December 08, 2010



Cripes. You're absolutely right about that "American sentences" quote. A total throwaway, and even I re-quoted it in my blog. Sloppy...

E. Christopher Clark

Wow. I love the idea of calling it "idiot praise," and I just had to stop lurking in my RSS reader and come tell you so.

(The Other) Niall

"assuming such a beast actually existed, would any writer worth his or her salt seek to define himself or herself so absurdly narrowly?"

No, but the question is not as narrow as you present it. You've recently read Saul Bellow's extraordinary letter to the presumptive English publisher of Augie March - Bellow all but calls Augie a revolution in the English language. Tell me that he didn't think that the revolution lay precisely in the use of a demotic American voice. Tell me that Bellow didn't think that he was producing (and didn't intend to produce) American sentences, in an American novel.

And you look around the literature of the past century and you see the same thing again and again: writers seeking to sophisticate, corrupt or beguile the approved literary language of the day by introducing local or national flavours to their prose. You see it, above all, in Joyce - whose whole project in Ulysses was to return the English language to its masters radically changed, bearing the full freight of what Empire had subsumed and convention had buried, bearing the stamp of the languages that English had destroyed. Only an Irish writer could have written this:

"The grainy sand had gone from under his feet. His boots trod again a damp crackling mast, razorshells, squeaking pebbles, that on the unnumbered pebbles beats, wood sieved by the shipworm, lost Armada. Unholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath. He coasted them, walking warily. A porterbottle stood up, stogged to its waist, in the cakey sand dough. A sentinel: isle of dreadful thirst. Broken hoops on the shore; at the land a maze of dark cunning nets; farther away chalkscrawled backdoors and on the higher beach a dryingline with two crucified shirts. Ringsend: wigwams of brown steersman and master mariners. Human shells."


As an Irishman I'm a bit more sympathetic to Ford. Every sentence, almost, in a Ford novel, contains a word, locution or usage that could not be written by an Irishman. Unfortunately, increasing numbers of young Irish and British writers follow Ford's lead - in trying to produce American sentences, I mean - and not Joyce's.It's the literary equivalent of our young people pronouncing things , like, toadally ossum.
I did find Salter required a little mental re-tuning, on my part.The words of those sentences are wonderfully precise - like Banville's - but their tune is exotic to me. 'American'? Maybe.


Which is different from a French or Italian or Russian sentence how?

That one is easy. The American sentence is written in English.

Maybe you meant to ask how it is different from the English, Australian, Irish sentence, etc.?

That question is harder. But it's not crazy to suggest that that American vernacular has its own rhythm.


Here are four sentences, one from America, one from France, one from Italy, one from Russia. Can you say which is which, and what makes them characteristically so? No Googling, no cheating if you already know and recognize them ...

"As the sedative spread through his body, tranquillity covered him like a slow wave. His body relaxed and his head was filled with the warm breeze of slumber. As he fell asleep the last thing that he heard
was the dawn chorus of birds in the wood."

"He tilted his chin in high rebuke, mostly theatrical, and withdrew his body from the surface of the desk, dropping his bottom into the swivel chair and looking at me again and then doing a decisive quarter turn and raising his right leg sufficiently so that the foot, the shoe, was posted upright at the edge of the desk."

"Their heads in their copper-colored clouds, they dream; they cycle in circles; they pray, somnambulists in the fog's gilded incense; they have ceased to be here."

"Today each of you is the object of the other's reading, each reads in the other the unwritten story."

Is it crazy? No, perhaps not. But it does seem exceedingly narrow and parochial to me ...


To me Ford's comment is maybe just the kind of nonsense you see on blurbs all the time. You could almost put the words in a hat, pull them out at random, and publish the new version as snippet praise. This trick is something Gore Vidal claimed you could do with Henry Miller when he (often) got out of Control and started to Capitalize things with Import and Meaning, just re-scramble and it would be just as meaningful/-less.

That is, if Ford's commment was even a blurb on a paperback -- I don't know. It's been so long since I read A Sport... that I don't remember much about it, other than that I loved the first chapter (train ride?).

Augie, American-born, etc. sounds more like an American...tone? than an American sentence.


Maybe 'American sentences' means a specific thing to Ford. But he should have stated that specific thing, unless it's held that 'American sentences' (yawn) is interestingly suggestive.

Just yesterday, in a comment in this neighborhood, I spelled 'judgment' 'j-u-d-g-e-m-e-n-t' in the British manner, although I'm an American. What this says about the nationality of my comment, I cannot say.

(The Other) Niall

Mark - I doubt any writer sees his or her primary achievement as being the production of sentences, bearing whatever national or local flavour. 'American sentences' (whatever it finally means) is narrow praise for a particular part of a book's or an author's achievement, not the whole shebang. But you seem to want to give it an extra narrowness that Ford, anyway, doesn't intend.

Is Joyce parochial? Is Céline? Both of them brought in to their respective traditions a non-standard and very localised vocabulary, which nonetheless had the effect of opening up a new world to other writers. You wouldn't mistake Joyce as anything other than Irish, and you wouldn't mistake Céline as anything other than French - even in translation. And this was a central part of both their projects: to encode their books with a different and previously unsung language.

Of course, that wouldn't matter particularly if they weren't both great writers: that one is identifiably Irish and one is identifiably French from the off means very little in and of itself. And yet, it's a major part of their achievement - the primary means by which they challenge the literary convention of their day, and bring to light things that polite literature would leave out. The revolution of language is finally intended to be a revolution of truth. And I don't think there's much parochial about that at all.

Susan D. Anderson

Dear Mark,

Your hyper-links to the Paris Review interview, Charlie Rose show, and other media with writer James Salter are a true public service. I have always enjoyed immersing myself in his books; there is something unusually contemplative in his writing, not often found in American prose. I have a link to The Elegant Variation on my blog, The Obsessive Reader's Cultured Ghetto http://theobsessivereadersculturedghetto.blogspot.com/. This comment is really just a thank you for the James Salter resources.




Three of those sentences are translations! They may be translations by Americans. Then they would be "American sentences"!


Your barb about "the American sentence" gave me a laugh.

And Red Rum gives me hope.


Great links, Mark. The Ford quip though, doesn't bother me. I read it not as an exact description but more in line with the way metaphor, allusion and the accumulation of images/scenes work. You know, the way we read all the time making connections even between things that aren't really connected at all. It's less about real "American Sentences" than the general American tone or sensibility of Salter's writing and at the same time the joy of reading his individual sentences, both of these things and more, held in the mind at the same time. How to say this succinctly? "American sentences" seems to work in a way that's is hard to explain and may be in fact very imprecise and on a level simply wrong. And yet, I think I know what he meant, as we're taught to tease out meaning from all kinds of phrases like this all the time.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."