January 10, 2012
Both of these statements often occupy me, fanning my flames more than the food I eat or the merriment I make. Shall I bend an eye and singe an ear over Dickinson or Stevens? Hop into bed with Borges or Bishop? Yet when one starts reading essays pointing to other works one should read, one compounds an already compelling problem. A few weeks ago some force intervened with an answer, possibly signaling a caesura to my yen for other books to fondle while carrying three or four masterworks in my bag at a time, daily stealing kisses from each. Sluttish, yes, but also tremulous—I only need wink at Rilke or Valéry in order to gain affection I know will be good for me, a guarantee anything with a heart would scoff at.
Coming home on the subway one evening, I sat sprawled on the curved orange seat of the 2 train, reading my lodestar, William H. Gass. His essay, “Narrative Sentences,” (in his new book Life Sentences, being released next week) contains examinations of twelve sentences of the narrative nature. Owing to the fractured structure of the essay, I read those sentences of writers who interested me the most (James and Joyce and Beckett), before turning to those I was familiar with but had never read seriously (Ford Madox Ford and George Eliot). Gass’s last example, and the most ornate, was from Henry James’s Italian Hours, a travel book. A sentence over 200 words long, its sinuousness touches on city life versus country life. In Gass’s spindle diagram of the sentence, revealing the threads around which the fat phrases and clauses turn, one delights in the gorgeous way the unit builds up one’s fast-paced experience in the city only to laze into the easeful nature of the country, before reconnoitering and returning to the shuffle of the city—an all-time sentence, a sentence teeming with twenty reverberations, a sentence more beautiful than any one-name supermodel. By mapping this sentence’s architecture with the spindle (something he’d previously done in the essay “The Sentence Seeks its Form”), Gass had clearly impressed to me how James and his Italian journey should find its way next into my discriminating ken.
I was still on the 2 train, still rumbling under lower Manhattan toward Brooklyn, the same train Bernard Goetz had opened fire on in 1984. It was eight o’clock but people still were only just shuttling home from work—one or two were reading.
After briefly glorying about acquiring James’s Italian Hours, I paged toward the beginning of the essay, taking in Daniel Defoe and Sir Walter Scott, before reading what I did not know, but could subtly feel, were the last three sentences of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Another cornerstone missing from my mansion. “…The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts…” Yes, George, yes—but then that title. Middlemarch. Hadn’t I just seen that somewhere? And wasn’t it a somewhere that my hands were still holding? I flipped forward to the sentence in Italian Hours and indeed, at its end, as the speaker is returning to the city, James decrees:
…to come back through one of the great gates and a couple of hours later find yourself in the “world,” dressed, introduced, entertained, inquiring, talking about “Middlemarch” to a young English lady or listening to Neapolitan songs from a gentlemen in a very low-cut shirt…
Yes, Middlemarch, I hear you, I cried to the voices in my head and stared in wonder at shrunken world—my eyes glazed with good humor, possibly good will. Some of the people on the seats facing me did not reflect my inner joy. They nodded off, punched at or swiped at the screens of their phones like they took frosting off a cooling cake. One, an older woman, with the hard angles of an Eastern European face and short hair colored by a box of henna hair dye, sat hunched with a heavy book. Always curious, I tipped my head to make out the cover. By the insignia I could tell it was a Barnes and Noble classic and when she turned a page, bringing it slightly closer to her askew head, the title revealed upside down to me was the m-endowed, three-syllable word keenly in my consciousness—Middlemarch.
This could have made things easy, but my difficulty is I’m a person who won’t accept yes as an answer. Is there any mischief making in assigning Middlemarch to a lower place in my to-read pile? The situation on the train was too obvious for me to put much credence in the signs, signals, or imprecations of a book baying to be read, a patch of soft pages to finger. There are no English ladies in my life to talk about Middlemarch with. Today, hooked on text and email, people are lucky to talk at all, much less munch a slice of biscotti and tackle Eliot or toil about in James. What is a sentence!? What is your problem?
What is my problem? It’s what to read next and my committee of one strives to answer even as I’m stroking the spines of a few new books I just bought, sitting safely in my city, clothed or naked but certainly sequestered—I am always entertaining the promise of what will be, dreaming of inquiring, a heavy man with the syntax to split me from identifying too closely with myself and strangers.