For much of my life, I felt an obligation to ‘keep up’ with what was being published in other countries, as though my having been born a fourth-generation Australian and my never having travelled outside my native country had made me, by definition, a tailender or an also-ran in an interminable race for some such vague prize as to be called well read or up to date in literary matters. Towards the end of that period, I was looking through, if not reading, a review in the London Review of Books dated 8 February 1990. The book under review was Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon, and the reviewer was Frank Kermode. His long piece included the following:
Pynchon loves very long sentences, of which this, though not the longest available, is a sample:
By the time she began to see that she might, nonetheless, have gone through with it, Brock Vond had reentered the picture, at the head of a small motorcade of unmarked Buicks, forcing her over near Pico and Fairfax, ordering her up against her car, kicking apart her legs and frisking her himself, and before she knew it they were in another motel room, after a while her visits to Sasha dropped off and when she made them she came in reeking with Vond sweat, Vond semen—couldn’t Sasha smell what was going on?—and his erect penis had become the joystick with which, hurtling into the future, she would keep trying to steer among the hazards and obstacles, the swooping monsters and alien projectiles of each game she would come, year by year to stand before, once again out long after curfew…
The passage quoted here is about half the passage quoted by Kermode. I have cut it short to save space. What I’ve quoted is more than enough to illustrate the point that I made in a letter to the editors of the London Review. The letter, which was later published, read in full:
Frank Kermode quotes what he calls a very long sentence from Thomas Pynchon (LRB, 8 Feb, 90). The passage quoted is not a sentence. The passage consists of a sentence of sixty-six words followed by a comma and then a sequence of clauses and phrases that is neither a part of the sentence preceding it nor a sentence in itself.
I feel sure that I would have written the letter on the same day when I first read Pynchon’s muddled writing and Kermode’s mistaken comment, and that that was the day when I did what I had been thinking of doing for some time—when I dropped out of the race mentioned above. It would have been dispiriting enough to have discovered that a writer of such renown as Pynchon was a mere pretender, but to have discovered that a critic of such renown as Kermode seemed not to know what constituted a sentence would surely have persuaded me that the race I had for so long supposed myself to be contesting was not worth my trouble.
If I had not wanted to keep my letter short and forceful, I might have gone on to ask by what right Kermode could assert that Pynchon loved long sentences or any other stylistic effect. I had worked out my own theory of fiction by then, and it was largely derived from the writings of Wayne C. Booth. Kermode, in his careless attribution of a love of long sentences to an entity that he named ‘Pynchon’, betrayed his ignorance of Booth’s common-sense distinction between the flesh-and-blood Thomas Pynchon and the implied author of the texts that he put his name to. Kermode, like any other reader of Vineland, was free to guess what a man named Thomas Pynchon might love or not love, but any fondnesses inferred from any text had to be attributed to a being known only from his having composed it: a being not necessarily identical with a man known to his friends as Thomas Pynchon.
I called Pynchon a pretender and his writing muddled. I suppose some or another writer of fiction might justify his or her use of non-sentences for some special purpose, even though I myself, during 60 years of writing for publication, have never needed anything but grammatically sound sentences for the countless things that I’ve wanted to put into words. But leaving aside the rare possible exception, I hereby assert what I’ve asserted many times before without seeming to have won over many converts, let alone to have effected any change in the world: I assert that any sort of sound sentence is superior to any non-sentence because a sentence contains more meaning than a non-sentence. I’ll go further and assert that a sentence is the natural repository of meaning while a non-sentence is able to contain only a rudimentary sort of meaning.
But what do I mean by meaning? I’ve hardly ever taken any interest in the visual arts. This sometimes distressed my wife, and one night in the late 1980s she persuaded me to accept an invitation that I had wanted to ignore. We had been invited to the opening of an exhibition in a gallery devoted to contemporary art. I was looking around the exhibition, struggling to find something of interest, when I was invited by the organisers to take part in a panel discussion as part of the evening’s program. I pleaded that I was unqualified to say anything about the sort of item on display, but the persons inviting me seemed not to believe me, and their encouragement, plus my habitual reluctance to disappoint well-meaning people, led me to agree to sit on their panel. I had about 20 minutes to find something relevant to say about the strange-looking bits and pieces around me. Perhaps there were paintings on display, but I recall only things that I would have called abstract sculptures. I paced around, asking myself ‘What, if anything, does this stuff mean?’ and getting no coherent reply. Then I walked up to an exhibit that was nothing more than a scattering of water-smoothed stones and pebbles on the floor. At once, I saw in mind a mass of slippery, mottled stones at the western end of Murnane’s Bay, which is about 20 kilometres east of Warrnambool. I even felt something such as the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past reported himself as feeling when he happened to stand on two uneven paving stones and when, according to one of the grandest passages in what I consider the most memorable book I have read, he could no longer doubt that time could be regained, so to speak. Proust’s narrator experienced again, after many years, the overpowering effect on him of the light and the architecture of Venice. I experienced something utterly different but equally forceful. Whenever I had stepped on the slippery stones in the 1940s, nearly 50 years before the evening at the exhibition that had seemed to matter so little to me, I was on my way to the space between Men’s Rock and the towering cliffs that surrounded the little bay named for my grandfather’s farm nearby. In that space, which was always in deep shadow, men and boys changed before and after swimming. (At the far, eastern end of the bay was Women’s Rock, which was similarly positioned near a cliff but was always in bright sunshine.) Whenever I had stepped on the unstable stones, the uppermost of my feelings was fear. I feared the green waves breaking against the seaward side of Men’s Rock; I feared to undress among the hairy bodies of my uncles and the other dairy farmers who picnicked with their families on hot Sundays at Murnane’s Bay; and I feared something, I knew not what, that affected me whenever I tried to envisage my girl-cousins and their mothers, my aunts, clambering over their own shifting stones towards Women’s Rock.
I said very little during the panel discussion at the gallery, and I have no recollection of how that little was received, but I have never forgotten my satisfaction at having formulated what had been for the previous three decades of my life as a writer a sort of instinctive awareness and no more. I said, at least once, and with an image in my mind of the stones on the bare floor of the brightly lit gallery but as though they slithered beneath my bare feet in the deep shadow at one end of a sunlit, remote bay of the Southern Ocean—I said that meaning for me was connection; that a thing had meaning for me if it was connected with another thing.
I admit to being a slow-witted person. In the years when I used to watch films, I had much trouble following their plots; I could never learn to play chess; and I’ve needed to read many a book twice before I could say that I understood it. I was hardly surprised that I had reached middle age before I could explain in words something that had underlain all the writing I had done during the previous 30 years. My writing itself hardly changed as a result, but I was never again bothered by occasional doubts that my devotion to the sentence, and especially the compound sentence, was hardly more than a personal preference. Moreover, my finding the right words happened at about halfway through the 16 years when I worked as a teacher of fiction-writing in tertiary institutions, and made more eloquent what might otherwise have seemed a matter of mere opinion or even prejudice.
Once having equated meaning with connection, I saw that the sentence, even the simplest sentence, was the form of words best able to express meaning. The simplest sentence comprises a subject, for example The stones, and a predicate, for example were smooth and mottled. In the cited example, the qualities of smoothness and mottled-ness are connected with the perceived existence of certain stones. I got much satisfaction from assuring myself of these basic matters but vastly more satisfaction from my being thenceforth justified in supposing that my having preferred since childhood to read and to write long sentences was evidence of my longing to discover and to dwell on the countless connections between things: to dwell on them while I read and, while I wrote, to bring to light more of them than I or anyone had previously suspected. I could be sure thereafter that no whim or affectation but the worthiest of motives was behind my straining to compose such an elaborate compound sentence as:
The mottled stones kept their fixed places on the floor of the art gallery, but the stones that they brought to mind gave way continually under his bare feet and sometimes so readily that he stumbled and almost fell and forgot for a moment in his effort to keep his footing the vague misery that nagged at him whenever he stepped into the shade of the cliff above the expanse of stones and was the more troubling for his being unable to learn any more of the cause of his mood than that it seemed linked with things that he might have been expected to enjoy: the sounds of the sluggish waves in the safe, shallow bay; the company of his admired boy-cousins and uncles; and the knowledge that his girl-cousins and aunts were just then taking off their clothes behind Women’s Rock at the far, sunlit end of the beach.
My new-found definition, so to call it, fitted neatly with a distinction that I had for long struggled to put into words. In earlier years, I had used makeshift terms such as film-script fiction on the one hand and meditative fiction or true fiction on the other hand whenever I had tried to point out the differences between the sort of writing meant to bring to the reader’s mind events such as might be witnessed in the place we call the real world and the sort of writing meant to disclose to the reader some of the memories or reflections or imaginings of the narrator of the fiction. (Not surprisingly, I much prefer the second of the two sorts, both as a reader and as a writer, but I would not deny that the first sort has its uses. In some of my early books, I wrote lengthy passages of both sorts of fiction before devoting myself, whenever possible, to the second sort, which I call true because it comprises a true report of the contents of the writer’s mind, however untrue those contents might be according to other senses of that word. Fiction of the first sort is often in the present tense while the second sort is mostly in the past tense.) This is the first paragraph of a piece of short fiction by the American Raymond Carver:
I can’t sleep, but when I’m sure my wife Vicky is asleep, I get up and look through our bedroom window, across the street, at Oliver and Amanda’s house. Oliver has been gone for three days, but his wife Amanda is awake. She can’t sleep either. It’s four in the morning, and there’s not a sound outside—no wind, no cars, no moon even—just Oliver and Amanda’s place with the lights on, leaves heaped up under the front window.
This is an example of what I called earlier film-script fiction. The narrator wants me to see in mind a certain scene with a character moving through it, rather as I might see the opening scenes of a film. He prefers, for the time being, to show me details rather than to impart information.
This is the first paragraph of a piece of short fiction by the Canadian Mavis Gallant:
We sat on the screened porch of Rhoda’s new house, which was close to the beach on the ocean side of Vancouver Island. I had come here in a straight line, from the East, and now that I could not go any farther without running my car into the sea, any consideration of wreckage and loss, or elegance of behaviour, or debts owed (not of money, of my person) came to a halt. A conqueror in a worn blazer and a regimental tie, I sat facing my daughter…
This is an example of what I called earlier meditative fiction or true fiction. For this second narrator, scene-setting is of less concern than the imparting of necessary information. He has more to tell than to show. The setting for his story is not the pretend scenery of a film-in-the-mind but a mind itself—his, the narrator’s mind. He intends not to unroll image after image past me but to tell me what is on his mind, and, yes, he will have to describe certain scenes for me but of more concern will be his reporting his thoughts and feelings and reactions during the time when the narrated events went forward and also his memories and reflections afterwards, at the time when his remembered story begins. As it happens, I have read no more than the first few paragraphs of either of the pieces of fiction that I’ve quoted from. If offered the choice, I would far sooner read to the end of the second piece. I used to use the two passages many years ago in my fiction-writing classes to illustrate my claim that fiction satisfies not just our need to know that certain things happened or might have happened but our need to know what it is to know that certain things happened or might have happened. When I used the passages in my classes, I was concerned only with the matter of narration. I decided to quote the passages in this piece of writing when it occurred to me that the sentences in meditative fiction are more likely to be compound sentences while those in scene-setting fiction are more likely to be simple sentences. It occurs to me now that I could fairly name the two sorts of fiction simple fiction and compound fiction, especially since the one is more often located in one time and place while the other occupies many.
I have sometimes read the assertion that traditional grammar was widely taught to my and earlier generations of schoolchildren, but my own recollections hardly support this. Admittedly, my education was patchy—I attended nine different schools between my sixth and thirteenth years. Most of my teachers, I later came to understand, were barely competent. Plus, I found the experience of sitting in school so tedious that I seem wilfully to have forgotten most of it. I surely underwent some basic instruction in grammar, given that I can still analyse compound sentences, assigning each clause a number and stating its kind and its relationship with the word or the clause that it qualifies or modifies or stands in coordination with. I can recognise in my long sentence above (‘The mottled stones kept their fixed places …’) the two main clauses and the ten subordinate clauses, four of them adjectival and six of them adverbial, and can give to each clause its correct name as well as describing its function according to traditional grammar. And yet my modest store of grammar seems not to influence me in the least while I write the sort of sentence that I most like to write. While I was composing my sentence about the stones, I gave no thought to grammar. I gave no thought to the matter of whether I was writing simple or compound sentences or phrases or clauses, but I suspect that I had always in mind the need for each of my sentences to acquire a shape that was … and now I struggle for the right word: symmetrical? sound? logical?
In 1986 I was invited, along with several other writers, to give a short talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival on the subject ‘Why I write what I write’. I was not surprised when the other writers talked about childhood experiences, subjects that inspired them, or concerns that drove them to write. I chose to talk about none of these, and my short speech must have impressed at least one member of the audience, the then editor of Meanjin, Judith Brett, who published the speech a few months later. My speech began ‘I write sentences. I write first one sentence, then another sentence. I write sentence after sentence…’ I made no mention of grammar in my speech. I spoke more about such matters as the shape of meaning, the sound of sense, the contour of thought. These were all expressions I had learned from other writers’ efforts to explain why some writing, to put it simply, is better than other writing. I quoted a remarkable passage by Virginia Woolf in which she claimed: ‘A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it … and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.’ I wrote my speech 30 years ago, and I’m as pleased with it today as I was then, but I acknowledge that my essay, so to call it, is no sort of compelling argument for grammatically sound sentences. Rather, it seems to suggest that I trusted for most of my life in a sort of instinct. I trusted in a sort of instinct and looked only for apt or suggestive forms of words, and yet I never needed to violate the principles of traditional grammar.
The only lessons in grammar that I recall from my schooldays were not even directed at me. For the first six months of 1949, I was in the fifth grade at Naringal State School, on the road between Allansford and Cobden, in south-western Victoria. The middle and upper grades at Naringal were taught by Lindsay Wilkinson and the junior grades by his wife. On some afternoons, while the autumn sunshine brightened the north-facing windows of the school, Mr Wilkinson would take the senior grades for a grammar lesson while we middle grades had some or another written task to occupy us. Grammar seemed to make little sense to the sons and daughters of Naringal dairy farmers, but even watching from a distance I soon learned the grammarian’s way of isolating and naming the separate clauses in tangled sentences. I would hardly have connected my new-found skill with the branch of English that was called in those days composition, but I still recall my feeling, after I had correctly isolated and identified every component of a compound sentence, the same satisfaction that I felt when I had found my way out of a pencil-and-paper maze in a children’s puzzle-book, and when, in later years, I tried my hand at longer and longer sentences, I was doing no more, perhaps, than designing much more intricate word-mazes than the simple designs that had confused my Naringal schoolfellows.
‘Could God make a stone so heavy that He couldn’t lift it?’ So asked a smart-arse fellow student of mine one morning in fourth-form Christian doctrine class in 1954. Brother Paul FSC gave the questioner a curt reply meant to point up his ignorance of the basics of philosophy and theology. ‘Could a writer compose a sentence so complicated that he could not find his way out of it?’ This was a question that I put to myself in various forms during the ten years between my leaving school and my finding at last a way to begin the book-length work that had seemed for so long beyond me. It was no smart-arse question. I had not been to university but I had done my reading. I knew there was more to literature than the narrow set of conventions observed by the fashionable writers and critics of my own time and place. I had a young man’s urge to push back the boundaries of not only subject matter but also syntax and language. Among my failed projects of those years was a book-length work each chapter of which would be a single sentence and a longish short story (or a shortish novella) consisting of a
I took out just now from the first of the 15 filing-cabinet drawers that comprise what I call my literary archive nearly 50 pages of what seems part of a draft of the first of the two failed projects mentioned above. I have probably looked more than once at those pages during the 50 and more years since I wrote them, but I cannot recall having done so. I had expected to find that none of my chapter-sentences had been completed, but several end in full stops, and even in my most rebellious years I would never have put a full stop at the end of any passage of prose that was not a sentence. I wish I could summon up the strength to study these seemingly complete passages in order to assure myself that they are sound sentences, but I cannot summon the half of it. The shortest passages comprise about 600 words each while the longest passage has about 2000 words. Here are the early lines from one of the more accessible passages:
He may have known for a long time, longer than the longest afternoon when the front gardens between Riversdale Road and Burwood Road remained empty of children and dogs and the women in the house would never acknowledge that they were waiting for someone, some child to call out from behind a smooth cypress hedge or some girl who had left school perhaps two years earlier suddenly to arrive home on her bike after many hours away among the streets which might have led up slow hills to tramlines or down past the Boulevard towards other streets not far from the first of many other tramlines to turn down the strip of lawn between the cement strips of the driveway to fetch some small thing which he would never see and whose importance he would never understand…
I am not going to claim that this sort of writing makes admirable prose fiction, but if I were to succeed in completing the several sequences of clauses beginning in this passage so that the sum of the completed sequences was a sound sentence, then I would claim to have achieved a notable technical feat. In the original, the numeral 1 appears in red ink above the second comma in the passage, following the word someone. This is evidence that I needed markers or signposts to keep me from losing control of my vast sentences. Assuming that the passage above is the first part of a sentence, then the first thirteen words comprise the main clause. In a shorter, more conventional sentence, the object of the verb may have known would have been stated with little or no delay, and the reader would soon have learned from a phrase or a clause what exactly it was that the subject of the main clause may have known. My strategy, however, was to delay reporting the object of the verb in the main clause. I delayed it at first by qualifying the noun afternoon in that clause. I qualified the noun with the adjectival clause when the… children and dogs. Having done this, I could then have supplied the missing object, which would have been a noun phrase or a noun clause, and thereby brought the sentence to an end. But my ambitions were much too grand for that. I repeated my earlier tactic; I delayed once more the reporting of the object of the verb known in the main clause. I delayed it this time by an adjectival clause in cumulative coordination with the previous clause. This second clause begins and (when understood) the women… and ends at acknowledge. Now, the verb acknowledge requires, of course, an object, and whereas I declined earlier to state the object of the verb may have known, here I promptly reported the anticipated object but with a catch, as you might say. The catch is that the object is no mere word or phrase but a noun clause that begins with the words that they were waiting but has still not come to an end before the end of the quoted excerpt. This clause is prolonged partly by a sequence of infinitives (to call, to arrive, to run, to fetch) and partly by having three of its nouns (girl, streets, thing) each qualified by adjectival clauses.
One thing that strikes me today is the scarcity of punctuation marks in this early writing of mine. If I were to try to draft this sort of passage today, I would make more use of commas, and not just to help the reader to grasp my meaning but to have him or her recognise that each unit of that meaning was a sentence. My using so little punctuation in the 1960s came, I suspect, from my wanting to answer in the affirmative a question cited earlier: I wanted to lose my way among a maze of phrases and clauses that I myself had created. If that seems a somewhat frivolous motive for such a demanding and time-consuming enterprise, I can suggest a more serious. Most of our moods or feelings or states of mind are too subtle and distinctive to be simply named or described. Even today, more than 60 years after I last visited the house of one of my mother’s sisters in the suburb that was then known as Glenferrie, I can still feel something of the mixture of sadness and bafflement and longing and envy and much else that would overcome me on certain Sunday afternoons when I stood alone among the flowerbeds in my aunt’s front yard and looked out at the empty street and listened for the sound of the occasional motor car or tram on distant Riversdale Road. Even as early as the 1960s, I had seemingly given up trying to find words or phrases that would describe such a mixture but had not given up what would have seemed the next-best thing: trying to compose a labyrinth of statements, each comparatively simple in itself but all of them able to be strung together or opposed to one another so as to suggest some subtle and changeable state of mind.
A distinction is sometimes made between right-branching and left-branching sentences. This is a right-branching sentence from a short story by Flannery O’Connor:
She was a long-faced blonde schoolteacher who boarded with them and Mr Cheatham was her admirer, a rich old farmer who arrived every Saturday afternoon in a baby-blue Pontiac powdered with red-clay dust and black inside with negroes that he charged ten cents apiece to bring into town.
The main clause is at the left, and the subordinate clauses all follow. It is not hard to compose a very long right-branching sentence—not much harder than threading beads. Nor is even a very long right-branching sentence hard to read. You absorb the main item to start with and you don’t have to strain to swallow all the extras afterwards.
Left-branching sentences are uncommon nowadays. Their being common in earlier centuries may have derived from the shape of the usual Latin sentence, in which the verb is the last word to be read or heard. Here is a left-branching sentence from Lavengro, by George Borrow:
One very brilliant morning, as I sat at work in very good spirits for by this time I had actually mended in a very creditable way, as I imagined, two kettles and a frying pan, I heard a voice…
I know of no name for the sort of sentence in which the opening and closing words form part of the main clause while all the branchings, so to call them, occupy the intervening space. An example of this sort would be a complete sentence beginning with the passage quoted earlier ‘He may have known …’ I long ago stopped trying to decide beforehand on the length or the shape of any sentence, leaving these matters to be decided by a force that for me is nameless but for Virginia Woolf was a wave breaking in the mind. Having said that, as they say so often nowadays, I must admit that I prefer long sentences to short sentences, and I feel confident that if someone undertook the thankless task of calculating the average sentence-length of 100 or even 500 living writers of English, then my sentences would be found to be among the very longest. Of course, the person undertaking the task would need to know more about sentences than Thomas Pynchon or Frank Kermode.
Several times during the writing of this piece, I may have seemed to be trying to justify my use of long sentences. Certainly, I left off writing this piece now and then and pondered on my liking for such sentences and my interest in punctuation and traditional grammar. These preferences of mine may have a simpler explanation than I sometimes try to find. During the first ten years of my life, I was closer in time to the nineteenth century than to the present century. For most of my childhood I read books written long before my birth, books by R.L. Stevenson, Charles Kingsley, Charles Reade, William Henry Hudson. Even our English textbooks at secondary school recommended the prose of Charles Lamb, Thomas Hardy, George Borrow. I long ago gave up reading contemporary writers, but I still look often into Hardy’s novels or Lavengro or The Romany Rye. Perhaps I learned the subtle rhythms of left-branching nineteenth-century prose in the same way that the authors of that prose learned the rhythms of their Cicero or their Livy. I would be far from disappointed to learn that this is so.
If I were asked to name my favourite prose stylist, I would not hesitate to name Borrow. If I were asked for my favourite sentence of his, I would come up with something longish and subtly rhythmical from Lavengro, but the man himself once nominated as his favourite sentence this by some minor hack from Grub Street: ‘So I went with them to a music booth where they made me almost drunk with gin and began to talk their flash language, which I did not understand.’ If I were asked for my favourite sentence from my own books, I would choose not some long showpiece from Tamarisk Row or The Plains but this from my unfinished and unpublished ‘O, Dem Golden Slippers’: this for its directness, its interconnectedness, and its needing only four commas among its more than 100 words and its six clauses:
During each morning of his holidays, the chief character of this story and the owner of the collection of racebooks had checked the level of the water in the drinking troughs for fifty and more Hereford steers in a paddock of grass and had poured buckets of water into the soil around the roots of each seedling in the lines of seedlings of cypress and sugar-gum that the owner of the racebooks, who was also the owner of the Hereford steers, had planted a few months previously along one of the boundaries of one of the paddocks of grass, which he rented from three men who were the sons of one of the sisters of his father.