Sunday, March 30, 2014

What Was #Nabokov's Best Sentence?

An interesting article, instantly pounced upon by the good folks at NPR, claims to identify the unidentifiable: The ten finest sentences in English literature. The editors at The American Scholar came up with some doozies, including this fine one from my hero Vladimir Nabokov:

"There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child." (LOLITA)

I admit that sentence is a certifiable jaw-dropper, but when I saw it on the list, my own American Scholar fought back with a fierce counterpoint:  "There are at least a dozen other sentences from LOLITA that could have, should have eclipsed that." (The article was attempting to generate such intense responses, I think.)

This sudden, righteous impulse led me to a question: If I were assembling such a list, what would Nabokov's entry have been in my article?

This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. I found I couldn't come up with just one. Something within me began whispering, "Blog post, blog post."

Fine. Below, a bouquet of charmed sentences from the Pre-Eminent Dead Twentieth-Century Writer of Fiction in English, according to your humble obedient correspondent. Each of these cast a spell on me far deeper than the one The American Scholar quoted. With some difficulty, I have limited myself to ten perennials.

"Nature had once produced an Englishman whose domed head had been a hive of words; a man who had only to breathe on any particle of his stupendous vocabulary to have that particle live and expand and throw out tremulous tentacles until it became a complex image with a pulsing brain and correlated limbs." (BEND SINISTER)

“And she was mine, she was mine, the key was in my fist, my fist was in my pocket, she was mine.” (LOLITA)

"It suddenly occurred to me that I was demented and about to do something stupid." (LOLITA)

"And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night -- every night -- the moment I feigned sleep." (LOLITA)

"If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece." (PALE FIRE)

"And he absolutely had to find her at once to tell her that he adored her, but the large audience before him separated him from the door, and the notes reaching him through a succession of hands said that she was not available; that she was inaugurating a fire; that she had married an American businessman; that she had become a character in a novel; that she was dead." (PALE FIRE) 

"The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglebooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody." (PNIN)

"Time is rhythm: the insect rhythm of a warm humid night, brain ripple, breathing, the drum in my temple—these are our faithful timekeepers; and reason corrects the feverish beat." (ADA)

"In other more deeply moral worlds than this pellet of muck, there might exist restraints, principles, transcendental consolations, and even a certain pride in making happy someone one does not really love; but on this planet, Lucettes are doomed." (ADA) (Note from YT: Lucette has committed suicide.)

"I hastened to quench a thirst that had been burning a hole in the mixed metaphor of my life ever since I had fondled a quite different Dolly thirteen years earlier."(LOOK AT THE HARLEQUINS!)

And here's a bonus Nabokov sentence that didn't come from a novel, and thus, I suspect, would not have been eligible for consideration, but still rocks my world every time I read it. As happens so often in his epic sentences, this one cheats by means of a semicolon. You and I can't get away with such stuff.

“Literature was not born the day when a boy crying 'wolf, wolf' came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels; literature was born on the day when a boy came crying 'wolf, wolf' and there was no wolf behind him.” (LECTURES ON LITERATURE)

Another bonus is in order for all my fellow Nabokov freaks who made it this far. (Hi +Adella Wright , hi +Nina MJ , hi +Ksenia Anske, hi +Dave Toropov !) Here's a great contemporary interview with Nabokov on LOLITA, which simultaneously enraged and hypnotized Eisenhower's America.

If you've read great sentences from Nabokov, Joyce, Faulkner, A.S. Byatt, Joan Didion or anyone else that floored you, and somehow didn't show up on The American Scholar's list, I'd love to hear what they are.