I don’t love how my favorite sentence became my favorite sentence. In fact, this origin story embarrasses me so much that I almost skipped sharing it.
When I was a senior in college, a girl I was trying to date had a sentence from a Vladimir Nabokov short story on her Facebook profile. I read the story, thinking that if I could feign an interest in it she might be more likely to hang out with me. While my attempts to impress her failed, I fell for the Nabokov story, especially the last sentence, the same one that graced her Facebook profile.
“A Letter That Never Reached Russia,” is an early Nabokov story, one he originally wrote in Russian. The story is an exiled writer’s letter to a former lover that chronicles a night spent wandering Berlin, his adopted home. The writer promises his former lover that he will not speak of “the trifles of our shared past,” and instead details the sights of his night walk: street cars, a plodding Great Dane, couples dancing in a café, and the turbid waters of a canal winding through the city.
As he moves through the streets, the writer claims that he is happy, though he tells his former lover that his “happiness is a kind of challenge.” This concession, that his pursuit of happiness is a challenge, reveals the effort he takes to combat his exile loneliness.
This challenge charges the final sentence, the sentence that is now my favorite sentence, the one I first saw on the Facebook profile of a girl who didn’t want to date me:
“The centuries will roll by, and schoolboys will yawn over the history of our upheavals; everything will pass, but my happiness, dear, my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal’s black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.”
For a number of reasons, I’ve come to love this sentence. The sentence, both through its construction and content, captures the sort of “ineffable happiness” the author challenges himself to find, a type of happiness that is also an act of self-deception. The sentence is his attempt to transform a solitary walk into an affirmation that he is not, in fact, alone.
The writer’s happiness deception begins when he separates the surrounding world, the one that has pried him from his homeland and lover, from his current life. History, politics—all the forces responsible for his exile—will eventually be footnotes, pages for disinterested students to flip through. A semicolon partitions his tragic circumstances from his evening walk. This willful separation, one that is part of the writer’s self-deception, is perfectly achieved with a semicolon, the winking piece of punctuation high school teachers discourage students from overusing.
The semicolon simultaneously separates the sentence’s two independent clauses while binding them together. The semicolon says, yes, the writer can set aside the circumstances of his exile and make a separate case for his happiness, but the forces that drove him from his home, from his lover, still exist and are linked to his challenging pursuit of happiness.
The second independent clause unfolds as a series of parallel phrases, a list of the images that keep the writer company. He locates his happiness in each of the items in this list. The repetition of “in the” at the beginning of each phrase makes the second half of the sentence sound like an argument, a plea even. The writer tries to convince his former lover that his happiness exists in these places, in “everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.”
The images the writer includes in the list each register in a different spot on the emotional scale. They encompass the breadth of his exiled life. The writer observes a “moist reflection,” a quiet introspective image, the “cautious bend of stone steps,” an ominous spot descending to the “canal’s dark waters,” and the smiling faces of “a dancing couple,” a lighter note, but one steeped in longing given the writer’s letter addresses a former love, one whom the writer may never see again.
The title, “A Letter That Never Reached Russia,” tells the reader that these words never reach their intended audience. This reality multiplies the sentence power. These words are not the intimate coda to a lost loved one, but a solitary plea, the writer’s attempt to placate his own loneliness, a loneliness that will persist as he paces his exiled city, alone.
Somber tone of that Nabokov sentence aside, choosing a favorite sentence is fun! I’ve found that when I ask folks if they have a favorite sentence, answers typically stray from more “obvious” choices, like the closing lines of famous novels, “So we beat on…” etc.
S For Sentence is a fantastic online spot (where Stephanie Grant, AU MFA faculty member currently on sabbatical, is guest editor) where writers are already doing just this: examining and reveling in beautiful sentences.
In the spirit of exploring what makes a sentence a favorite sentence, we would love to hear from you, any of you, about your favorite sentence, or line(s) of poetry. If you have a favorite sentence you would like to share, send it along with any comments you want to include to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.