SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
I should confess straightaway to an unseemly feeling of delight today, brought on by the wonders of the wonderful Web. This week’s posts on a sentence by the talented Joseph O’Neill have prompted an uncommon quantity and quality of e-correspondence from readers (and even one spiffy photo of a starfish). It seems as though the little conversation that my novelist friend and I have been having about firmaments and fish has revealed, if only to cloistered little me, a rabidly passionate interest beyond my garden wall in things semantic and rhetorical. Bless all y’all.
Reader Abby Laber tells me that “This kind of mixing of firmaments through starfish has a noble history,” and points us in the direction of Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Daybreak”:
On the tidal mud, just before sunset,
dozens of starfishes
were creeping. It was
as though the mud were a sky
and enormous, imperfect stars
moved across it as slowly
as the actual stars cross heaven….
Then there’s Donovan Hohn. Harper’s readers know the prose of this elegant writer. If one ever were to need to wonder why some writers possess such grace, Donovan’s letter (which he releases me to release to you below) suggests the depth of thinking that goes into any good writer’s endeavor–the deep background, as it were, of all foreground activity. Here’s how Donovan read O’Neill’s starfish sentence:
This may be where you’re headed, but I can’t help wanting to solve your riddle. I assume that you and your correspondent recognize the most famous occurrence of the word “firmament” in English literature? Genesis 1 in the KJV?
Note in the passage pasted at bottom that the firmament divides two waters, the one above from the one below–an image that makes plenty of sense when you stand on a sea-cliff and look up and down. The skies of Genesis are watery. Into the heavenly membrane separating the waters the Lord places stars. That’s how I resolve O’Neill’s metaphor: into the netherworld (netherheavens?) of gravel, the god-like child has placed a star. I don’t think I’m stretching here. I think O’Neill is consciously alluding. Of course, that the image makes allusive sense doesn’t mean that it’s good; I’m slightly persuaded that the repetition of fishy sounds may be infelicitous, but not entirely persuaded, but mainly I’m inclined to like the passage. Here’s why:
I like that O’Neill compares his narrator’s fish tank to Creation without doing so explicitly. Really, the word “firmament” does all the metaphorical work. I also like the lightly ironic humor in the transformation of celestial lights into an artificial starfish, the heavens into gravel, the childish aquarium-keeper into God. There’s humor in the imagery but also in the high-low clash of diction and subject matter, swerving from “artificial starfish” to “firmament.” He does this a little earlier in the passage when he swerves from the Latinate and polysyllabic (“furtiveness and ornamental diversity”) into those cheap, murky weeds. But the irony of image and diction isn’t only humorous. There’s still a little wistful Proustian magic in that aquarium-as-microcosmos, no? And if I understand the context correctly, O’Neill’s pulling a kind of bank shot here, comparing the aquarium to the Chelsea Hotel and to Creation all at once.
(I say this without having read the novel–though after reading your latest post I looked up the first chapter on Amazon and was sufficiently seduced to add it to my long bookshelf of intentions.)
Them’s my two cents. Here’s the passage from Genesis:
1:6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
1:7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
1:8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
1:9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
1:10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
1:11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
1:12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
1:13 And the evening and the morning were the third day.
1:14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
1:15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
1:16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
1:17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
1:18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
Hohn’s reading is rewarding–he goes deep into the language, and observes O’Neill’s bank-shot. Not all readers will want to play O’Neill’s game, of course, but I think Hohn is dead-on about the novelist’s “lightly ironic humor.” Much of what O’Neill does with tone in Netherland is, yes, subtly ironic. If you miss, or just don’t like, said tone, you’ll not unreasonably find his prose precious. Take this bit, where the narrator is reflecting on flying from NYC to London to see his wife:
That country might have some meaningful relation to my country of physical residence, and so every second weekend, when I traveled to London to be with my wife and son, I hoped that flying high into the atmosphere, over boundless massifs of vapor or small clouds dispersed like the droppings of Pegasus on an unseen platform of air, might also lift me above my personal haze. That is, I would conduct a retrospective of our affable intercontinental dealings and assemble the hope and theory that the foundation of my family might after all be secure and our old unity within reach.
I’ve got to think that O’Neill’s “dispersed like the droppings of Pegasus on an unseen platform of air” is knowingly too much (i.e. the high-flying language overreaches in the same way that the character is overreaching in his hopes that flying high will put his earthly cares behind him), just as his “conduct a retrospective of our affable intercontinental dealings” is deliberately lawyerly–that is to say it puts the real emotions at a rhetorical remove. If both of these parsings of mine make you say “Poppycock,” though, Netherland isn’t likely going to do it for you. And, as it happens, my novelist friend just wrote to say just that:
I finally hit the wall with this book on page 60. I can’t make myself read any more.
Here’s the sentence that broke the camel’s back (he’s on the train, recalling train trips from the Hague):
Always one saw evidence of tiny brick houses that the incontinent local municipalities, Voorschoten and Leidschendam and Rijswijk and Zoetermeer, pooped over the rural spaces surrounding the Hague.
“Incontinent municipalities?” “Pooped?” Please!
Whereas other readers will say: “Incontinent municipalities?” “Pooped?” Thank you!
So it goes.
For the indefatigable among you not undone by this investigation into the solitary sentence, I give you many more sentences for this long weekend. Over at The Nation, you can feast on the late Ted Solotaroff‘s memoir about the editorial life. It features an over-the-shoulder series of shots of working with the good and great Cynthia Ozick at the beginning of her critical-in-all-senses career (and Solotaroff’s piece leaves me wanting, very much, to hear Ms. Ozick’s side of things…). Said piece contains much mulling of what “good writing” means in a very properly workaday way, and is actually worth your valuable time. It contains for example, this:
One day I received a call from the reception desk: a woman named Cynthia Ozick wanted to talk about writing for Commentary. I knew her name from a few poems I had come across in the literary magazines, and though I had pretty much stopped recruiting, I still liked to think of myself as approachable.
Small, awkward, intense, she arrived with an air of shyness that turned into ardor once she got going, reminding me of certain female graduate students who were like nuns in the library stacks and passionate in the seminars. Volubly thanking me for seeing her, she said that she had just been to The New York Review of Books, where they had all but thrown her out. She went on to tell me in her tight, edgy voice, the swarming eyes behind her scholarly spectacles never leaving my face, about a long novel, eight years in the writing, that she had just submitted. She now wanted to try her hand at reviewing. She said that she was a friend of Alfred Chester. Was I his editor?
I was. Alfred was our star literary reviewer–flamboyant, irreverent, unpredictable, even from one paragraph to the next. A flaming queen with a red wig, crystalline prose style and a razor wit, he seemed about 179 degrees across the human spectrum from this literary vestal virgin. But perhaps not. His stare burned with the same intensity.
Writer and editor Solotaroff’s unfinished memoir (he passed away last summer) has been posted in two parts. Part One; and Part Two. Best weekend wishes to you from all of us here at Sentences (meaning, of course, just me).
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”