First You Write a Sentence by Joe Moran review – how good writing makes sense of the world
(From The Guardian. Link to the complete article given below)
On the first page of this book, Joe Moran quotes Gustave Flaubert’s claim (in a letter to his lover, Louise Colet) that his mind is always “itching” with sentences. Flaubert is Moran’s natural literary authority, because for him literature was style, and style came down to the shape and wording of sentences. Later interpreters might read Madame Bovary as an anatomy of sexual hypocrisy or class conflict or the pains of bourgeois marriage, but what the novelist really cared about were its sentences – their rhythm, their wit, their beauty.
Moran shares Flaubert’s values. His book recommends the pleasures of the well-made sentence, to writers and readers. For both, the sentence is the essential unit of expression. Moran remembers the Struldbruggs, the cursed immortals in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, who as they age lose even the solace of reading, “because their Memory will not serve to carry them from the Beginning of a Sentence to the End”. A sentence is what you hold in your head, whether it be Ernest Hemingway or Marcel Proust. A sentence is where you make sense of the world.
Moran says he wants to “hearten, embolden and galvanise the reader”, in order that he or she, as a writer, should take pains over making sentences. He does not want to call his book a style guide, a genre he associates with “prescriptions and proscriptions”. It is, rather, “a style guide by stealth”, “a love letter to the sentence”. It offers us bracing – and often sententious – sentences. “A good sentence gives order to our thoughts and takes us out of our solitudes … A sentence should feel alive, but not stupidly hyperactive.” Moran suggests good habits. He tells us to love verbs and to go easy with nouns, to “cut syllables where you can”, to think about ending a sentence on a stressed syllable, to alternate short and long sentences.