I have been thinking about the moment when I first thought analytically about prose. It happened sometime during my English Language A-level. I had a combative, Harold Bloom-esque relationship with my teacher, Miss M – a vivid and brilliant woman whom I would now adore and treat with the respect she deserved rather than trying to cast her as a chief antagonist in the equally vivid psychodrama I was acting out at the time. It was Miss M who transformed how I thought about writing, with one simple comment in the margins of an essay. In the final sentence of this (hand-written) essay, I crossed out the last adjective I used. Miss M red-penned the excision and wrote alongside it, “No,
you needed it to balance the previous one.”
Boom. Neurones fired. Brain asploded. Suddenly I understood that not only could I select words, but that through conscious choice I could organise them to better effect. What that simple comment told me was that it was not enough to understand the meaning of words (to have at my disposal a wide and precise vocabulary) or to know their history (to understand how words form and slip and slide and form again, to know about their texture and their patina), but that I could think about my own writing analytically. What I learned was not more words or more about words – but to think about my crafting of words. This considered organisation of words was where the real precision engineering happened, I realised. I stopped thinking in terms of words and I started thinking in terms of sentences.
Now, this comment of Miss M’s fell on particularly receptive ground. As well as my English Language A-level, I was studying/struggling with Latin A-level (through which I learned what grammar I know), and also history, with a strong emphasis on effective argument. I was obsessed with the idea of language (as distinct from a language or literature: I fumble around in anything not English, and I am badly read). And it’s been my observation over the years that something fascinating happens to the late- or immediately post-teenage brain. The sponge-like absorption of information shifts up a gear – as if the mind suddenly has a big enough bank of data to start making meaningful connections. It begins to analyse, to organise. It’s the most exciting moment to watch: the human being hovering between innocence and experience. Words, information about words: these are no longer enough for this new complexity. Sentences, at once bounded and supple, are the very least it requires.
All of which brings me to the Sister Fidelma mysteries by Peter Tremayne, and how they remind me why sentences matter so much to me, as reader and writer. These cosy historical detective novels, reminiscent of the Cadfael series by Ellis Peters, are set in seventh-century Europe, and revolve around an Irish nun and lawyer, Sister Fidelma, and her Saxon foil, Brother Eadulf. Together they fight crime rather than resolve the sexual tension between them. From the outside, then, there are plenty of pleasures on offer: there’s information about seventh-century Irish legal and social systems and the differences between Celtic and Roman Christianity; flame-haired Sister Fidelma is not only a scholar and proto-feminist but knows some handy martial arts; there’s some decent description here and there. But the sentences – the nuts and bolts – are driving me mad.
I’m going to pick for an example only one; rather harshly, it’s the opening sentence of the second Sister Fidelma mystery, Shroud for the Archbishop:
“The night was warm and fragrant; but as oppressively scented as only a Roman summer’s night can frequently be.”
And with that “frequently”, I am lost. Because that single word gives me a glimpse into the author’s mind as he writes, and I sense him second-guess himself (perhaps he has suddenly recalled a chilly August night once spent in Rome). He covers himself with “frequently”, and his sentence – already heavy with adverbs – collapses with the weight of yet another, and with the burden of the author’s moment of self-doubt. Instead of describing this particular summer night in Rome, the author’s thoughts stray to other nights; rather than dismiss them as extraneous to his sentence, he instead conjures them up in the reader’s mind too. But that means that this night, the night upon which murder will (presumably) occur, is displaced in our minds. Our thoughts also stray to those other rarer summer nights, when the heat and the scent were perhaps not so oppressive, and we wonder about them, and what made them cooler and sweeter, and whether we might prefer them to this one. The author, trying to capture within the bounds of his sentence one extra thought, over-reaches, and slips – and loses my faith in his ability to carry me. One stray adverb, one extraneous thought – that’s all it takes.
There are other problems on a nuts and bolts level with these books, mostly to do with the way that characters move within scenes, either across a setting, or in relation to each other. It’s a tricky one, and whenever I’ve struggled with this, it’s usually because I’m picturing the scene unfolding as film or television rather than imagining it happening to my protagonist (fundamentally, whatever the books may say, narrative prose is about story-telling, not story-showing). But I picked this particular example because I think it demonstrates how crafting a sentence is about the organisation of thought, the inclusion of relevant words, the excision of extraneous words, and the process of deciding which is which. That, I think, is a much trickier prospect than knowing stuff, and knowing stuff about stuff. Early-teenage me would have soaked up the detail in these books, revelled in it, loved the simple but well-pitched tension built into the relationships and backgrounds of the two main protagonists – and good for her. But late-teenage me had begun to wonder: Why is that adverb there? Why does my instinct tell me that it shouldn’t be? For which – thank you Miss M, and I’m sorry I was such a difficult student.