Long Sentences

That ability—to graft theme into syntax—is what makes great writing a pleasure to listen to. The German expat novelist, W.G. Sebald, became a literary hero for his unclassifiable books The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz not long before his early death 10 years ago. He offers a splendid example of what Fish calls “the subordinate style,” in which time and causality are organized into clear hierarchies at the sentence level. His ruminative, meandering sentences (“After I had made an appointment to meet Austerlitz the next day Pereria, having inquired after my wishes, led me upstairs to the first floor and showed me into a room containing a great deal of wine-red velvet, brocade, and dark mahogany furniture, where I sat until almost three in the morning at a secretaire faintly illuminated by the street lighting—the cast-iron radiator clicked quietly, and only occasionally did a black cab drive past outside in Liverpool Street—writing down, in the form of notes and disconnected sentences, as much as possible of what Austerlitz had told me that evening”) are almost too long to quote here. Sebald’s themes, like Proust’s, are memory and loss. What makes his books remarkable is that he reproduces the experience of having memories and losing them in the course of single sentences, like the one above, which often seem to forget their origins, slide off into an associative drift, and then attempt to recoup themselves, just as we attempt to hold together the memories and narratives that make up our sense of self. He’s a maximalist whose prose would drive Strunk & White to distraction (when they wrote, “Make the paragraph the unit of composition,” they didn’t have in mind 400-page paragraphs).

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