Attempted June 2021
Literature analysis wonks only.
A lovely review tempted me, but alas, this only lives up to its premise if one is well-versed in All The Writers. I thought perhaps it would contain sentence construction deconstruction (parse that, if you will), which I could still relate to, or meditate on life (as good literature does). I confess, I also hoped to find certain sentences inspiring, a sort of literary chapbook by someone widely read. However, I found most of it largely uninteresting and unrelatable, relying on references to classical writers and engaging largely in literary criticism and contemplation over the personal.
It begins with Shakespeare, an amusing but slight paragraph-long piece. The sentence: “O, o, o, o.” What are they telling us, these four diminishing ‘O’s? (Or is it five? The full stop, you might say, is the last and smallest circle.)
I read the James Baldwin one–he of absolutely sublime deep thinking on identity and love–and this is what Dillon chose: “They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” He then proceeds to talk largely about Norman Mailer’s piece, “The White Negro,” compare when the two authors have met, and then go into ‘ofay,’ a word that might be used to “describes a particular kind of white desire to condescend and become otherwise, to inhabit Afro-American culture, if only as hipster spectator.”
The Susan Sontag one also disappoints. “I took a trip to see the beautiful things.” Following that intriguing quote is essentially an essay comparing whether or not Sontag superseded Donald Barthelme, another writer. It then segues into the tone of the piece and how it’s similar to her non-fiction writing, and then the final two pages are devoted to analysis of the film it appears in.
Virginia Wolf was more of what I expected. The sentence he uses is 181 words, from the opening of “On Being Ill,” written in 1926, so I won’t quote it here. Here, finally, was the sort of deconstruction I imagined: “Seven times–four hows and three whats–the sentence invites us to anticipate a logically and artistically satisfying terminus. With the final ‘how’ we may reasonably expect that the grammatical, argumentative, and symbolic denouement is just around the comma-swivelling corner. Instead, we embark on a mysterious paratactic excursion, with no punctuation and no hink, for what seems an age, that our destination is the dentist’s chair… The sentence has allured us a long way, but I’m not certain I follow, not even sure that ‘this’ consists of, never mind the ‘infinitely more.'”
Fluer Jaeggy, who I don’t know at all: “Paper storage, fragments of delirium eaten away by dust.” begins promisingly enough, with Dillon briefly reflecting on a distaste for verb-less sentence fragments. Unfortunately, the quote comes from Jaeggy’s description of Thomas DeQuincey’s writing (note including of DeQuincey in an earlier essay), and Dillon spends the rest of the piece analyzing Jaeggy’s discussion of DeQuincey (talk about navel-gazing) except for a final two paragraphs wondering about the meaning of the sentence and so he returns to the original Italian to translate. A fascinating idea! “Paper storage’ is a curious choice on the translator’s part, because the phrase depositi cartacei (literally paper deposits) suggests a kind of bureaucratic or legal deposition, an official amassing–and it refers to the things themselves, not to the action of their archiving or the space in which they’re placed.”
Ultimately, this was like sifting panning for gold-leaf, sifting through convoluted and chewy sentences in order to find little bits of sparkle. If your reading background contains a wealth of pre-20th century works, you might be better served than I.
Essays containing sentences from: Shakespeare, John Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, John Ruskin, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bowen, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Robert Smithson, Maeve Brennan, Roland Barthes, Whitney Balliett, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Annie Dillard, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Janet Malcolm, Fleur Jaeggy, Hilary Mantel, Claire-Louise Bennett, Anne Carson, Anne Boyer.