Wednesday, July 26, 2017

John Gardner’s killer sentence

John Gardner’s killer sentence

April 22, 2012 | 5 Comments

I was reading the late novelist’s short story “Redemption,” based on the accidental death of his younger brother in a horrifying farming accident, and found its sentences beautifully crafted. John Gardner, at eleven, was driving a tractor when his brother fell under its towed cultipacker, a pair of giant rolling pins for mashing the clods in harrowed soil that weighed two tons. In the story, grief almost destroys the father, like Gardner’s father a dairyman, orator, and lay preacher; the surviving brother is tortured almost to madness by guilt.
This sentence is about the wife and mother—Gardner’s was an English teacher:
Because she had, at thirty-four, considerable strength of character—except that, these days, she was always eating—and because, also, she was a woman of strong religious faith, a woman who, in her years of church work and teaching at the high school, had made scores of close, for the most part equally religious, friends, with whom she regularly corresponded, her letters, then theirs, half filling the mailbox at the foot of the hill and cluttering every table, desk, and niche in the large old house—friends who now frequently visited or phoned—she was able to move step by step past disaster and in the end keep her family from wreck.
That’s 112 words. Virginia Woolf wrote longer ones, 140 words and more, but what Gardener kept aloft—the construction of his sentence and its clarity and beauty—and those double parenthetical dashes—amaze me. ‘‘Redemption” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1977, and Gardner later included it in his collection The Art of Living in 1981; the complete story is available on line.
There’s a famous quote by Gardner that seems to apply to this story:
By the time you’ve run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked out every tic of terror, it’s lost its power over you . . . [Soon it’s] a story on a page or, more precisely, everybody’s story on a page.
In the 1970s his novel The Sunlight Dialogues was everywhere I looked, but I didn’t read it, nor have I read what’s considered his masterpiece, the novel Grendel. I did enjoy as they appeared his books on writing—On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction—and later read two novels I much admired, October Light and Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Richard Ford / The long & short of sentences

The long & short of sentences

June 28, 2017 

[Richard Ford stands between his loving parents.]

Ford’s spare, rhythmic style; Doyle’s long, aural ramblers.

Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford. Harper, 173 pp. 
Richard Ford’s new memoir, a short book made of two long essays, is a vocal performance. And he’s in good voice. Forget scenes: he’s telling. The New York Times Book Review said Ford’s prose style in his novel Canada (which I reviewed here) is “so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.” The same applies in Between Them: Remembering My Parents, though it’s Ford’s rhythms—how his sentences work together—rather than lone sentences that please you and lure you onward.
Here’s an early characterization of his father that slides into his mother:
His large malleable, fleshy face was given to smiling. His first face was always the smiling one. The long Irish lip. The transparent blue eyes—my eyes. My mother must’ve noticed this when she met him—wherever she did. In Hot Springs or Little Rock, sometime before 1928. Noticed this and liked what she saw. A man who liked to be happy. She had never been exactly happy—only inexactly, with the nuns who taught her at St. Anne’s in Fort Smith, where her mother had put her to keep her out of the way.
What various vocal rhythms here. Take just the first four sentences: a passive sentence—Daddy didn’t smile: his face itself was “given to” that act—followed by a great turn of phrase about that quality, his smiling nature; then a fragment; then another fragment—with a dash! More fragments follow. Their colloquial snap. Then, this passage about his father, in the essay about his father, pivots into his mother’s dire childhood. That’s a much longer sentence, with a kick at the end, though it relies on what’s come before. Relies on how Ford has set us up.
Ford seems ambivalent about the semicolon, using only a few in his new memoir, but plenty of dashes, short sentences, and sentence fragments. His style is undergirded by and reflects his forthrightly imaginative approach to his parents. Like they’re two of his fictional characters he’s made up. So he writes confidently, almost over-confidently. As in that great, cheeky (borderline smarmy) “only inexactly” line about his mother’s happiness. But we see in his judgments and generalizations the same confidence (and speculation and limits) we possess in musing upon our own ordinary yet mysterious parents.

[Richard Ford]
He’s skating beautifully for us, in the southern Scots-Irish rhetorical tradition, on thin ice. Take his parents’ early days together. Sprung from loose-limbed, garrulous, backwoods clans—with stomping grounds and boon companions, and surely also with fresh collards and raw elbows—they drank companionably, and sometimes to excess, and in those sepia honeymoon years they “roistered.” His father settled into a bland career as a traveling starch salesman, and his mother accompanied his excursions across the South, until Richard came along.
You keep opening Between Them for their boy’s vocal performance. You can feel Ford’s implicit wink at us as he conjures his parents. His manifest love is how he escapes sentimentality in asking us to share simple affection for them. These ordinary forgettable people from Arkansas, who landed in Jackson, Mississippi, left no trace aside from their gifted only child. And as he talks them to life, rather than dramatizes their narrative arc—well, he does, inexactly—they melt away when you shut the book.

[Brian Doyle on his home turf at the University of Portland.]

Rhetorical & other reasons for Brian Doyle’s long sentences.

You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.
—Brian Doyle, “Joyas Voladoras,” The American Scholar
Brian Doyle was a prolific writer, of novels and narrative nonfiction, and a master of the short, tight essay made of long, loose sentences. His shortest essays verge on, or become, poetry. A devout Catholic, he saw life suffused by love. He took rapture in the ordinary, which he showed is extraordinary. He wrote the best essay about the 9/11 attacks, “Leap,” only 572 words. He died at the end of May of a brain tumor, aged 60. Early last week, I came across his essay “His Last Game,” reprinted by Notre Dame Magazine, and bookmarked it. Only 1,184 words, it’s about an outing with his older brother, who was dying of cancer, in 2012.
It feels almost wrong to analyze some of his essays rhetorically, since they’re about what’s sacred. But such study leads to imitation, and that’s what makes writers, even before they know they’re doing that lowly, necessary act, so that, when the greatest joy blesses them or the hardest fate befalls them, they can sing truthfully in their own voices. Craft is the necessary portal to make what’s called art from experience.
In the case of “His Last Game,” Doyle makes long, loose, plain, rambling sentences that put hard emphasis on conjunctions, which further imparts movement. He and his brother are in a single unfolding scene, driving around during an ordinary day. Which we see isn’t ordinary at all—the brother is sick. Very sick. Maybe he’s not going to make it. And Doyle’s looking at that, with his brother looking at it—their conversation and what they see is all about that, sometimes overtly but mostly between the lines. Enough for us to get and to feel all the implications.
Here’s the opening in paragraph in which Doyle plants his brother’s refrain: mock concern over remembering to pick up his medication, at this point pointless:
We were supposed to be driving to the pharmacy for his prescriptions, but he said just drive around for a while, my prescriptions aren’t going anywhere without me, so we just drove around. We drove around the edges of the college where he had worked and we saw a blue heron in a field of stubble, which is not something you see every day, and we stopped for a while to see if the heron was fishing for mice or snakes, on which we bet a dollar, me taking mice and him taking snakes, but the heron glared at us and refused to work under scrutiny, so we drove on. We drove through the arboretum checking on the groves of ash and oak and willow trees, which were still where they were last time we looked, and then we checked on the wood duck boxes in the pond, which still seemed sturdy and did not feature ravenous weasels that we noticed, and then we saw a kestrel hanging in the crisp air like a tiny helicopter, but as soon as we bet mouse or snake the kestrel vanished, probably for religious reasons, said my brother, probably a lot of kestrels are adamant that gambling is immoral, but we are just not as informed as we should be about kestrels.

[One of his many books.]
When an “unapologetic Catholic” blasted Portland, the magazine Doyle edited for Catholic Portland University, for covering the marriage of two men, Doyle replied that Catholics are “called to compassion, not to judgment.” Doyle’s spiritual outlook seemed inextricable from his stance as a writer—one who sees and weighs—and his response to life urged him to make his sentences in the first place. In other words, his inner vision determined what he looked at, and hence wrote about, and that ethos also fueled his need for expression. You can’t easily imitate such aware mental or emotional states, but you can aspire to them. You can earn them. And, as a bonus, that artist’s job is simply a human task.
Doyle also advised the University of Portland’s student journalists at The Beacon, their newspaper, and, upon his passing, its editor Rachel Rippetoe used a run-on sentence to make her own point about his animus toward periods—an existential and spiritual one: “Brian had a contentious relationship with punctuation. He had a special distaste for periods and the way they interrupt thoughts needlessly and arbitrarily, he said they give a sense of absolutism to an indefinite world.” Doyle told Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2015, “I get teased a lot for my style. People are saying, ‘Wow, a sentence will start on Tuesday and it doesn’t end ’til Friday.’ But I want to write like people talk. I want to write like I’m speaking to you.”
And so he did.
I resisted reading “His Last Game” until this past Saturday, fearing it might be sentimental, that he couldn’t earn from us his desired response, that it couldn’t be that good, but it is.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Richard Ford’s ‘Canada’

Richard Ford
Poster by T.A.

Richard Ford’s ‘Canada’

September 14, 2012 

A retrospective narrator gives a masterful novel the feel of memoir.

Canada by Richard Ford. HarperCollins, 420 pp.

The hand of a master storyteller . . .
. . . “Canada” is blessed with two essential strengths in equal measure — a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.—Andre Dubus III in his Times review
I’m reading two memoirs now, one an immersion and the other postmodern, but the book that’s riveting me is Richard Ford’s acclaimed new novel, Canada. I’m about halfway through and eagerly return to its world. I say about halfway because it’s in two big acts, and I’ve finished Part One; but there’s a tiny Part Three, maybe one more short chapter. Meaning, in other words, it’s really an epilogue, and it annoys me, when writers do that, call an epilogue an act. But that’s my problem, I guess, and may only mean I want to do it myself and annoy some irritable someone. I’ll find out, when I get there, whether Ford earns his designation. Which I doubt, fervently, in advance. Yet maybe, after all, an epilogue would make this great novel seem too much like a memoir, and act could be the correct literary term here.
That’s what struck me right off, how much like a memoir Canada is in its presentation of story. Along with Ford’s pleasing sentences, of course: their balance and his deft dashes, employed the way his narrator would use them—the classic parenthetical, sure, but also how he jogs with them at the end of sentences—and the way the man who tells the tale misuses “who” for “whom” and uses “only” in place of but. (The latter feels so true and colloquial, or at least individual and believably and unconsciously idiosyncratic.)
The narrator is a middle-aged schoolteacher, Dell Parsons, whose parents robbed a bank in North Dakota when he and his twin sister were fifteen. Ford exploits the dual narrator (Dell then, a young fifteen, and now, when he’s about sixty) to great effect. Mostly the story is told through the boy’s eyes. Ford smoothly explains how Dell knows some things by having Dell tell us his mother wrote a memoir in prison. A big difference between this novel and a memoir, so far, is we don’t get any wailing by the adult Dell of how his parents and their crime messed up his life. It’s clear it would, and did, to a point, but that’s implied. And worlds reside in that phrase “to a point,” for Dell is an individual and individuals are, in good fiction as in life, unpredictable.
What really hooked me at the start was the way Ford-as-Dell depicts and describes his parents. They are ordinary middle-class postwar people: only they are not so ordinary, like anyone when looked at closely. And Ford manages to set them in motion in your mind’s eye so you feel like you know them—or, rather, don’t know them in the same way we know-and-don’t-know anyone we meet. How we place and then imagine a person by appearance, countenance, dress, and voice. How we notice in an instant and largely unconsciously their shoes, complexion, smell. Ford has looked closely and he’s thought carefully; you feel yourself, for so many reasons, in the hands of a master.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Sofia Coppola Touch / The Beguiled

The Sofia Coppola Touch

With 'The Beguiled,' Sofia Coppola continues to assemble a rhapsodic filmography.

JUNE 28, 2017
We all have some idea of what the Sofia Coppola Style is like: dreamy, delicate, bathed in melancholy pop. But think of how different the plangent lyricism of The Virgin Suicides is from the digitized, fame-obsessed frenzy of The Bling Ring. Or the austere long takes of Somewhere from the gloriously colorful postpunk cacophony of Marie Antoinette.

Friday, July 21, 2017

My best shot / Rankin / Beautyfull

by Rankin
Rankin's best shot 

'This was taken at a time when we didn't really care about health and safety'

Thursday 25 January 2007 

This is quite an old picture. It was for a fashion story for Dazed and Confused magazine called Highly Flammable, in 1997 or 1998.

At the time, a lot of clothes were made out of that horrible shiny nylon material. I was at a party, and my ex-wife, who was always very critical and amusingly ironic about fashion, said to me that if someone set light to these kids at the party, they'd all burn immediately. It made me think it might make for a funny set of images.
I photographed them in the studio with very soft daylight, and then I had the images made into life-size cut-outs. I did a similar thing with Pulp, where we made cut-outs of them for an album cover. Then I took the cut-outs into the street and set them alight. I just threw on a load of lighter fluid. There's lots of pictures of my assistants jumping out of the way. It was at a time when we didn't really care about health and safety.
I shot it on film, on a tripod, because it was quite a long exposure. I didn't use any flash, but there is a very little bit of retouching. I just took out the stand for the cut-out, which was pointing out of the back a little.
The photo is a bit of a dig at fashion, the shallowness and emptiness of the industry, which can take itself far too seriously. You've got to balance out the seduction and what you enjoy about it with a little bit of cynicism. I think that pervades my work in general. I'm asking, "Why am I seduced by this? Why do I like it so much?" That's what the piece is about.
Interview by Leo Benedictus

My best shot / Anne Hardy / Untitled VI

Untitled VI
Photo by Anne Hardy

Anne Hardy's best shot

Interview by Leo Benedictus

Thursday 11 January 2007 10.33 GMT

t took about two months to set everything up in this picture, which was taken in December 2005. It's not a real place; it was built in my studio in Hackney, London. The whole space is structured around the position of the camera. It's put together as a photograph, rather than an installation. Sometimes I go back and reshoot things, moving something 10cm this way or that. The actual moment of taking the final photograph can almost seem - not an anticlimax, but such a tiny thing.

I usually start with abandoned objects I find in the street. All the old science equipment here came from a school. I put a lot of specific things into the image, without making specific references, so people can bring different things to it. There is no single explanation. I wanted to create the feeling that there are unfamiliar systems at work here. For example, maybe it was reasonable for someone to label the sections of a basketball.
I always use a similar setup for my pictures, which are taken with a medium-format camera and wide-angle lens. I try to make it look as if the light has come from within the space. In this shot, it comes from the skylight, which is intended to look like daylight, and from the red bulb, rather than anything behind the camera.
I just enjoy this picture. It's always hard to choose a favourite image, but there's something about this one that surprises me more than the others. You have certain pieces as an artist that you feel push your practice on, show you new things. It surprises me that I made this one.

My best shot / Bruce Davidson / Girl holding kitten

Girl holding kitten
London, 1960
Photograph: Bruce Davidson

Bruce Davidson's best shot 'I found her by accident. She took me into a cave, then some kind of dancehall'
Thursday 4 January 2007 11.41 GMT

I always had a feeling for Britain. We would listen to the BBC during the war, when I had an uncle Herb who was flying a bomber, which I believe may have been from England.
In 1960, I purchased a Hillman Minx convertible, which wasn't a very expensive car in those days, and drove around England with the top down. It was an American-drive car, which was an advantage because I could snap people on the sidewalk more easily. I also had a sports coat made with the side pockets larger, so I could fit my Leicas in them.
I found this young woman quite by accident, as I was walking the London streets. I came upon a group of teenagers, and struck up a conversation. They took me into a cave, and then some kind of huge dancehall. I think it was on an island. It was getting late, and I needed to move on the next morning, so I didn't stay very long.
But I isolated this girl to photograph, holding that kitten, which was probably a stray she had found on the street, and carrying that bedroll wrapped around her body. There was a great deal of mystery to her. I didn't know where she had come from, and I didn't get her name, but there was something about that face - the hopefulness, positivity and openness to life - it was the new face of Britain.
The picture was taken with a normal 50mm lens, with a wide aperture. I used the Ilford film, called HPS - hyper-sensitive film - which I loved, although it is probably no longer made. I loved that grainy texture; she has the feeling of a statue.
I still feel close to this picture. I wonder what that young girl is doing now. She must be lurking around London someplace, or she may not be alive, you never know.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Jane Eyre by Cornelia Parker

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Cornelia Parker

Cornelia Parker

Cornelia Parker

Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST

I identified strongly with Jane and her painful childhood when I first read Jane Eyre as a teenager as I was having quite a painful one myself (though perhaps not as bad as hers). So later in the book when she overcame her shyness, threw off her childhood problems and then became this incredibly strong woman, it was emotional and cathartic. I reread it in 2006 when on a residency at Haworth Parsonage. Back in London in the British Library I actually got to leaf through the original text, neatly written in three musty notebooks. She had obviously copied out the manuscript many times but this was her final draft, so seeing where she had deleted a single word here and there made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. There were about 50 corrections in all, which I recorded through photographs: “crimson” was crossed out and replaced by “purple”; “soul” was changed to “spirit”, “glimpse” became “idea”. I also took images through an electron microscope of tiny punctures in Charlotte’s pincushion, holes that she made unconsciously when sewing, and of split ends in the little plait of Emily’s hair that had been kept after she died. The Brontës and their characters have attracted so much literary attention, been the subject of so many Hollywood films, it seemed appropriate to work with the seemingly inconsequential traces, the tiny little frictions of everyday life.

When my daughter read it at school a couple of years ago, it was touching to read out passages to one another. The book has stayed with me all my life and I was pleased that she loved it too.

Jane Eyre by Julie Myerson

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Julie Myerson

Julie Myerson

Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST

I first read Jane Eyre propped up in my little single bed with a shawl around my shoulders in a cold and creaking attic room at the top of a house in the middle of the starless Nottinghamshire countryside. The room, my old and once beloved bedroom, was badly lit, unheated, dusty and forlorn. It hadn’t always been so. But that summer our mother had left our father in a most spectacular fashion – at dead of night, taking half the furniture, all our pets and all three of us children with her. And my father vented his rage in the only way he knew how: by replacing nothing, leaving the house – and especially our bedrooms – to grow sad and dusty and unloved, a reminder each time we visited (fortnightly as the court decreed) of how our terrible mother had ruined our once “happy” family life.
I could not have wished for a better setting in which to get to know the Brontës. Charlotte, Emily, Anne – all of them kept me company in that cold and sad little room. I was 13 and I knew very little about anything, but suddenly here it all was: injustice and illness, death, shame, fear and secrecy – not to mention the possibility of love in unexpected or even inconvenient places.

I have read the novel since and always found something new to love. But my abiding sense of it then, as well as now, is of Jane herself – her sheer, steady-hearted goodness. Throughout the novel, from start to finish, she unwaveringly tells the truth. Such clarity and, in an odd way, such calm. It felt like something worth aspiring to. It still does.

Jane Eyre by Blake Morrison

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison

I grew up not many miles from Haworth, in a vicarage at the top of a village; my mother, like Patrick Brontë, had come from Ireland; the landscape we looked out on resembled the one Jane Eyre wanders through after fleeing Thornfield Hall: “[the roads] are all cut in the moor, and the heather grows wild and deep.” The novel wasn’t on the syllabus at my grammar school; no self-respecting teenage boy would have wanted to be seen with it. But the sense of recognition I felt when I read it was immense. All adolescents feel like victims, and the mistreatment of Jane in the early chapters, first by Mrs Reed then by Mr Brocklehurst, put me firmly on her side. I too knew what it was like to be humiliated in class (the slate-dropping episode) and to lose a close friend (as she does Helen Burns). I too distrusted wealth and finery. Never mind Jane’s gender: it was the two of us against the world! Whether Mr Rochester would prove worthy seemed doubtful. The romantic denouement engaged me less than the impediments along the way: Miss Ingram; mad Bertha (we too had a scary attic); the halting of the wedding ceremony. But I liked the teasing and banter, and there were ideas to grapple with, too, about class and work and beauty. Above all, there was Jane’s denunciation of female servitude. Women, she says, “need exercise for their faculties … they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded … to say they ought to confine themselves to making puddings”.A hundred and twenty years after the book came out, that idea still met occasional resistance, especially in laddish rural outposts. But Jane Eyre showed it was plain common sense. Soon we’d all be reading The Female Eunuch. But Charlotte Brontë led the way.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Jane Eyre by Helen Dunmore

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore

Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST

What I love most about Jane Eyre is the ferocity of her radicalism. She refuses to see the world as it tells her it should be seen. She will speak out, although she is a friendless nobody: small, pale, plain and female. From the first page there are hints of the fire that burns in her. Jane is out of favour, banished from the family hearth. She hides away in her own no man’s land, a window seat where she sits “cross-legged, like a Turk”, revelling in the pages of Bewick’s History of British Birds. A drawn red curtain conceals her from the room, while the glass protects her from “ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly from a long and lamentable blast”.
Jane Eyre is between two worlds and belongs in neither, although she will have to live in both during the course of the novel. She will be a beggar-maid, exposed on the moors, and a princess wooed by the King of Thornfield Hall, Mr Rochester. Neither will satisfy her. Jane’s quest is long and solitary, and she is protected only by her fiery spirit and incisive intelligence. But if Jane Eyre has fairytale and mythic qualities, she is also an intensely political creation. Jane genuinely does not believe that morality has anything to do with wealth, power or social standing. She repudiates the idea that women’s mental capacities are less than those of men. She would rather live alone than accept a relationship that compromises her independence. Strong stuff even in our times, but revolutionary in 1847. At 10 years old she castigates rich, powerful Mrs Reed for her hypocrisy and cruelty. At 18 she sets out into the world to support herself, having done everything possible to secure an education.
Her relationship with Mr Rochester is, to put it mildly, challenging. She will not be flattered: she must be an equal. Is Jane Eyre lovable? Perhaps not. She is intensely critical, and quick to scorn. There is no warmth of humour in her. She is elemental, with “rather a look of another world” as Rochester says, and yet at times extraordinarily prosaic. But if not lovable, she is utterly compelling. There was no one like Jane Eyre before she blazed on to the page, and into a million imaginations.