Monday, March 04, 2013

Long Sentences

I finally got a copy of Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat. I was so long getting to it, I was starting to feel like a kid dodging homework. A copy jumped off the shelf and into my hands when I was walking through the Tattered Cover the other day. Parts of it I am enjoying, though other parts not so much and I am still trying to make up my mind about it though I am about 75% of the way through.

Hendrickson makes a big deal about “The Sentence,” a very long sentence Hemingway wrote that describes the emotions he has when he feels he has written well mixed with the emotional impact of the enormity of the Gulf Stream mixed with just the enormity of life, I guess. Hemingway wrote this in Key West in 1934 and it was included in his African safari book, Green Hills of Africa. A sentence like this is obviously atypical of Hemingway’s style, which may be why it has more impact on the reader. I must confess I hadn’t thought of this sentence in a long time and am glad Hendrickson brought it to our attention. Here it is in full:

That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know, truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student's exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing - the stream.

Green Hills of Africa – Ernest Hemingway

To tell the truth, Green Hills of Africa has never gotten much love from critics or academics from the day it was published. Hendrickson believes that Green Hills is a misunderstood post-modern work that uses the account of the safari as a framework to expound on any number of subjects (literature, critics, writing, etc.) not directly related to the hunting story. I don’t know.

It reminded me of another enormously long sentence written by William Faulkner in 1941. It appears in my favorite work of his, the short story The Bear. This short story is ostensibly a coming-of-age hunting story but is very complex and delves into aspects of the relationship of man and nature, the relationship of the races, the Civil War and about a hundred other things. I recommend it for anyone to read. I shudder to think how many theses and academic papers have mined it for material. Here it is:

And more: what they got not only not from white people but not even despite white people because they had it already from the old free fathers a longer time free than us because we have never been free – and it was in McCaslin’s eyes too, he had only to look at McCaslin’s eyes and it was there, that summer twilight seven years ago, almost a week after they had returned from the camp before he discovered that Sam Fathers had told McCaslin: an old bear, fierce and ruthless not just to stay alive but ruthless with the fierce pride of liberty and freedom; jealous and proud enough of liberty and freedom to see it threatened not with fear nor even alarm but almost with joy, seeming deliberately to put it into jeopardy in order to savor it and keep his old strong bones and flesh supple and quick to defend and preserve it; an old man, son of a Negro slave and an Indian king, inheritor on the one hand of the long chronicle of a people who had learned humility through suffering and learned pride through the endurance which survived the suffering, and on the other side the chronicle of a people even longer in the land than the first, yet who now existed there only in the solitary brotherhood of an old and childless Negro’s alien blood and the wild and invincible spirit of an old bear; a boy who wished to learn humility and pride in order to become skillful and worthy in the woods but found himself becoming so skillful so fast that he feared he would never become worthy because he had not learned humility and pride though he had tried, until one day an old man who could not have defined either led him as though by the hand to where an old bear and a little mongrel dog showed him that, by possessing one thing other, he would possess them both; and a little dog, nameless and mongrel and many-fathered, grown yet weighing less than six pounds, who couldn’t be dangerous because there was nothing anywhere much smaller, not fierce because that would have been called just noise, not humble because it was already too near the ground to genuflect, and not proud because it would not have been close enough for anyone to discern what was casting that shadow and which didn’t even know it was not going to heaven since they had already decided it had no immortal soul, so that all it could be was brave even though they would probably call that too just noise.

The Bear – William Faulkner

The Bear actually was written in two versions: a short version that was published in The Saturday Evening Post and a long version (which contains this long sentence) that appeared in Faulkner’s short story collection Go Down, Moses. Read the long version. Unlike Hemingway, Mr. Faulkner was never ever afraid of tagging on a bunch of dependent clauses.

My favorite long sentence isn’t nearly as long as the previous two and is of more recent vintage. I am not sure when it was written, but it appears in Cormac McCarthy’s 1992 cross-border adventure romance All the Pretty Horses. In it, John Grady Cole is looking at the traces of an historic Native American trail on his family’s west Texas ranch, and in his mind’s eye, imagines how it must have been to see the Comanche tribe traveling after the bison herds:

When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives.

All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy

I have always thought that McCarthy was influenced by Faulkner. I think the use of alliteration, repetition and poetic rhythm here is just amazingly effective.


Malcolm Brooks said...

"He remembered Alejandra and the sadness he'd first seen in the slope of her shoulders which he'd presumed to understand and of which he knew nothing and he felt a loneliness he'd not known since he was a child and he felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought the world's heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world's pain moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower."

Two long sentences not one, but my own favorites from McCarthy. Same novel.

Anonymous said...

The long sentence about the kudu hunt blew me away when I read it and I often think of it. I just looked for my copy of Green Hills to check but can't find it.

My favorite though may the Mississippi preamble in Faulkner's Big Woods

The rich deep black alluvial soil..."

Steve Bodio said...

This is a delight, Reid. You have not seem my forthcoming Sportsman's Library (April 2), known as you know in- family as Book o' Books.

But our minds must run in parallel; above, I will quote some of my own stuff from it, to show how much, without ever discussing it, we agree!

Maybe I should start mentioning the book?

Matt Mullenix said...

Three of my favorite books. But man, those are long sentences when read on an iPhone!

Anonymous said...

IMHO, the Hemingway sentence is not good, kind of a jumble, lacking tonal consistency and power and developing a not particularly fresh idea; the Faulkner sentence is certainly better, but mostly a list, mostly setting a grand stage through its structure and verging on portentousness – it is saved by the characters it describes; and the McCarthy sentence is the best of the three because the structure and word choice have a function: conveying the sensory impressions of the traveling tribe and concluding with a relatively restrained, for McCarthy, abstraction which intellectually contextualizes the scene. Yes, McCarthy is profoundly and at times mind-numbingly influenced by Faulkner, including some of his worst tendencies. I love (or perhaps in McCarthy's case greatly admire) some of the work of all three writers. Much to their credit they all kept (keep) writing through the good and the not so good. Daniel

Steve Bodio said...

Amen to that Daniel. I might add here or above that, in Book o Books, I apparently hit on the "postmodernist" idea of Green Hills independently-- maybe should post?

Anonymous said...

Yes, please post your take on Green Hills as post-modernist!


Steve Bodio said...

Wekll, pre- post modernist (or pre- New Journalisst, but i never liked that term) anyway. Maybe tomorrow...