Is one sentence enough to judge a writer?
Can a single sentence tell us if a writer is good, great or just not worth reading?
If this seems like a bad question I am borrowing it from writer who has the credentials to at least get our attention:Rivka Galchen is a recipient of a William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a Berlin Prize, among other distinctions. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications, including Harper’s and The New Yorker, which selected her for their list of “20 Under 40” American fiction writers in 2010. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed “Atmospheric Disturbances,” was published in 2008. Her second book, a story collection titled “American Innovations,” was published in May.
This description appears in a piece in the NY Times to celebrate Bloomsday, For those who are unfamiliar with this day it is the date, June 16th, 1904 during which all the events of James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. All around the world there are events to include readings the book from start to finish. I have written about why reading this book can change your life, but here I want to quote Rivka Galchen’s words about knowing if a book is worth reading:
When I was 19, I asked a great poet a dumb question, about how he knew when something was good. He said he usually knew by the first sentence, or maybe the second. That seemed terrifying to me then, and seems sensible (if still terrifying) to me now. The praise and criticism of others, while often enough interesting to read as miniature memoirs, rarely provide a reliable guide for me to decide what to read. So if you wanted to see how “Ulysses” might strike you today, perhaps the best contemporary review begins: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
The opening sentence of Ulysses is one of the most famous in all of literature. Why?
There are far better critics than I could ever hope to be who have written about this, but let me just give a few of the reasons. First off, the sentence sings. It’s poetic in the way a book based on Homer’s epic should be. 5 hard stresses in the first 6 syllables is not unlike the opening of Beethoven’s 5th. We cannot skim past the words; the hard sounds make us slow down. And then there are the 3 u sounds stuck together with a near rhyme of plump and Buck. The first clause is filled with music. Joyce contains it with alliteration of stately and stairhead and in between gives us the Anglo Saxon thump of syllables pounding the notes. The second clause opens with another alliteration, the hard B sounds echoing back to the Buck but moving us forward too. The last word crossed is also a hard sound that gives the entire sentence gravitas.
But the sentence is far more than sounds. The adjectives used to describe Buck give him an air of gravitas that we can see. He commands the stage as he ascends holding the symbolic razor and mirror. The razor and mirror are given symbolic status through the word “bearing”. We are in the world of ritual. The priestly Buck will, we discover, begin his parody of the Catholic mass in the sentences that follow. The word “crossed” has symbolic weight too as it is the role of religion that comes into play throughout the whole first chapter. The mirror reflects the world that see through darkly as we try to understand the beliefs and actions of Stephen Daedalus, Leopold and Molly Bloom to name just the main characters of Homer’s epic and Joyce’s reimagining of it in contemporary times. The ritual of the mass will debased into a morning shave; the heroic exploits of “many minded” Ulysses will be reflected in the actions of the man who is both everyman and an exile within his own country because he is Jewish. Joyce mixes the high and the low, the epic and the satiric all in one sentence. But the whole book unfolds in this way. Joyce’s voices cross and recross (pun intended on my part) each other in virtually every form possible. What I have written is just a small part of what could be said. Joyce himself said the book would keep critics busy for hundreds of years and he is likely right about this. Each word is weighed for its sound and sense and each word has multiple resonances that echo throughout the book.
Have I convinced you that this sentence deserves its status? If not, let me try again, this time with a sentence from another Irish writer, Anne Enright. Her Booker Prize winning novel “The Gathering” grabs us with its plot but her ability to use adjectives that surprise and unnerve in the midst of a devastatingly dark life trope define just how well a writer can make “darkness visible”:
“I look at him, a big sexy streak of misery, with his face stuck in a glass of obscure Scotch, as he traces the watermark of failure that runs through his life, that is there on every page.”
That “sexy streak of misery” speaks in just a few words what psychologists have written about over hundreds of pages. That “obscure” Scotch is just a slight twist from the common “rare” that most would use. It slows us down just in time for the magic of turning the character into a book. She both comments on what all novels do to characters but also does it in such a subtle way that we might miss the absolute precision of the image. — that watermark that is both our genetics and the doom that comes from an upbringing that we cannot escape. The pages of the book of our lives could be made into a cliché but not here. She makes the darkness of his life shine even while it sinks. The watermark of her talented prose is there on every page.
I use these two great sentences to show more than tell, why a great novel or essay or poem starts off small. It can be an adjective that alters our way of seeing and thinking. It could be a metaphor lurking that will arise and bring a cliché back to transcendent life. If this sounds like something only a genius can do, it isn’t. It may be that the best writers can string together whole books of sentences that sing, but almost anyone who learns to play with words, to experiment, to learn and even to steal from the Masters will find that the Muse that inspires us to words not our own and yet are ours too can show up on a screen for us to read to ourselves and to others. Sentences sneak in between nouns and verbs, clauses and pauses — something more than what a pure philosophical materialist claims are all that exists. Some call is soul.
Meaning begins in sentences and so perhaps does being.