Consider the Sentence
I wish I could just major in Sentences,” I said. But first, some background, to set the context.
In the fall of 1968 (my junior year), I started classes at Westmont College, a small Christian school in the foothills above Santa Barbara, having just transferred there. Around the midpoint of that academic year, early in 1969, I received a note informing me, with urgency, that I had not yet declared a major; the tone of this summons seemed to imply that I was guilty of a subtle form of subversion.
But when I went to the office in question (I can’t remember what it was called), the woman who talked with me was not at all minatory. I was interested, I told her, in many things, and somehow they were all connected! Her smile encouraged me to tell her the truth: “I wish I could just major in Sentences.”
I ended up as an English major. But I remembered that conversation a few years later, when I came across a brief autobiographical sketch that the literary critic Hugh Kenner had been invited to contribute to a reference-book entry on his work:
When I was twelve, a shrewd uncle gave me a ream of typing paper for Christmas. By the time I had graduated from the University of Toronto my sustaining interest—the one that was never really out of my mind, underlying the succession of themes that seemed to be holding my attention—was constructing English sentences, and testing as many as I could find in other people’s books of the endless ways their structures can be combined.
If bad sentences make your brain hurt; if good sentences absorb your attention; if, like Kenner, you enjoy to a near-pathological degree “constructing English sentences” of your own and finding in “other people’s books . . . the endless ways their structures can be combined,” I have just the thing for you. Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence is a tour de force of exposition, witty, learned but jargon-free, the work of a writer who is agreeably idiosyncratic. It consists of Dillon’s close readings and reflections on 27 sentences, in chronological sequence, from Shakespeare to Anne Boyer. An introductory chapter traces the origins and ground rules of the project; each short chapter thereafter begins with the sentence in question, exposition of which will also entail a look at other sentences.
Do you know the feeling of forcing yourself to slow down when you are reading an exceptionally good book? So it was for me in reading Suppose a Sentence for the first time. (I know I’ll be returning to it.) Many of the writers represented here are famous (Donne, De Quincey, George Eliot, Ruskin, Stein, Woolf, Beckett, Baldwin, Didion, etc.). A few were not so much so: Maeve Brennan, Whitney Balliett (a favorite of mine), Fleur Jaggy, Claire-Louise Bennett. Roland Barthes is there, and Susan Sontag; likewise Elizabeth Hardwick (the chapter centering on a sentence of hers is one of the best), Annie Dillard, and Janet Malcolm. They don’t belong to any one literary lineage, though the New York Review of Books circle in its heyday is heavily represented, whereas voices from “the right” are conspicuous by their absence. Shocking, isn’t it?
It’s clear from Dillon’s introductory chapter that he is willful, that he knows his own mind, a bit obsessive (maybe more than a bit), a “library cormorant” like Coleridge, a man who takes pains to get things right. While his focus is usually on the text at hand, not on himself, his presence and his character are strongly communicated to the reader, and he does emerge directly now and then, as at the start of the chapter devoted to a sentence by Frank O’Hara:
The very first things I wrote professionally were 300-word book reviews for Time Out magazine in London. I thought then, and sometimes think fondly now, that I could happily do that job until the end of my days, and never tire of its rigours or wish for a longer word count. The constraint of the task taught me how to write, which I took to mean, for better and worse, how to maximize style, thought and range of reference in a piece of writing that would end up, on the printed page, about the size of a bus ticket.
Having enjoyed writing tiny reviews for many years (some of them averaging 110 words each), I know exactly what he means. And the lessons he learned back then paid off handsomely, as Suppose a Sentence makes clear: here he is working within a set of self-imposed constraints as rigorous and as benign as those he mastered while writing mini-reviews.
Hugh Kenner, I’m happy to report, makes a parenthetical appearance in these pages, in the chapter devoted to Samuel Beckett:
(Hugh Kenner: “I could show you a Beckett sentence as elegant in its implications as the binomial theorem, and another as economically sphynx-like as the square root of minus one, and another, on trees in the night, for which half of Wordsworth would seem a fair exchange.”)
Ah, Kenner: gnomic, self-assured (maddeningly so to his detractors), provocative, funny. If I were putting together a volume inspired by Dillon’s, I would certainly include a chapter on a sentence by Kenner. And in fact one of the appeals of this book is the way in which it will spur readers to think about sentences they would like to feature in such a production. Dillon tells us at the outset that some of his selections were quarried from 45 notebooks into which, over the years, he’s copied passages that have struck him, while others came to him once he’d embarked on this project. Many readers will have similar jottings, if not so extensive.
Dillon is insistent (and rightly so) that, while he has “nothing against works that advise on the composition of good prose,” his book “is not a how to. Still less a how not to.” To think about alternative tables of contents is an act of homage, not of criticism. In fact, as my mind started to work along those lines (“I would have to include a sentence by Muriel Spark, and Charles Portis, and Marly Youmans, and…”), my admiration for what Dillon has accomplished grew even greater.
Now that the liberal arts college is an endangered species, there’s a good deal of despair but also a counter-force: an effort to recover what is most valuable from that tradition for our present moment. Maybe in the midst of this rethinking and ressourcement, someone will advocate for the value of concentrated attention to sentences in an “interdisciplinary” way. Why not read Gibbon and Dr. Johnson and Ruskin and Woolf and Ralph Ellison and Flannery O’Connor and Baldwin and Walker Percy and Joy Harjo in the same class, with a focus on their sentences, which are not mere packages for “worldviews” or “ideologies”?
“It’s a perilous writerly challenge,” Dillon says in his introductory chapter, “always on the verge of preciousness, treating its object as a talisman or curiosity.” Really? I think he doth protest too much (and I’m very glad he overrode that scruple, which testifies to one of the pathologies of our time). After all, what is the alternative?
John Wilson is contributing editor at the Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at the Marginalia Review of Books.