Yesterday, the Pulitzer committee, for the first time since 1977, did not award a prize for fiction. Perhaps it was because literature today just doesn’t measure up to that of yesteryear. With that in mind, I’d like to give you a sentence from what many believe is the greatest novel ever written.
Go ahead and read it, but first a word of warning. Not out loud, because unless you’re a star underwater swimmer, you’ll pass out long before you get the to end. Here goes:
"Universally that person’s acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitably by mortals with sapience endowed to be studied who is ignorant of that which is the most doctrine erudite and certainly by reason of that in them high mind’s ornament deserving of veneration constantly maintain when by general consent they affirm that other circumstances being equal by no exterior splendor is the prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted by the measure of how far forward may have progressed the tribute of its solicitude for the proliferent continuance which of evils the original if it be absent when fortunately present constitutes the certain sign of omnipotent nature’s incorrupted benefaction."
Just rolls off the proverbial tongue, doesn’t it?
Then again, if someone were to ask you to come up with a sentence that’s pure highfalutin gibberish, could you do a better job . . .
. . . than . . .
Yep. That’s from Ulysses. I know what you’re thinking, I took it out of context. That’s why it doesn’t make sense.
Trouble is, in Ulysses there is no there, there. Honestly, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, there's way more there in Oakland.
Sure, you could whip out your dictionary, your scholarly texts and first decipher, then resolutely deconstruct that sentence.
But . . . why?
My point is that often what passes for great literature is really the emperor’s new clothes. It’s scary to point out that there's really not much, um, there. So instead we pretend to see great merit in it, and as a result we don’t actually see it at all.
And when we're walking around blind, we make all kinds of mistakes. That might be what motivated the American Book Review to proclaim that the all time best opening sentence of any novel is:
. . . wait for it . . .
"Call me Ishmael."
Think about it. The goal of an opening sentence is to lure the reader in. To suggest that all is not as it seems, to arouse our curiosity.
Would that sentence do that? Of course not. It's a name tag. So why did they pick it then? Because, sheesh, Moby-Dick is a classic. My guess is that they picked it because they’d already read the book, and much more important, knew of its undeniable stature.
But let’s reflect on this for a minute. Can you image an aspiring writer opening her debut novel with, “Call me Nimrod,” and having agents read no further than that before calling her to say: “Oh my god, that opening sentence, it’s brilliant. It might be the best-written first sentence ever! Where do I send the million dollars?”
Why not pick up Gone With the Wind instead. Which, back in 1937, actually did win the Pulitzer. I’m just saying . . .
What do you think? And, if you want to deconstruct that sentence from Ulysses, please do!