This weekend, my mother pressed on me a copy of Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages. I’m sure you all know Jackson as the author of The Lottery. That was one of the many classics I read, dutifully but far from enthusiastically, in school, and have sense forgotten completely, except for the central conceit of the story.
So, fine, I read Life Among the Savages. It’s kind of fun to read. Let me see. Looks like this book was first published in 1948. Seventy-one years ago. Wow. Well, as they say, the past is a foreign country. This little memoir is old enough to count as pretty foreign from modern experience.
But that isn’t the point of this post. The point is, I want to show you the first paragraph so that we can all pause in admiration of Jackson’s literary style. Here, take a look:
Our house is old, and noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books. I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books; we also own assorted beds and tables and chairs and rocking horses and lamps and doll dresses and ship models and paint brushes and literally thousands of socks. This is the way of life my husband and I have fallen into, inadvertently, as though we had fallen into a well and decided that since there was no way out we might as well stay there and set up a chair and a desk and a light of some kind; even though this is our way of life, and the only one we know, it is occasionally bewildering, and perhaps even inexplicable to the sort of person who does not have that swift, accurate conviction that he is going to step on a broken celluloid doll in the dark. I cannot think of a preferable way of life, except one without children and without books, going on soundlessly in an apartment hotel where they do the cleaning for you and send up your meals and all you have to do is lie on a couch and – as I say, I cannot think of a preferable way of life, but then I have had to make a good many compromises, all told.
That first sentence is eight words long. The second is fourteen. The third is fifty-two, but then there are all those items in the list, so it doesn’t read as though it’s extremely long. The fourth sentence is one hundred words long exactly, which causes me to entertain amusing thoughts about whether Jackson did that on purpose. The last sentence in the paragraph is seventy-two words long, so I gather that no, she just liked long sentences. Well, so do I, and artistic writing in general, not that I recall noticing artistry in The Lottery, as I was both much younger then and also distracted by the revolting situation described in the story.
Unlike The Lottery, I could hardly miss the artistry in the construction of this paragraph, beginning with the short, punchy sentence and then immediately slipping into these very long sentences, and ending with that entertaining non sequitur. In fact, I particularly like the last sentence, which certainly does set up expectations for the stories of family life that follow.
I also found myself thinking, Wow, people just can’t write like that anymore, which is probably both unfair and untrue, though when I read a book like this, I do see why my mother continually cycles back around to re-read old titles she’s had on her shelves for half a century and complains that she can’t find any modern mystery authors who can begin to match the old classics.
There were only sixty-nine words in the above sentence. Did it feel unusually long to anybody? I’d probably have broken it up into two sentences if I hadn’t been specifically playing with long sentences in this post.
Have you picked up anything lately in which the sentences as sentences immediately leaped out at you? When’s the last time that happened, if you can recall? Out of curiosity, was it for a book over fifty years old, or something more recent?