The Rhythm of Sentences

My friend Matt and I have a reading competition every summer. Last year he beat me by a couple books. I have three weeks of vacation left and, at thirty-one books, I’m well behind schedule. I suspect he will win again this year (even though I stocked up on a pile of the best and shortest books available from your standard online retailers).

Yesterday I finished A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke, a fine memoir that comes in at a longish seventy-six pages. There are plenty of good reasons to read his work, but I want to emphasize his pacing. Here is a typical passage:

In this life of misery, my mother lost her country-round cheeks and achieved a certain chic. She carried her head high and acquired a graceful walk. Whatever she put on was becoming to her. She had no need of fox furs. When her husband sobered up and clung to her and told her he loved her, she gave him a merciful, pitying smile. By then, she had no illusions about anything. 

It is not a particularly cheerful memoir. But the writing is beautiful. Diagramming sentences is fine entertainment, but it should probably be combined with diagramming passages and paragraphs if we want to fully understand and emulate good writing. I am going to forgo the diagramming today and get right on to the emulation. In this case, I am going to simply recount an event from a couple weeks ago, making every effort to match the structure of Handke’s passage.

On this July morning, my uncle discovered the pain of hornet stings and the wonder of explosives. He caressed his aching foot and complained about his nephew’s stupidity. Steve was the source of all the calamities of his life. Yet Dan depended on his nephew. As Steve packed the blaster cap in the hornet nest and ran the ignition wire to the battery, Dan cowered behind the truck, whimpered of his sore foot, fibrillated shamelessly. Indeed, he actually yelped at the explosion of wings and stingers.

To my ear, even as banal an exercise (by U.P. standards) as packing a live hornet’s nest with dynamite blaster caps achieves a certain loveliness by the rhythms of Handke’s prose. But you may judge for yourself.



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