there is such thing as a “perfect sentence”. And “perfect” always seems to be that which moves *us* most.

    • Your point is very well taken, Glenn. Great sentences like all sorts of art are indeed highly subject to individual sensibility. In one sense, then, there is no “perfect sentence,” and in another there are many “perfect sentences.” I picked up on the phrase because Jhumpa Lahiri uses it to describe her “Araby” sentence and also because it makes for a provocative headline that may attract a certain amount of attention.

    • I didn’t mean my comments about perfect sentences as a criticism. It’s just that I have only recently come to the conclusion that there is no “perfect” art, but only (as you said) things that are perfect for *us*. Thus many perfect sentences, song melodies, song lyrics, etc.

      As artists we want to make something *perfect*. We aspire to perfection. To full mastery. After all, if we are always improving, is not the goal to reach the pinnacle of that journey?

      So to me now, the idea of a universal pinnacle is in doubt.

      However, maybe that’s a distinction without a difference. Beyond a certain level of performance, it’s ALL enjoyable and immensely satisfying.

      The older I get, the less I want to “rank” art. Yes, I disdain celebrating mediocre beginning attempts (on the Internet we find so much of that), but once artists have gained ability, I’d rather celebrate it all.

  2. Glenn’s point very well taken indeed and it just goes to show that nothing ‘is’, unless it is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder/listener.
    My hands itch to get to my books and pick some sentences, but my wheelchair does not agree: has been on strike all day. Darn interesting post, RasoirJ, based on a lovely and yes, beautifully written essay.

  3. Lesley Pendleton Mar 22, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    This will always and forever be my favorite. I didn’t even have to think about it.

    “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

  4. Nice but brief examples … snacks when you want a meal. Now HERE’s a sentence:

    “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surace in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse “Rinse the mouth–rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us–when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

    Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill,” cited in Francine Prose’s wonderful book, Reading Like a Writer. Prose comments, “The marvel, of course, is not how long the sentence is–181 words!–but how perfectly comprehensible, graceful, witty, intelligent, and pleasurable we find it to read.

    • Ah, that Virginia Woolf. She sure could write. This is precisely the kind of grand sentence that is likely to fade away under the pressure of Twitter-length attention spans. Thanks, hacwriter.

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