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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Art of the Sentence: Christopher Isherwood
“You can feel them all around you, to-night, creeping in upon the city, like an immense waste of unhomely ocean—sprinkled with leafless copses and ice-lakes and tiny villages which are remembered only as the outlandish names of battlefields in half-forgotten wars.” Christopher Isherwood, “Berlin Diary,” Berlin Stories
There isn’t a lot of music in the sentences of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Instead, throughout the book he mostly sticks to the maxim “I am a camera” (a line that shows up early in Goodbye, Berlin, the second half of Berlin Stories) and uses clean, simple prose to display Weimar Germany cracking and breaking all around him.
But then, in the opening of “Berlin Diary,” the last section of the book, we get this stunner. Here is a sentence that contains so much: it moves, it has mystery, it transports. It’s the kind of strange, dreamy sentence I’d love to write myself—a sentence that contains a whole world, a sentence that plunges you into that world and makes you react physically to it.
To my thinking, this sentence has three parts. Here’s the first: “You can feel them all around you, to-night, creeping in upon the city, like an immense waste of unhomely ocean…” That “them,” by the way, refers to the Prussian plains. Immediately, through the “you,” we’re placed at the heart of this sentence. We “feel” the plains, and it’s a little terrifying, a little overwhelming, as they’re “all around” us. Not only that, but we’re under attack—the plains are “creeping in upon the city,” where we are waiting through the night. Maybe such analysis seems unnecessary. But the point is that Isherwood has a choice. He has something that on its surface seems drab, and could be served just as well by a drab description. After all, what seems more boring than the Prussian plains? Instead, he makes them come alive—actually alive—and so begins the work of building, in just this one sentence, a vibrant world around us.
I confess, I’m not sure about the last half of this first part. I’m all for “immense waste”—it piles on even more of that oppressive feeling generated by the swarming plains. But “unhomely ocean”? That might be a bit too hard to untangle. You have to think back from homely to unhomely to figure out what’s being said here, and by then the moment is gone. And once you do translate “unhomely” and spackle it into your brain next to the rest of the sentence’s images, you’re left with a nothing word. But perhaps we can say that it carries a strangeness (even if it actually seems to imply an OK-looking plainness), and so earns at least half its keep.
On to the second part: “—sprinkled with leafless copses and ice-lakes and tiny villages…” This series of three images seems a tidy whole in and of itself. It works simply. The three two-word images add texture to those menacing plains. And, too, we get the feeling of winter’s cold without the explicitness of stating this cold. Rather, the details work to make us feel it—the “leafless copses and ice-lakes” touch off an entire bitter winter in the reader. And while, again, these descriptions are simple, in and of themselves not astounding, they work to efficiently fill out the world Isherwood is painting for us without straining the sentence’s forward momentum. We leap ahead, getting a firmer view of these Prussian plains with each landing until we come to those “tiny villages,” which leads to the sentence’s third part.
The entire sentence has been dealing in mystery—the creeping plains, the ice-lakes. Prussia has been made into a fairy world. But now the world is particularized as history is brought in: “…tiny villages, which are remembered only as the outlandish names of battlefields in half-forgotten wars.” Instead of firming the plains in our mind, though, with this language the mystery deepens. The wars are “half-forgotten,” the names are “outlandish.” This is a place that has been looked over, that has been marginalized (even as it has shaken the world more than once before and is about to do it again). To the English-speaking reader, the book’s audience, it is wholly foreign, and with this last part of the sentence Isherwood heightens that foreignness, perhaps to remind us, lest we become too easily assured by the straightforward prose of the rest of the book, that the Berlin he has been taking us to is a wholly different place, a place where the various expectations of normality, of limits, does not apply.
Few sentences stand up to the scrutiny of isolation. Perhaps this one doesn’t. Perhaps we need the context of the other sentences around it, the way they build toward this moment. But I picked this sentence for a reason. It stopped me when I first read it, and held up as I looked over it again and again. Isherwood does, in just this one sentence, what I most want fiction to do—he creates a whole, living world that consumes us.
Ben Stroud is the author of Byantium: Stories. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, One Story, Electric Literature, Antioch Review,Best American Mystery Stories, New Stories from the South, and other places.