Category Archives: syntax

Richard Ford’s novel ‘Canada’

A retrospective narrator gives Ford’s fiction 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.

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Filed under craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, fiction, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV, punctuation, REVIEW, syntax

Ernest Hemingway’s incantatory prose

My posts about prose stylist Verlyn Klinkenborg made me think of Ernest Hemingway. Here’s the first paragraph of Hemingway’s 1926 story “In Another Country”:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

The snowy wind ruffling the fur of dead animals and turning the feathers of living birds  transfixed me as teenager. Spooky, that was—the strangeness of true art. At least, to a broody teen like me who could imagine noticing such details. Now I imagine how hurt Hemingway must have been, how hurt to notice such things. And I sense also the disgusting sentimentality—unearned emotion—that would erupt one day from beneath his stoicism. But he was my first teacher, and a fine one, in how to make sentences.

Consider his first chapter—only two pages—of his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms. The novel is deeply flawed, to me—he was better at stories, better when he was young (not yet a monster, only hurt)—but his opening is heartbreakingly beautiful. And a better example of Klinkenborg’s “short” long sentences, if very similar to the story of three years before. Here’s the first paragraph:

In the later summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Hemingway is famous for writing short, simple declarative sentences. Actually his diction is simple, his words as common as dirt, but strong in their plainness. Ford Maddox Ford: “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water. The words form a tesellation, each in order beside the other.”

And his sentences are varied and often complex. Some are quite long. They employ repetition artfully to help them flow with emotion. For sharpening his rhythm, Hemingway said he liked listening to Bach and reading Huckleberry Finn and the King James Bible. He said a lot of things—too many, of course—especially when he aged into a drunken blowhard and bully. I shouldn’t take his fate personally, I know, but since I also tried to make him a father figure I do.

But, oh, his stories. They played to his strengths. This is from “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the café knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

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Filed under craft, technique, emotion, flow, syntax

Klinkenborg’s hymn to prose

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s long poem celebrates short sentences.

The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Back Bay Books, 224 pp.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Veryln Klinkenborg. Knopf, 224 pp.

“You’ll make long sentences again, but they’ll be short sentences at heart,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences About Writing. Is that wise and poetic or opaque and unhelpful? This passage from Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life, 2003, may show what he means:

The Fourth of July steals over a small town daydreaming the summer away. A young boy rides his bicycle in a serpentine pattern down the middle of a dusty street. Blue sky divides a broken pavement of clouds. The road out of town seems to stretch farther than usual before it fades out of sight between fields of corn or soybeans, alfalfa, or cotton. Near a railroad siding, the silence of noon is broken by the sound of a mechanic’s hammer ringing against steel in the darkness of a repair shop. An old horse sleeps in a small corral behind the drive-in. The mail fails to arrive. A firecracker goes off in the alley.

It’s hard to believe that such towns still exist. Harder still to realize how many of them there are, once you leave behind the cities and the suburbs and the unincorporated sprawl and break out into the open. But in those towns the Fourth seems to come into its own, whether it’s a hamlet like Texas, Ohio, little more than a bait shop on the north bank of the Maumee River, or a place like Lander, Wyoming, where the Fourth goes off like the crack of doom.

Here and everywhere in this book Klinkenborg showcases his spare declarative chops. Just when you think he’s risking syntactical repetition, he shifts. (As he says in Several Short Sentences About Writing, “Variation [in length and in structure] is the life of prose . . .”)

My wife gave me The Rural Life, and I avoided reading it for a year or two. I assumed it was another of those “I-live-on-a-farm-and-grew-a-tomato—aren’t I cute?” books. How mistaken I was. The book is organized by months, a new chapter for each. His activities and observations are shaped by the seasons. There’s a pleasurable lack of connective tissue; sometimes we gather that he’s traveled with his horses from the East, where he lives on a farm, to the West, where he rides and looks.

He’s in high reporter mode, his beat anywhere humans and nature intersect. There’s a somber, wistful meditation on America’s 1969 manned lunar landing. The Rural Life is no Norman Rockwell portrait: he views America as venal towards the land and rural folk. He employs metaphors and words that emotionally characterize: a berry is “mordant pink,” headlights cast a “nullifying glare,” a “predatory” snow falls “clumsily,” and another is “fox-deep.” His vignettes are precise, the result of looking at nature closely and of looking things up, the types of clouds and the parts of plants:

Along every road, every path, a fringe of opulent grasses grew, ligules shading into lacquered purple, blades into the blue of dusk, awns into an almost roanlike coloration. In the waste clearings grew foxtail barley—supple, iridescent. Sagebrush rose along the fence lines in sharp-scented thunderheads. South of Sheridan, near Ucross, the hayfields are edged with sloughs, and in uncut pastures, yellow-headed blackbirds hovered momentarily before settling onto grass heads that dipped slowly beneath their weight. A buckskin horse at liberty in one of the unmowed fields showed only his back and ears, an island of contentment.

From the time the dew dried in midmorning until full dark, the windrowers moved across the fields, following the curves of the creek bottoms and the sidehills, laying the grass out in narrow rows like the isobars on a weather map. The balers followed once the grass had dried, and for a few days birds gathered on the tops of the round bales lying in the fields, looking out over a terrain that had lost much of its softness.

One might call his writing in The Rural Life not just declarative and spare but lyrical and shyly romantic. We use terms like lyrical loosely. What I presume we mean is prose about the world’s beauty in which we sense the writer’s feelings: grass blades that carry the “blue of dusk” and how harvest changes a hayfield from soft to bristly. And it’s romantic to say a town “daydreams the summer away.” Yet we assume or intuit emotion and outlook and personality from what’s on the page. Klinkenborg doesn’t tell you what he’s feeling or ask you to share it; overt emotion is restrained. So is his persona—like Joan Didion whom he admires, he’s cool. He bares his intellect, not his soul. But the content and the shape of his prose say something else is going on, too, in a way reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. In all that buried feeling, a love for the green earth.

You may wonder, Who notices what he notices? How can I? His periodic columns in the Times are surprisingly diverse; in some of them his persona is warmer. Appreciations of John Updike and Jacob Riis and David Foster Wallace and John Lennon—and Michael Jackson and J.K. Rowling. Meditations on e-reading and iTunes and writing on computers and overly polite female student writers—and Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson. Thoughtful and generous, his concise essays are models of precision, of how to distill an elixir from the slurry that overflows your ever-noticing heart.

Like all good writing, his makes you want to be more awake. Not just to write better but to live better. How to foster this quality of mind, the writing mind, lies at the heart of Several Short Sentences About Writing. As the epigraphs I’ve used show, his writing advice is presented like poetry. Technically it is poetry because often he’s controlling the length of his lines. This compulsively readable declarative poem runs for 149 of the book’s 204 pages, the balance being examples of prose, good and bad, and concise commentary. Here are some of his gnomic stanzas that interested me:

If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.

But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice,

And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice

In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions. . . .

Is it possible to practice noticing?

I think so.

But I also think it requires a suspension of yearning

And a pause in the desire to be pouring something out of yourself.

Noticing is about letting yourself out into the world,

Rather than siphoning the world into you

In order to transmute it into words.

. . .

The longer the sentence, the less it’s able to imply,

And writing by implication should be one of your goals.

Implication is almost nonexistent in the prose that surrounds you . . .

 

Try making prose with a poetic seriousness about its tools—

Rhythm, twists of language, the capacity to show the reader

What lies beyond expression,

But with the gaits of prose and a plainness in reserve

That poetry rarely possesses, an exalted plainness.

Implication seems to be an aspect of writing that’s hardly ever discussed. Eudora Welty commented on it in One Writer’s Beginnings, discussing one of her stories, about a girl who learns in painting to frame scenes with her hands, only to see unwelcome reality thereby intrude. Welty writes, “The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication.” (Lee Martin has an astute recent post  on his blog about implication.)

As with any advice, in the crucible of your practice you must test the utility for yourself of  Klinkenborg’s opinions—he calls them “conclusions, not assumptions.” But he urges wariness about all dogma, even his. Contrary to so many process-based writing theorists, including the influential Peter Elbow, he says the creative and critical functions occur simultaneously. Elbow calls writing this way “the dangerous method” because it invokes the mind’s editor at the same time as it asks for creation.

Klinkenborg isn’t buying it:

Revise at the point of composition.

Compose at the point of revision.

Accept no provisional sentences.

Make no drafts

And no draft sentences.

Bring the sentence you’re working on as close to its final state as you can

Before you write it down and after.

Do the same for the next sentence

And right on through to the end.

Think of composition and revision as the same thing,

Different versions of thinking,

Philosophically indistinguishable.

Or as he said at Goucher College:

The critical and creative mind are not separate. I never write drafts. I write one good sentence to another. All writing is revision. The last piece you delete is the part you’ve been trying to save. You have no idea where you are going. I want to hear the voice of discovery. Writing is not cobbling things together. Every moment is an act of discovery.

See my previous post on him, “A Life Sentence.”

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Filed under implication, REVIEW, style, syntax, working method

A life sentence

Verlyn Klinkenborg on the “genre of the sentence.”

One by one, each sentence takes the stage.

It says the very thing it comes into existence to say.

Then it leaves the stage.

It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one

down.

It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience

Or pause to be acknowledged or applauded.

It doesn’t talk about what it’s saying.

It simply says its piece and leaves the stage.

Several Short Sentences About Writing

The Sentence Man: Let each sentence carry a small quantity of information. Variation in the length and structure of sentences creates music.

Six years ago, in August 2006, during a writers’ gathering at Goucher College, Baltimore, I was dispatched to fetch Verlyn Klinkenborg from his hotel. He was silent, riding in my van. Then on campus he took the stage and began speaking on “The Genre of the Sentence.” No deferential joke or aw shucks warmup. He stared into the dim auditorium and lobbed oracular commandments: “Don’t believe what others believe”; “Look for gaps between sentences, paragraphs.”

He disdained sentence fragments, semicolons, and transitions. Oh, and workshopping. Was it my imagination that the hall’s temperature dropped ten degrees? He resembled a dyspeptic owl. Across the top row of seats, perched like crows, the teachers glared down at him. In between them and him, the students, fresh from their workshops, perked up. What’s with this guy?

“I had been thinking about writing about nonfiction,” he said. “I have written several hundred short sentences about writing, now a book. I’m very pragmatic. How do you get the work done, make the sentences? What do you think about when you make sentences?”

I might have read Making Hay by then. I hadn’t yet gotten to two of his later books, now among my favorite works, his collection of New York Times columns The Rural Life and his novel Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. The latter is written from the point of view of a turtle owned by Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century British naturalist and minister. White had such a captive tortoise, an object of his study and speculation. Timothy is a feat of research (Klinkenborg studied White’s journals), imagination, and prose style.

The precepts Klinkenborg aired that form the core of his new book:

• “Writing is thinking. It is hard. You must learn to think yourself. Go think.  The more you do, you can remember what you thought about. Writers fail as writers because they fail to think. The literature that’s great is a product of thought and choices.”

• “Notice what interests you. Most people have no idea. Care about what you care about. Being a writer is a perpetual act of self-authorization. Authority is ultimately something the reader holds. But vital.”

• “The sentence is the basis of your art. Think, make sentences, and revise. Rhythm is everything, first and last. Talking is natural, writing is not. It takes years of work. ‘Flow’ is not real and leads to loss of confidence. It is hard work and does not flow. Write short sentences. Let each sentence carry a small quantity of information. See Orwell: Write so clearly you can see what you have not said.”

• “You need a technical knowledge of grammar and syntax. Your writing is your responsibility. You are your first and only editor. You are responsible for etymology. You will need to look up nearly every word for a while. Proofread a piece with a paper under each line. Have someone read your piece to you.”

• “Chronology is a trap. It’s not natural; our own interior world is not chronological. Always resist chronology. Narrative is very hard. Very rare, even in novels. Be the narrator. Endings are not hard. Readers—all people—are used to endings.”

• “Writing is to offer your testimony on the nature of existence. It’s a moral act. Cleverness is its own punishment. Your job is to testify.”

I’ve returned to these notes and others I took that day. Some of his statements mystify—“The architecture of neutral space is larger for a whole book”; or, actually, “Don’t believe what others believe”—but mostly I find his notions inspiring or at least bracing.

Klinkenborg writes and offers rules of thumb in the vast “plain” writing tradition named by Annie Dillard in Living by Fiction (reviewed): prose like a pane of glass to see the world clearly; the writer submissive to the world and his subject. Plain writing has carried the day for now. “Fine” writers, more rhetorical, draw attention to themselves. A recent virtuoso fine performance—dare I say clever?—is [sic]: A Memoir, by Joshua Cody. Most people work in the middle, observes Dillard.

Not Verlyn Klinkenborg. Not so much. Like Dillard he’s a plain stylist working the edge of the continuum.

Like everyone, he universalizes what works for him. He’s polished his crotchets into smooth hard pebbles. Unlike everyone, he’s a thinker, a noticer, and a maker of  successful sentences.

Sometimes, not often enough, I ask myself, WWVD?

Next: Klinkenborg’s spare declarative chops.

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Filed under craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, editing, narrative, syntax, working method

Writing by the think-system

We’ve got sentences, folks. Terrible, terrible sentences—and that almost rhymes with menaces . . .

Veryln Klinkenborg on thinking up sentences.

Your job as a writer is making sentences.

Most of your time will be spent making sentences in your head.

In your head.

Did no one ever tell you this?

Several Short Sentences About Writing

Actually more than several sentences . . .

In his intense little essay August 13 in The New York Times promoting his new book, Several Short Sentences About Writing, Veryln Klinkenborg clears his throat for three paragraphs, takes a swipe at composition teachers, and unveils how beginners might learn to write. He’s a stylist I admire, so I drew near.

His essay starts in the fourth paragraph when he remarks on the chatter inside human heads. Here’s an idea, he says, give your mind some work: memorize a little poetry or prose: “Then play those passages over and over again in your memory. You now have in your head something that is identifiably ‘language,’ not merely thoughts that somehow seem unlinguistic.”

Check. The next step:

Now try turning a thought into a sentence. This is harder than it seems because first you have to find a thought. They may seem scarce because nothing in your education has suggested that your thoughts are worth paying attention to. Again and again I see in students, no matter how sophisticated they are, a fear of the dark, cavernous place called the mind. They turn to it as though it were a mailbox. They take a quick peek, find it empty and walk away.

But how many people want to think? Surely some do learn in school.  (Having since read his book, I see that his beef is with institutions but goes beyond them to human mediocrity and burdensome toe-the-line group messages.) Others who want or need to think train themselves. Seven years ago when I started writing a whole book for the first time, it was fun and I was dumb—I wrote a first draft of 500 pages—but sometimes it was truly hard. One of my profound insights was that writing is difficult because it’s concentrated thought (fatuous sounding to me now, but Klinkenborg says the same thing). Long-term focused thinking isn’t easy because it’s seldom needed in daily life.

(Incidentally, I’ve noticed that after a while I can’t tell my inspired prose from the stuff I had to gut out. Mostly anyway. Klinkenborg says this, too.)

He continues with his think-system advice for baby writers (of any age, naturally):

Because you’re writing nothing down, it may seem as though you’re not writing at all. But you’re building confidence, an assurance that when you’re in the place where sentences come from—deep in the intermingling of thought and words—you’re in a place where good things usually happen. . . .

I’m repeatedly asked how I write, what my ‘process’ is. My answer is simple: I think patiently, trying out sentences in my head. That is the root of it. What happens on paper or at the keyboard is only distantly connected. The virtue of working this way is that circumstances — time, place, tools—make no difference whatsoever. All I need is my head. All I need is the moments I have.

Reading this, I thought of what a fiction writer told me last winter. Don’t confuse typing with writing. His writing—the imagining of scenes—happens the day and night before he goes to the keyboard. Now comes Klinkenborg to recommend essentially the same thing for nonfiction. There’s obvious merit in it, but we all get words on the page differently. Still, if Tiger Woods can rebuild his winning swing (at least two times), can’t a writer learn a new process? Verlyn’s perchance?

I’ve noticed that my writing goes better when I think about it the night before and when I quit the next day knowing where to resume. I’ve also noticed that in the process of working on a long piece I naturally do what he suggests, think up sentences. Or, rather, find sentences arising.

Earlier this summer I heard Joe Blair, author of the celebrated memoir By the Iowa Sea, tell an NPR interviewer that he had to learn a new writing method because he has only one hour a day free. He’s a heating-cooling contractor, as well as a husband and father. But he can think as he drives around and some at night. Blair, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, types like blue blazes during his allotted hour. I bet he pounds out three or four pages—maybe six. He probably doesn’t polish as he goes (but more on that, per Klinkenborg, later).

So, to review. Trust your mind and use it. Give it work. Train yourself to think and write away from the keyboard.

Next: My encounter with Veryln Klinkenborg as he aired his this think-system six years ago.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, NOTED, syntax, working method

Noted: John Gardner’s great sentence

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.

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Amos Oz’s ‘Tale of Love and Darkness’

By Olga Khotiashova

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

On January 6, 2012, it was 60 years since Amos Oz’s mother took her life. The memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, written in 2002, was a tribute to her memory as well as the act of Oz’s reconciliation with his own memories. It took him half a century to gather enough strength to perceive and articulate what had happened that day; and it turned out to be a long story beginning in Eastern Europe centuries before.

In my ignorance I had never heard of Amos Oz, a distinguished Israeli fiction writer, before I watched his conversation with Charlie Rose. This brilliant conversation is worth a separate review. I was so impressed by the writer’s personality that I immediately wrote his name in the top line of my reading list. I decided to begin with his memoir for several reasons: he is a descendant of Jews who immigrated to the Promised Land from Eastern Europe; he had never dropped a single word about his mother’s tragic death before writing the memoir; he mentioned in the interview that his memoir had not caught much attention in the U.S. So there it was, a 560-page volume lying in front of me.

The English translation by Nicholas de Lange is marvelous. I believe it gives the true impression of the original.  Long, flowing paragraphs are followed by ragged sentences; you can hear the strong Russian accent of Oz’s father whichever language he speaks; you can feel the throbbing development of Hebrew language. I was struck by the thought that the book may sound sharply out of tune for American ears; that a story of some Inuit village may appear more customary. For me, the book was surprisingly soothing like a tender touch of a close relative’s hand. Oz’s note about evolving Hebrew correlated with my non-native speaker’s feeling about living in a foreign country: “Perhaps that is how a short-sighted driver feels, trying to find his way at night through a warren of side streets in an unfamiliar car.” I wonder if Amos Oz would be pleased to hear that a Russian immigrant to America indulged her nostalgia in reading his memoir.

The book is densely inhabited, and each character has a distinct voice. You will never mix up the mesmerizing tales by Amos Oz’s mother with his father’s clumsy literary jokes or his grandfathers’ guidance and inept poems. Here is how the grandfather Naphtali Hertz Mussman spoke about love:

I said a little compassion and generosity, but I didn’t say love: I’m not such a believer in universal love. Love of everybody for everybody—we should maybe leave that to Jesus. Love is another thing altogether. It is nothing whatever like generosity and nothing whatever like compassion. On the contrary. Love is a curious mixture of opposites, a blend of extreme selfishness and total devotion. A paradox! Besides which, love, everybody is always talking about love, love, but love isn’t something you choose, you catch it like a disease, you get trapped in it, like a disaster. So what is it that we do choose? What do human beings have to choose between every minute of the day? Generosity or meanness. Every little child knows that, and yet wickedness still doesn’t come to an end. How can you explain that? It seems we got it all from the apple that we ate back then: we ate a poisoned apple.

In the memoir, the story of the nation, country, language, and family interweaves with the personal story. The structure is subtle. The author goes back and forth, travels in time and space, returns to seminal moments again and again. He draws unforgettable scenes, so vivid that a slight hint immediately revives them later. He repeats the long lists of streets and names. Those names are so unusual you don’t even try to pronounce them; and eventually they make up a visual, almost topographic image, so you can follow the writer in his memory tour, not looking at the signs but just relying on the images deeply imprinted in his heart. The narrative does not go smoothly. Sometimes the cart of memory becomes overloaded with personages and details and gets stuck on sharp turns.

I may also have heard this from Zelda, my teacher, that summer when we were close: if you want to draw a tree, just draw a few leaves. You don’t need to draw all of them. If you draw a man, you don’t have to draw every hair. But in this she was inconsistent: one time she would say that at such and such a place I had written a bit too much, while another time she would say that actually I should have written a little more. But how do you tell? I am still looking for an answer to this day.

A hundred pages in the middle are probably the place where the author wrote “a bit too much.”  It seems he was experiencing a painful transition from the macro-world of the family-tree at large to the micro-world of the twelve-year-old boy in Jerusalem, who had just lost his mother. He came to the point where the bitter words had to be said. And it is there where he reflects on the nature of memoirs:

It’s like a woman you’ve known for a long time, you no longer find her attractive or unattractive, whenever you bump into each other, she always says more or less the same few worn-out words, always offers you a smile, always taps you on the chest in a familiar way, only now, only this time, she doesn’t, she suddenly reaches out and grabs your shirt, not casually but with her all, her claws, lustfully, desperately, eyes tight shut, her face twisted as though in pain, determined to have her way, determined not to let go, she doesn’t care anymore about you, about what you are feeling, whether or not you want to, what does she care, now she’s got to, she can’t help herself, she reaches out now and strikes you like a harpoon and starts pulling and tearing you, but actually she’s not the one who’s pulling, she just digs her claws in and you’re the one who’s pulling and writing, pulling  and writing, like a dolphin with the barb of the harpoon caught in his flesh, and he pulls as hard as he can, pulls the harpoon and the line attached to it and the harpoon gun that’s attached to the line and the hunters’ boat that the harpoon gun is fixed in the sea, pulls and dives down to dark depths, pulls and writes and pulls more; if he pulls one more time with all his desperate strength, he may manage to free himself from the thing that is stuck in his flesh, the thing that is biting and digging into you and not letting go, you pull and you pull and it just bites into your flesh, the more you pull, the deeper it digs in, and you can never inflict a pain in return for this loss that is digging deeper and deeper, wounding you more and more because it is the catcher and you are the prey, it is the hunter and you are the harpooned dolphin, it gives and you have taken, it is that evening in Jerusalem and you are in this evening in Arad, it is your dead parents, and you just pull and go on writing.

A Tale of Love and Darkness covers several centuries but you always feel the presence of the narrator: Amos Oz sitting at his desk in Arad in 2001. There and then he soldiers on with courage and candor. His tale is tragic and funny and thrilling and annoying and unforgettable. He wrote about his heritage, “I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretense, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation and helplessness.”

While I was reading the memoir, a rather bizarre recipe came to my mind: mix healthy European pragmatism with Jewish sentimental romanticism, add a generous portion of alcohol and you will get what is called a mysterious Russian soul; stir the mixture vigorously, skim the cream off, and you will get a fertile substance to germinate an American. It is just a joke, no offense, as Amos Oz’s father used to say.

About three years ago I read one critically acclaimed contemporary Russian novel. I was shocked by how gloomy and pretentious it was, so I have focused solely on American literature since then and have been enjoying my greater journey. A Tale of Love and Darkness made me turn to Russian literature again. Oz’s prose is often called “Chekhovian.” It was Chekhov’s prose, the only one of all Russian classics, which I tried to avoid in high school and never returned to later. Probably, it’s time to reread Chekhov now.

Olga Khotiashova reviews memoirs periodically for Narrative.

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Filed under memoir, REVIEW, sentimentality, structure, syntax