Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Perfect Sentence.

Once in a great while but very rarely, I'm afraid, I will come across a sentence that just knocks me for a loop. A sentence that makes me stop, look around for support (even if there's no one else in the room except my dog), point to the sentence and say: "Will you look at this? Pay attention, now." Then I read it aloud. (My dog pretends to listen.) This moment is often accompanied by the urge to run to the window and demand the world's attention. A perfect sentence is nothing to sneeze at.

Luckily for me, I've never given in to this urge.

But I've decided I need a place to post perfect sentences of my acquaintance whenever - if ever - I come across one. This blog is my way, I suppose, of running to the window and demanding the world's attention.

A perfect sentence is a funny thing. I believe it doesn't, necessarily, have to have anything to do with its surroundings. Oh, it helps if it blends in. But occasionally, I've fallen in love with sentences that are living la vida loca by themselves. Just existing in their own little universe at the beginning, middle or end of a book. The rest of the manuscript can be mediocre OR wowza! Doesn't much matter. (Though of course, wowza! is much to be preferred.)

The string of words which may capture your eye, your imagination and your understanding of perfection can exist on its own, independent of what else is going on around it. I truly believe that. Sometimes you come across a sentence like this and if you sound it out, you will hear music. In that case it is the sound of the words rubbing together to make some sort of agreeable noise.

Or sometimes, it's the combo of sound and word selection. There are some words which are exceptionally pretty to view and say aloud. Then there are the words which in and of themselves are gently innocuous but when placed side by side with just exactly the right companions, they are transformed into shooting stars.

So, okay, indulge me. I'm going to give over a little section of my blog to perfection. Not quotes, although of course, they will be quotes since the sentence will be taken from the pages of books I may be reading. But they will not be chosen so much for meaning in the context of the story, as for meaning you might make of them on their own, separate from the story. Perfect sentences that can exist just for the sheer joy of perfection. Can words be beautiful on their own apart from contextual meaning?

I think so.

Of course, if none of this makes any sense to you, then oh well, I did my best to explain . Move along, move along, there's nothing more for you to see. Ha!

I'll begin with just one sentence posted on here for now. One - until I'm lucky enough to come across another piece of perfection. Of course, that may be: never. Or next week. One never knows.

I'm going to begin - not with Shakespeare which is rather the more obvious choice - with a sentence I found in a Jordan Ellenberg's exceptional debut novel THE GRASSHOPPER KING. (His only novel, I'm afraid. Ellenberg told me, by email, that he wasn't going to be writing any more fiction for awhile. He wanted to focus more fully on his mathematical pursuits. I believe he's a math professor.) Well, I suppose having once made such a brilliant debut he can rest on his laurels. Having written the most gorgeously perfect sentence within that debut doesn't hurt either. No matter if he never writes another book, I'll have that sentence.

But I have to tell you, this one of my all time favorite novels - a book I honestly cherish. When I read it I kept thinking, wow. Wow. Wow. All the way through. It's THAT kind of thing. The book is basically a fiendishly clever (and often hilarious) take on fate, irony, myth, marriage, the perils of university life, tenure and, oh yes, bad poetry. Doesn't sound very appetizing, does it? But I can't describe it any differently. This is a book that you either clasp to your bosom from the first few sentences or you don't. I did.

Occasionally if it reminded me of anything, it reminded me of Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo's take on university life, STRAIGHT MAN. (Another book I recommend if you like the university setting as a background for mildly bizzaro doings.)

Well, okay, this is not really meant as a review of THE GRASSHOPPER KING which I will not review fully for fear of not being able to reveal its exquisiteness to you in a way that will make you run right out and get a copy for your very own. There are books I just love too, too much to risk you not liking them. It's a personal thing. I couldn't bear it if you told me, well Yvette, I just don't know what you see in this boring old thing. Nope. Don't want to go there.

Herewith, that perfect sentence lifted from Jordan Ellenberg's book:

My father, a mild man, dedicated to prudent consistency, demurred.

A sentence that sings to me of all sorts of things. Said aloud it is music to my ears. Looked at, it is beautiful. Dissected, it could have several meanings. The word 'demurred' purrs.

What next? I hope to be adding to The Perfect Sentence every now and then as I run across something that strikes me as exceptional.

To those of you who may have understood this odd little post of mine, I say: prepare to share any perfect sentence you may come across in your day to day reading. Keep your own aesthetic eye on the look-out.

And, by the way, I'm not going to be going through the books on my shelves in search of perfection. No, I am just going to begin keeping my eye out, from this day forward, not forcing the issue, depending on happenstance. (If I wanted to, obviously, I could just sit here and pick through Shakespeare or the English poets and come up with perfection by the bucketful. But that would be too easy. Easy is not what this is about. It's more of an on-going treasure hunt.


  1. I love this idea and your description of what constitutes a perfect sentence! I have seen them and you're so right. They can be found in both terrific books and books that turn out to be very disappointing given that the author was capable at any point of such a wonderful sentence. I believe my most recent memory of one is in the opening paragraph of 'The Poisonwood Bible," it may even be the first sentence.

  2. This is such a great idea! It also fits with the discussion at DBB about great writing vs. mediocre writing, and what constitutes good writing. Your definition of a perfect sentence is right on point.

    I'll have to ponder what great sentences I've read. I don't know "The Grasshopper King," and must think about this sentence.

    I love Barbara Kingsolver's books, especially "The Poisonwood Bible," and will right now look at the first sentence. Yes, it is a great paragraph and sentence.

    Kingsolver took ten years to write this book, and days on one page or one paragraph.

    Also, in her book, "The Prodigal Summer," she writes beautifully about nature, about life--all forms of life--reproducing, including plants, insects, etc.

  3. That is one rapturous post, Yvette. Which makes you all the more deserving of this: The Stylish Blogger award.

    Just passing it on. Read more here

    Feel free to copy the picture and post it on your blog. I'm not enforcing any rules, but Bev (who gave me mine) says you supposed to pass it on to three new blogs you've discovered. You can decide how to proceed.

  4. Lisa: Glad you liked my little idea. I choose a Wednesday Quote for the Day that I try to post every week. But The Perfect Sentence will be a separate thing. Just one sentence allowed. One sentence that, whether you get the meaning or not still strikes you, for whatever reason, as a traffic stopper.

  5. Kathy: I'm hoping to keep this idea separate from Quote for the Day. Know what I mean? A Treasure Hunt for Perfection. Now THAT I like. But you know, you can't 'force' these things. You just have to let them 'happen.'

    I read Barbara Kingsolver a while back. Don't remember much. But I know everyone loves her work. THE PRODIGAL SUMMER is on my TBR list.

  6. We have great discussions over at DBB - don't we? :)

  7. Yes, great discussions, but these are very good also.

    Great idea on the perfect sentence. I wish I could remember some. "The Poisonwood Bible," is so well-written. And, true, "The Prodigal Summer" just zings with life and respect for it.

    Toni Morrison writes some zingers also, as in "Beloved," for which she won the Pulitzer, and also in her other books.

    And Tolstoi--I read a few sentences by him in a book preface and was blown away.

  8. Kathy: Why don't you create a blog? Then you could post the sentences there. OR you could insert them in a comment, here.

    But I have to tell you, 'perfection' is rare. You could read a brilliant book, but that doesn't mean that you'll find a perfect sentence - a sentence that sings you to you - within its pages.

  9. Yvette, thanks for the encouragement, but I find it ambitious for me to read (and possibly respond) to all of the blogs I try to follow regularly--and then to do the reading I want to do, in which I am far behind.

    Am now juggling a Camilleri, a Sjowall/Wahloo, have Tana French's "Faithful Place," all library books; and I just received "Witness to Night," and Teresa Solana's new book in the mail. And I read the NY Times every day, do the puzzle, and do some volunteer editing and proofreading.

    So my days are more than full, and I don't have the technical skills to do a blog, so it would be a huge undertaking--and I find it enough of a challenge to keep my computer up and running. There are lots of glitches all of the time.

    I enjoy so many blogs that are great, and in many cases I can comment. That's fine with me and about my speed.

    The only challenge is that the blogs suggest so many good--and great--books; so do the awards' nominations, the book reviews in the media, not to mention vintage books and global books I keep reading about. So, having the time to do the reading is a challenge.

    And now there are the movies to get! I've got about 5 movies on hold at the library, some new, some classic. Then there are your suggestions and this British film list!

    So I have more than enough to do--a pleasant challenge.

  10. Kathy: Keeping a blog (and doing a good job of it) is time-consuming. Believe me, I know. It's funny you should mention 'technological skills' -I have none!! So this blog thing is a big mystery to me. How I came to have one, I mean.

    My daughter helps me a bit now and then when I become totally confused. But I try to stick to the simple tried and true. You won't see me fooling around much with the basic lay-out: DON'T KNOW HOW!! Ha!

    But everything you see on my blog is of my own choosing. (I think I surprised my daughter.)
    It helps enormously that I've had design training in the past.

    I am having the same problem as you, Kathy: reading other blogs and finding so many great books to read and films to watch. GAK!!!

    I'm having fun though - far as posting my different things every day. THAT I am enjoying. But it does come with a bit of pressure, no getting around that. :)

  11. I just figured out only a few weeks ago how to put type on a picture with the help of a thing that comes already in the picture file system I use. Don't even know what it's called but I figured it out ALL by myself. Ha!

  12. Here's my favorite sentence in Jane Austen, Yvette, which makes it a strong candidate for my favorite sentence overall. The key phrase in it is "setting aside." Lucy and Robert Ferrars, disgusting people both, seem to have gotten away with everything--he receives the inheritance when his worthy brother is disinherited, her gold digging scheme proves spectacularly successful--and they are living together with the equally abhorrent Mrs. Ferrars and and the execrable Fanny and John Dashwood. This sentence, with its wonderful build, its sarcastic use of the empty phrase "best terms imaginable, and its final ironic sword jab, let's us know that the best thing that could have happened to Edward, after his marriage to Elinor, is being disinherited and escaping these people. The long build-up followed by the quick thrust occurs in other memorable sentences in the book. It appears in the next to the last chapter:

    "They settled in town, received very liberal assistance from Mrs. Ferrars, were on the best terms imaginable with the Dashwoods, and setting aside the jealousies and ill-will continually subsisting between Fanny and Lucy, in which their husbands of course took a part, as well as the frequent domestic disagreements between Robert and Lucy themselves, nothing could exceed the harmony in which they all lived together."

  13. Jane Austen was a magicician - IS a magician. Genius hiding in plain sight.

    Robin, had to read this twice to get what you meant. But when I did, I had to laugh. This is a very good choice. Yes.

    What I like about it is this: the whole is greater than the sum of its low-key parts. None of the words, on their own, are especially resonant or colorful or complicated even in spelling. But when you sum them up, you get a perfect score.

    I've never read MANSFIELD PARK, but I'm familiar with the characters from several adaptations. Thanks for the contribution, Robin. :)

  14. I didn't realize Jane Austen had a sense of humor. This is hilarious with all of its clauses showing disharmony, but "nothing could exceed the harmony in which they all lived together." Irony, sarcasm, sheer wit.

    Oh, those hidden feelings under those words...brrrr! It makes me shiver.

  15. Oh Kathy: Jane Austen had a wicked sense of humor. Take a look at the last couple of sentences of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. ;)

    It is, and continues to be amazing to me that a young woman of such limited life experience not only understood human beings, but could write about them so well.

  16. I was never a Jane Austen fan, unlike my sister, but this sentence and the wit may make me revisit P&P.

    I was more of a John Steinbeck kind of reader, though I read more and was into mysteries in my youth.

  17. I realize I forgot to mention the book, Yvette. It's Sense and Sensibility. It's interesting that you bring up Mansfield Park, which I think is the only Jane Austen novel that does not have a sense of humor. Jane Austen is so mad in that one--maybe because it's about a dependent and she herself was a dependent, albeit on her brothers--that I think the humor burned right out of her. But she retrieved it (thank goodness!) with Emma. (But Mansfield Park is still really good.)

  18. Robin: Obviously I got MANSFIELD PARK confused, character-wise, with SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. Don't know how: the name Dashwwod should have been the tip off! Jeez.

    And I was feeling so smug about it too, thinking I'd recognized the book all on my own.

    In Austen's time, women really were chattel weren't they? I suppose, if you didn't marry, you had to spend a great deal of time currying favor with your male relatives. I wonder if Jane Austen didn't spend a lot of time seething beneath the surface. Though she probably found 'release' in the writing of her books. Maybe she had no choice. Geniuses rarely do.

    It couldn't always have been easy being Jane.

  19. Kathy: It's never too late to go back and re-visit PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Never a waste of time, either. There's a lot of humor in P&P. Most often wicked humor. Jane really was able to slice and dice with the quick swipe of a word. ;)

  20. you've been mentioned on his blog:

  21. Thanks, Anonymous. Saw it and left a comment.


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