The world were a great mistake

Topic Sentence #9

Dear reader,

(Welcome to new readers from Sarah Avenir/&yet! What we do here is talk about one sentence from one book, every few weeks—so that we get better at reading and writing. Pull up an armchair and enjoy your stay.)

Today’s topic sentence:

There was a patient look on the old man’s face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.

This sentence is from The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, part of a list I’m cultivating in my head of “Public Domain Books Worth Reading, Besides the Usual Suspects Like Austen and Co”. I found it through the recommendation of Ursula K. LeGuin—who praises its “quietly powerful rhythms”. And it’s easy to see it as an antecedent of LeGuin—with its depictions of pastoral life that magnify the inner workings of the characters, albeit without the wizards strolling through.

Its also reminiscent of The Hills is Lonely (a previous recommendation), although less comedic: both feature a female narrator, with no attachments moving to a quiet community, and with her, we discover the slow joy of understanding the people there. There is also a thorough empathy in both of those books, where people are not reduced to object lessons, or mechanisms for a plot, but depicted as, well, people.

As for our topic sentence, the “old man” in question is Captain Littlepage, a retired sailor with stories and nobody to tell them to. It’s a sentence that gains its force from the simile in its second half; there are many ways to describe patience, and I’m not sure I could ever have crafted this one.

In part, it’s a microcosm of the book as a whole—the yearning of quiet people to find someone who speaks their language, to find companionship. But it’s also a simile that causes us to reread the sentence, and reconsider the character—given this great loneliness, this “great mistake”, the Captain is not angry, or frustrated, but instead faces it with a stoic patience.

Every six months or so, we go to a small beach town called Crescent Head, five hours north of Sydney, where we live. It’s an easy place to visit, with brilliant white sand, a beach-creek made for floating down, and the kind of sea breeze that picks up and away at your worries. It’s a place we’ve gone to for years, a place out of the usual rhythms, a place for reflection.

The Country of the Pointed Firs reminds me of that place—as a book, its a place you want to spend time in, and revisit again. And in doing so, to reflect on the place you’ve come from, and what it took for you to get there.

Speaking my own language,


No action exists outside the context of history

Topic Sentence #8

Dear reader,

Get yourself a snack, this is a long one:

In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh, Jesus no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and of my horror and pity and self-hatred; and so: smiling, and so distressed that I wanted only that they should be restored, and should know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence: ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.”

This comes from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (photographs by Walker Evans): a depression-era book of long-form reportage about the lives of rural sharecroppers in Alabama. It’s considered a bit of a classic—it’s fascinating that many of the tricks that we’d attribute to postmodernism and to Foster Wallace, are already here: Agee appearing as a character in his own reportage, a discomfort with even the appearance of objectivity, an anger at the inability of words to capture the essence of what he’s trying to say.

But what he does try to say is by turns, gripping, beautiful and heartwrenching. Our topic sentence comes from one of the most terrifying passages I’ve ever read in literature: Agee and Evans have come across a small, beautiful church that they want to photograph. By chance, a young African-American couple wander past, exchange brief greetings and then continue on. And then Agee makes a mistake: he decides to chase after them, to ask them if they know who owns the church, if someone might let them in.

To put it plainly: in 1930’s Alabama, there are no good outcomes for a black person when a white person starts chasing them.

Our topic sentence is their reaction.

If you feel a bit paralyzed at that well of sentence, start with the main clause, in this case: “I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood and said …”

Everything that comes before it is modifying what happens “in the same instant” he comes up to them—the young man and lady freeze, albeit with some astonishing turns of phrase, the “emblems of sense” in his face, her back “hung from a hook in the spine of the will”. Everything that comes after is firstly, who he is speaking to, again the girl and the man, although because we’ve had such a span of words between start and sentence and now, we get snapshots of their state before and after Agee’s actions. Secondly, the “because” clause introduces Agee’s own mortified self-reaction, the realisation of his mistake, his ineffectual attempts to compensate.

Something this sentence reminds me of is those moments (many recently) where someone defends racist actions with “It was just …” White people putting on blackface ‘is just kids having fun’. A ‘It’s just a cartoon’. ‘It’s just a joke’.

But of course, this doesn’t exist. No racist action exists outside of a context of history. All Agee was doing was trying to ask a question. But tell that to the young couple for whom each of Agee’s footsteps echoed with the weight of history, of violence and depersonification.



P.S. Next sentence will not be quite so heavy. Probably.

Adulting is not a verb that we should be proud of

Topic Sentence #7

Dear reader,

Here’s our topic sentence for today:

Now we are truly adult, we think, stunned that this is what being adult means, nothing at all like what we thought it meant as children, certainly not self-confidence, certainly not a serene mastery over all worldly things.

This sentence comes as a part of Natalia Ginzburg’s startling and lovely essay collection A Place to Live, from an essay called “Human Relations”. Ginzburg was an Italian novelist and essayist who lived through World War II (her husband Leone was tortured and killed for their opposition to fascism).

This essay traces nothing less than what it is to be human and in relationship with family, a tracing of the internal path from the ignorance of childhood, the spitefulness of adolescence, the jockeying of teenage years, the stirring of early romance, the revelations of parenthood. Through it all, Ginzburg has a acute knack of capturing both the specificity of her experience, and the universality of her inner feeling. I’ve never been a small girl in Italy growing up in the 1930’s; and yet, of course, I have:

We might be absorbed in some game all by ourselves, and with no warning, angry voices rip through the house; mechanically, we go on playing, sticking stones and grass into a little pile of dirt to make a hill, but the hill doesn’t really matter anymore, we can’t be happy until peace returns to the house; doors slam and we jump; furious words fly from room to room, incomprehensible words; we don’t seek to understand them or decipher what murky reasons give rise to them; in our bewilderment we assume they must be dreadful reasons.

What Ginzburg captures with cool precision in the phrases of our topic sentence is the yawning gap between what we think it will be to be an adult, and the stark reality of it. For Ginzburg, of course, this meant in part the horror of the war. For us, I suspect it is the encroaching solidity of death in any of its forms.

This gap between our childhood perception of adulthood and the concrete actuality of adulthood is something that we can struggle with all of our lives. Some never get over it.

A small example: we recently bought a house—a miracle in itself! But again, the gap. The perception that a house of our own will be a step toward adulthood, a shelter, a respite from uncertainty. The reality: the attendant troubles, concerns over furniture and taxes and thus the reality of adulthood: “certainly not a serene mastery over all worldly things”.

How we want to be as adults is always an illusion. The correct reply to “I don’t feel like an adult” is “How is an adult supposed to feel?”, to which there is no answer. It’s the perception that applies, the difference between how we saw adults from a childlike lens, to how we perceive ourselves in all our terrible mundanity.

We can step over this gap, Ginzburg says, in part by acceptance over death and thus, life—life!:

We are adult by virtue of that brief moment when we looked at life head-on, when we looked at all the things of this world as if for the last time and renounced them for good, restoring them to the will of God. And suddenly all the things of this world, including human beings, appeared in their just and proper proportions under heaven, while we ourselves stood suspended, regarding it all from the single proper place accorded to us.

With both regards, and regarding,


The Unguessable Country

Topic Sentence #6

Dear reader,

(Welcome to new readers, especially those from Sarah Avenir’s wonderful newsletter. In Topic Sentence, I write about sentences, because good writing is made of good sentences. It’s part reading recommendation, part musing about the nuts and bolts of writing.)

Here’s our topic sentence:

I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon—lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.

This comes from the titular short story of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber—if you’re anything like me, you’ve heard writers mention, often, that you should read Carter and The Bloody Chamber. In fact so many, that you rebel a little and wonder how good it can be. I can now join the ranks of the annoying and confirm: you should read The Bloody Chamber.

I don’t mean this to sound glib, because it’s true: The Bloody Chamber is Carter retelling fairy tales from a feminist voice, way before that was cool.

The sentence begins with a simple main clause: “I remember … I lay awake in the wagon”, and then three clauses building out from there—“lit in … excitement”, “my burning cheek pressed …”, “the pounding of my heart”. Common advice for writers, especially in short stories such as this, is to start the story as late as possible but no later. That’s where Carter starts here, on the threshold of the event (or rather, with the reminiscence of it)—not with the musing beforehand.

The word choice is as precise as a calligrapher. “Tender” and “delicious” modify each other and the “ecstasy of excitement”, evoking that feeling of being a child before Christmas. It’s delicious because the feeling is almost greater than the actual event. It’s tender because that feeling is liable to be crushed by any small reality.

In that last fantastic clause, we are swooped between layers of meaning, in the way that writing can do better than an Hollywood long take. We go from her feeling (“the pounding of my heart”) to the reality of the locomotion (“the great pistons”); from her setting (“the night, away from Paris”); to her character (“away from girlhood”); from her character history (“the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment”) to setting the scene of the current predicament: “the unguessable country of marriage”.

I could go on—“white” in the description of her mother’s apartment is evocative of a pre-marital state, and an innocence of character, and there’s the bait and switch of the last clause, where we might expect the physical destination, we hear about the greater destination: marriage. But I think it mostly speaks for itself.

From a guessable country,


Writing is hiding

Topic Sentence #5

Here’s our topic sentence:

She must have noticed all the perfectness from the bus window because she couldn’t afford the cab fare: Second Street, glinting and shimmering in the heat, and ponderous summer clouds sweeping their shadows over the sunbaking cars, the marigolds growing in the park, children eating ice-creams. 

This comes from Karen Foxlee’s basically perfect book, Lenny’s Book of Everything.

Two devices structure the book: firstly, Lenny (short for Lenora) has a younger brother, Davey, who has gigantism; they discover that he’s growing too fast for his own body. Secondly, throughout the book they receive a mail-order encyclopedia, their ‘book of everything’.

The first could have become a writer’s ploy for sympathy but instead is an well-wrought metaphor for what it means to be a sibling: anger, love, protectiveness, blame. And what it is to carry grief and anger, emotions too big for a child, or anyone, to deal with alone.

The second could have been twee but instead becomes a prism for how a kid learns to see the world, as the two siblings pore over the pages, have their favourites, memories the contents, and plan their expeditions to places they only see in the pages. (And it’s a neat throwback to those of us who had encyclopedias in their home.)

Our topic sentence comes from Lenny’s mother (Lenny’s description of her—“she was made almost entirely of worries and magic”), telling her children the story of Davey’s birth. She begins the story with “It was a perfect summer day when you were born”.

If you’ve ever heard the writing advice ‘show, don’t tell’, this is what it means. Foxlee doesn’t tell us about how poor they are, nor her mother’s marital status. But she bakes it into Lenny’s own childlike reflection on the story as it’s being told—“… she couldn’t afford the cab fare”—as well as some scene setting, of New York in the 70s—“Second Street, glinting and shimmering …”.

There’s a contrast between the perfection we’re being told of, and what we’re actually being allowed to see. And this carries forward to envelop the story—the difference between what a parent tells their child, what the reality is, and what the child perceives that reality to be.

There’s a similarity there between the parent and the writer.

Writing is always a form of hiding. Like a magician, a writer hides what they have of themselves, an elaborate choice of what to show you. I feel that more and more these days.

Somehow, the more you write, the more you hide. Sometimes you try and tell the truth anyway.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’ve always hidden behind writing: as a short-cut to identity, as a plateau of importance, as a distraction to my self.

There are a lot of days I wrestle with my mental health (anxiety and depression, the mix differs day by day). There are a lot of days I’m lucky—I’m also genuinely fine: I have more good days than not, our family functions in spite of the bad days.

This is not about that. But it’s one of a few reasons I worry about the things about the margins. What would it take to make my writing (on the margins) both mentally and financially sustainable? What does it mean to want creative independence and yet be creatively lonely? The question I ask over and over: how am I going to do this?

I don’t know the answers. But I’ve gotten sick of hiding the questions, my own appalling ignorance.

Somewhere behind the curtain,


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