By Sven Birkerts
When I find myself getting far from writing, from whatever it was that delivered the original thrill, and start to feel out of sync with the whole business, spending my time on tasks that don’t re-pay, on being dutiful, not writing what I want or need to be writing, not even sure I can identify what that even is; when I find myself, like Melville’s Ishmael, wanting to step into the street and start methodically knocking peoples’ hats off—then I know it’s high time to get to a stylist. Not of fashion, or hair, god forbid, but of prose. A sentence maker, a maestro, someone who with his or her particular way of putting words together has struck in me the tone of the clearest recognition, reminding me, for I have forgotten, what words have it in them to do, what they are for, why I so long ago decided to make them my trade.
Sentences. I could go looking now and find dozens, but I know what would happen. I would turn to one of my authors—I have them here, in a stack—one of the ones who has over and over made me catch my breath and start bobbing my head, to Joyce or Hazzard or Woolf or Fitzgerald or Nabokov or Welty, and then I would get stuck in the pages, trapped, unable to decide on this over that, but also unable to stop myself from looking further, as if somewhere there really were a capper, an incontestably best sentence. I would find, too—for I have tried such extractions in the past—that almost any great sentence loves its neighbors, that the one I have in mind is so much more effective when you see how it arises from the one before, and even better to go back another few; and by the same token, its brilliance is most manifest when you see how it leads to the next, for sentences are always part of a larger life, at very least the life of their paragraph.
So though I meant to make a little gallery, setting one jeweled thing alongside another, I got no further than Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which happened to be on the top of said small stack of authors already named, authors I did not have to go about the house searching for, because, as is always true of the things most deeply loved, I know exactly where they are to be found. Not only did I get no further than Herzog, but having opened it—to page 1, like a good citizen—I discovered I could not get off that page. There was no reason to. The joy of the Bellow’s prose was right there. How does this work? I moved my eyes left-to-right exactly as I had just a short time before with the newspaper, and with a perfectly interesting essay on the movie Lincoln, but now, just a few phrases in, I felt myself, figuratively speaking, come to real attention. How? Why? It is one of the mysteries.
It was the peak of summer in the Berkshires. Herzog was alone in the big old house. Normally particular about food, he now ate Silvercup bread from the paper package, beans from the can, and American cheese. Now and then he picked raspberries in the overgrown garden, lifting up the thorny canes with absentminded caution. As for sleep, he slept on a mattress without sheets—it was his abandoned marriage bed—or in the hammock, covered by his coat. Tall bearded grass and locust and maple seedlings surrounded him in the yard. When he opened his eyes in the night, the stars were near like spiritual bodies. Fires, of course; gases—minerals, heat, atoms, but eloquent at five in the morning to a man lying in a hammock, wrapped in his overcoat.
What’s to say—besides everything, I mean? There is nothing to explicate—it is so simple, there for the taking. But if it is so simple, why is the business of style so arduous, why do so few writers really get to me? I can point to the subject—distracted, forlorn man living alone—and to the humble accuracy of the details (the Silvercup bread in its paper package, the thorny raspberry canes, the seedlings, the stars, the hammock…), the juxtaposition of ground-level particulars with the sighting of great “spiritual bodies,” to the rhythm and pacing of the prose, but nothing quite accounts for my reaction.
There are more venturesome tours de force in Updike or Wallace, subtler syncopations in Lydia Davis, blacker perfections in Beckett. But, for me—and this is what I want to say—there is no better congruence, no larger Venn overlay, than this. The best reading happens—I know this now—when there is circulation, when I am admitted into the language, when I feel the writer’s rhythms resonating with mine. Then I have the sensation—it could be an illusion—of being very near to the movement of another human consciousness. We all make our nods to the certifiable greats, but don’t we also keep a smaller shelf, unique, of the writers we feel are our very own—the writers who somehow got the curtain to part, the distance to collapse, putting us suddenly there? Whatever there that was, and is. And though it has been crusted over by the repetitions of habit and rendered so rare as to feel almost extinct by the incessant manufacture of rhetoric and solicitation, some vestige of the real, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “dearest freshness,” does survive. When I find it, I am finally brought to myself. Mere language, letter-shapes arranged on a page, but they are like those gases, eloquent at five in the morning—or any hour really. And wasn’t it the selfsame Bellow who defined a writer as “a reader moved to emulation”? It all comes around; it all adds up.