Friday, August 03, 2007

The best sentence in all of literature

Ive read a lot of great sentences in all my years of reading--Salman Rushdie's swooping and swerving, metaphor-filled prose, Umberto Eco's long lists of esoterica, Ernest Hemingway's bare and spare minimalism... The now classic and much imitated pulp-fictiony 'It was a dark and stormy night' by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton has spawned an annual competition. (2007 winner: Gerald began--but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash--to pee.) Thomas Paine's "These are the times that try men's souls" was used in the The Elements of Style by Strunk and White as an example of how 'style' is hard to pin down. But possibly the best sentence Ive ever read, one that fills me with awe everytime I read it, is this one:

But then our love was extinguished quickly, as though someone had thrown water from a high tower onto a burning dog.

From Drivel, by Steve Martin, and is one of the pieces in his collection of stories and essays called Pure Drivel (published by Hyperion, 1998). The sheer genius that went into this one! The audacity! I wonder what sort of mind would come up with what is probably the funniest single sentence Ive read... ever. It calls to mind the sentences in that full-page ad by a certain Antonio Calipjo Go pointing to errors in the textbooks our children use called Titi Ari ng Lalaki: Textbook learnings for make benefit glorious nation of Philippines, online here. (Sample: Life is the fast rising of the sun that shines on the earth which goes around it fast. Life is the late realization that life is gone and we discover it late.) But whereas the sentences in our textbooks were unintended, with this one, one can almost sense the endless re-writes it went through. One can almost see Steve Martin in front of his laptop, in the wee hours of the morning, agonizing over every word, trying to get the rhythm right, for I can't believe that such a sentence would just fall onto one's lap fully formed like a gift from heaven. It had to be honed and crafted and sweated and bled over. It is just that good. If it did fall onto his lap, then the muses had indeed blessed him, the lucky bastard.

I try to write sentences like that, and I fail. I pray to the same muses, Larry, Curly, and Moe, but they probably deem me unworthy. Im too happy, they may be thinking. True comedy comes from a lifetime of pain and suffering, from angst and alienation, from the baring of one's soul to the hounds that would devour it--or at least from two months worth of unpaid utility bills.

But I try. And I try. Maybe the muses would take pity upon me as I prostrate myself before them and patiently wait.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wish that I were amused by that sentence to the extent that you were.