Favorite Sentences: You Have to Swallow the World
After reading Vince Granata’s exquisite dissection of his favorite sentence, I felt inspired to revisit my own favorites, to examine them with the keen eye and grammatical astuteness of an MFA student, to marvel at their structural prowess, at their rhythmic delights.
Luckily, finding such favorites wasn’t difficult.
Long before the pursuit of writing began to dance around in my head, I’d started recording quotes (mostly literary, but some spoken turns-of-phrase too) that had moved me for whatever reason and that I wanted to remember. I still do this in my craft notebooks today, and have some newfound doozies by Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Marguerite Duras, and Junot Diaz—all sentences that merited serious consideration for this post (I mean, Diaz’s “I had heart-leather like walruses got blubber” from his story, “Boyfriend,” is an unbeatable simile, is it not?).
But there was a particular sentence I vaguely recalled from my read of Madame Bovary over a decade ago that I thought might win the ultimate crown of “Karen’s favorite amongst favorites.” I remembered it being long and windy, full of modifiers and effective repetition, and the language—the language!—was worthy of deep, dreamy sighs. But it wasn’t at my fingertips in my recent craft journals; I needed to dig up the old.
And so, I unstacked my growing pile of New Yorkers and my small tower of “books to read” from atop the plastic storage bin currently doubling in my humble apartment as a side table. I rummaged through random items to the old journals tucked away near the bottom: weathered Moleskines—their elastic bands now loose and useless. With a thrill, I opened to the inside front and back covers where I’d inked my earliest lists of memorable quotes in tiny black scrawl. I found my sought-after line in one of these old journals—a paragraph of a sentence, a study in complexity, a beauty, indeed.
But, in the spirit of competition, I thought it only fair to scan the rest of these lists before committing to Flaubert. And, low and behold, six quotes down in the same journal, my true winner lay. I knew it instantly. I remembered the quote. I remembered the moment I first read it. I remembered exactly why it moved me then. It still resonates as I read it now, eleven years later.
“To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.”
-Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Simple. An evocative image. In my mind, genius.
To be honest, I can’t tell you even the most basic plot summary of Midnight’s Children (without the aid of Google, of course). I remember loving it and being inspired to read more Rushdie afterwards, but the details of the story itself are long gone from my memory.
Long gone, except for that sentence. A sentence that, to my young, twenty-four-year-old self (back then, ahem), rang as one of the truest lines I’d ever encountered. I had just re-planted myself on American soil after a couple years abroad when I read Midnight’s Children. I was struggling to make sense of the cultural dissonance I felt at the time, of the fact of such vastly different societies existing at exactly the same time, of questions of fairness, of opportunity, of self-determination, of fate. In my conversations, I was struggling to convey accurate portrayals of the people I came to know while living abroad, just as I was struggling to avoid sweeping judgments of those at home who didn’t seem to understand my frustration.
Rushdie’s sentence, to me, explained these struggles. I read it as a truth, but also as a challenge—to seek understanding through consuming the whole story; to search for others’ humanity through layers upon layers of history. To accept complexity. To expect it. To desire it. After all, if one believes this line, people are never simple, nor are their stories.
It occurs to me now, rediscovering this sentence, that it’s not only an apt philosophy for life, but for writing as well. If our goal is to express truth on the page, whether writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, then shouldn’t we strive to embrace the complexity of our characters, both real and imagined? Shouldn’t we attempt to “swallow their worlds” in order to come out enlightened on the other side?
I vote yes (but if you vote no, I’ll try my darnedest to understand you!).
Now, I realize I’ve reached the end of this post and have not even attempted to dissect this sentence—to understand how it packs the oomph that it does. I’m ok with that. Perhaps my favorite amongst favorite sentences is better left untouched.
Karen Keating is a staff editor at Café Américain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.