Know the rule so you can break it well

Topic Sentence #11

Dear reader,

Here’s our topic sentence:

From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied facades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scroll-work and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and secondhand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.

This sentence and paragraph comes from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. It’s a semi-autobiographical book of short stories of 1930’s Berlin, with an interesting lineage: it was turned into a Broadway play called I Am a Camera, a less successful film of the same name, and then into a little musical called Cabaret.

All of this from a sentence, or at least, a series of sentences. I’ve been starting to try and write about writing and what gave me pause here is the incorrectness of that first sentence.

If we remember (or were taught) grammar, the basic skeleton of every sentence is subject and predicate. E.g. “I see the street”. Here, ‘I’ is the subject and “see the street” is the predicate. And the predicate (stay with me here) is usually made up of verb and object: “see” is the verb, the action that the subject is doing, and “the street” is the object, the thing that the verb is happening to.

What we notice in our topic sentence is that it bluntly refuses these rules. “From my window” is an adjectival phrase, describing where the action takes place. But then we have no subject nor verb, simply the object: “the deep solemn massive street”.

The rule is that we can ignore any rule in writing—if we know the rule well enough to break it well. It has a few effects when Isherwood breaks it here.

Firstly, it abruptly eradicates the narrator from the picture. “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking” Isherwood says in the next paragraph, echoing the effect from this first sentence.

Secondly, this expands the effect of what he’s saying—the imposition of the street is so immediate that it seems to have swallowed his perspective. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a shot that carries us down from the window to rove down the street itself. Any distance between our perspective as a reader, and what we’re led to see is effectively denied.

Thirdly, this sets us up for his description of the street itself. It’s an effective description, using some pointed details, “top-heavy balconied facades”, to lead to a wider scene-setting, “street leading into street of houses”, to a cutting judgement: “the tarnished valuables and secondhand furniture of a bankrupt middle class”. Here, bankrupt could be seen to be initially about wealth, but it begins the thread of theme that Isherwood will develop of both social and moral bankruptcy.

If you’re writing this week, remember the rules, so you can know how to break them well.

From my window,

Guan