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.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2016

Bird in a Cage

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Save Our Public Universities

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Rogue Agency

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mad Magazines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Killer Bunny in the Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Save Our Public Universities·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have.”
Photograph (crop) by Thomas Allen
Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.

Number of people who attended the World Grits Festival, held in St. George, South Carolina, last spring:

60,000

The brown bears of Greece continued chewing through telephone poles.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today