In one sentence alone I am reminded of Milne, Murakami, Swift and Sartre, with the faintest touch of the great Blyton herself. Throw in a handful of poetic paragraphs about irrigation in the seventeenth century, pepper with the matter-of-fact dialogue of three fifteen-year-olds and serve with a small side plate of oblique religious references and what more could you ask for from a children’s book?
One could say that Marc St.Martin was born too early. Many have done just that; few more forcefully than Heidi Kohlenberg, whose brusque obituary (appearing in last week’s Majfisk) claims that St.Martin ‘was so revolutionary, he had been and gone before the revolution even started’. I’m not sure I know what Miss Kohlenberg means by this, other than that St.Martin’s ideas were ahead of his time – which might be true, were if not for the fact that St.Martin wasn’t really a man of ideas. He was just a writer, yearning for the perfect sentence.
Writers of single sentences (‘one-liners’, if you will) have always been valued: this cannot be denied. One only has to look at the history of quotation collections to realise this. We have always been suckers for a witty line, delicately constructed and packing a silent punch. It suits our lazy sensibilities. Since the dawn of something called ‘twitter’, however, people have begun to get a little over-excited by brevity. The potentialities of the one well-worded sentence are much discussed; far rarely put into practice. ‘Twitter’ has a long way to go before it starts consistently spewing out brilliant one-liners – this much is certain.
Meanwhile, allow me to burst your hopeful bubbles and reveal to you now that Marc St.Martin, contrary to all the over-eager journalists who have treated his death as an excuse for poorly researched puff-pieces, was not and would never have been a ‘twitterer’ (or is it ‘tweeter’? I forget, and care not). Though he was, to the very end of his long life, a dedicated single sentence writer, the vast majority (if not all) of his sentences found happy homes within larger texts. Brevity was his thing, yes, but his brief creations always formed part of something larger. The perfect sentence, for him, was not a standalone piece. It was a cog in the machine. A smart and shiny cog, perhaps, but part of the machine all the same.
St.Martin was a writer for hire, it has been said; though it is important to realise that he fulfilled this unpopular role with glee. He wouldn’t have wished it any other way. He never sought for anything more than to contribute a wonderful sentence here or there; to work his magic, take his pay and slip away, safely, into the night.
Marc St.Martin, who died last week, was a great writer of sentences. Whole stories were, alas, beyond him; but when it came to the single sentence, there was no one better.
He wrote sentences that would turn a story on its head; that would say, between two full-stops, what others could not say between fifty. For this reason his friends would often ask him to solve problems in their manuscripts; to contribute a sentence (or two, if he was in the mood), for which he would be paid handsomely. In such a way St.Martin made his career as a writer – almost, if not completely, unknown to the general public (though well-paid, he was never named as a contributor).
Rumour has it, indeed, that some of the most famous lines in modern european literature were written by him. He can take no credit, however, for the ideas behind those lines, or for the great narratives of which they formed part. His vision was far too limited for that. Set him on the small tasks, though, and there was no stopping him. He truly was a master of the single sentence.
‘One of those nights in which you fall asleep only to dream of waking up.’ (Oa Aayorta, The Endless Winter Night)
I recall visiting an exhibition of photography in Vladivostock about seven years ago now. The title of the exhibition had something in common with the title of this post. Its content, meanwhile, consisted of photographs taken of famous places shortly before – or during – a dramatic event. All the pictures were unique in that they completly ignored – wilfully, or otherwise – the perceived ‘centre of things’. If a man was shot whilst riding in a car, they caught the dirt on the edge of the hubcaps. If the ground was shaking, they found a swallow flying in the sky above. If a deal was being made, they caught not the handshake, but the gleam in the shoes of the man standing four rows behind. The photos might as well have been taken on any other day – except that they weren’t. Their brilliance lay in capturing, and reminding us of, the humdrum details of famous days.
This is a trick that modern european writers pull off relatively frequently. It is also a trick that I will never tire of. We all live through dramatic events, but few of us experience the drama at first hand, or place it in the centre of our frames. We are always looking elsewhere; often to the side; often in another direction entirely. We are always in the slightly wrong place, at the slightly wrong time. And for this, I am strangely thankful.
‘Every second chapter goes’. Thus spake the late literary agent and editor Vlaka Vrod, not only one of the toughest critics I have ever met, but a much neglected influence on modern european fiction.
They used to call her the ‘diamond polisher’: certainly it cannot be denied that her fierce yet wise counsel saved us all from a deluge of rough-edged manuscripts. The truth, however, is that she was rather more clinical than this. She took to final drafts not with a polishing cloth, but with a pair of hefty sheers. Chopping was her game. She was a veritable book butcher. Nothing pleased her more than to lopwhole chapters off texts. On more than one occasion she turned a full-length novel into a short story with her judicious cuts.
Her favourite method, though, was to insist that ‘every second chapter goes’ – or, alternatively, ‘every second sentence’. Writers repeat themselves so much, she thought, that no one would notice the disappearance of half a book.
On top of this, she almost always advised that cuts should start at the very beginning. If every second chapter was to go, it would start with the first. ‘I have never met a writer who can write a first chapter straight off,’ she claimed in a 1987 interview, ‘but most of them write perfect second chapters that will work just as well’.
Unsurprisingly, this method irked many, not least Casimir Löepchitz, who tried more than fifteen times to get a first chapter past Vrod. Her response was always negative. ‘You amble, you dither, you snake,’ she wrote in reply: ‘you are altogether too self-conscious at the start. Your first chapter must go, as always. But don’t ever neglect to write it. It is always worth you writing your first chapter, to get going, but it will never be worth publishing. The reader, as ever, must start with the second’.
A few days ago I posed three questions. Here are my answers:
1. It depends on what he means by ‘low point’. Turgidovsky’s fiction is deliberately depressing; in one sense, therefore, his novels are as ‘low’ as novels can get. If it is a question of quality, however, one must disagree with the critic in question. Turgidovsky may be an embittered misanthrope with a heart of coal, but he wields a semi-colon with the confidence of a classical master.
For all this, my experience of Andrey Torg suggests that to take him seriously is to wilfully waste the time of the world and oneself. Hyperbole is his plaything: he means not what he says, because he knows not what he means.
2. A title is just a title – or is it? A wise man once said that if a title is the front door of a book, than a clever reader ought to enter via the first-floor window. On top of this, I find that many titles suffer greatly in translation. In Spanish it may seem like a sensible idea to put a fruit in a title of a novel; in English it strikes one as desperate. There was a trend, once; a time in which the sounds chimed brightly. Now I only have to see the word ‘mango’ or ‘apricot’ in a book title to walk the other way.
3. There remains something of a difference of opinion over whether Yevgony Nonik ever existed, let alone when he died. I maintain, nevertheless, that I was either a.) in the bath, b.) reading a book or c.) engaging in a spot of illegal elvering.