Sentences — September 8, 2008, 1:51 pm

An Alien Door

0547054009 “Even before the knocker was lifted, he knew they had come: here were the wheels of the trap scraping on gravel, and the pony’s skipping gait, and a child’s angry howl when he was taken from his mother and set down before an alien door.” The sentence comes from Cynthia Ozick’s recent Dictation (Houghton Mifflin), in the novella of the same name. And like the novella from which it is drawn, the sentence provides a particular species of pleasure that only fiction can offer–it could not exist outside of fiction. The innocent key of the pronoun “he” allows the reader passage through the thoroughly alien door that leads to the mind of another human being.

Here, the point of view that Ozick is offering is that of a man famous for his own fictions: Henry James. Ozick offers not a biography but rather a fiction fed with the facts selectively, at times deceptively, drawn from the record, such as we have it, of James’s eventfully uneventful life. So Ozick, as have others, wonders what that mind that wondered out loud, at such length and with such precision, might resemble. When Joyce gave us a woman’s mind it was one long lavish disordered flow of thought, untailored and nearly unstoppable in wandering grace. Ozick’s rendering of this man’s mind is quite neat, as ultimately tidy as James’s sometimes baroque but always ordered syntax.

“Even before the knocker was lifted, he knew they had come”: the first movement of the sentence opens up an interval in which an expectant James–for Joseph Conrad and family are coming to visit–awakes to their imminent arrival. Then three sounds apprehended in succession: “[H]ere were the wheels of the trap scraping on gravel, and the pony’s skipping gait, and a child’s angry howl.” I love Ozick’s “Here…and…and” construction, with James’s attention seen like a skipping stone over the surface of the noises that flow to him. Apprehension, by sentence’s end, sparks James’s imagination: the child’s “angry howl” is read, by James, ever the burrower into the brains of others, as the result of the child being passed from mother to father as they descend from the trap, and set, furious, before James’s “alien door”–the sentence itself having thrown open that door, behind which lives fiction.

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