“I thought it was a forceful name, a strong name. It has a kind of authority… I thought it was forceful and impressive and I still do… There’s something about German names, the German language, German things.”
“I have never been able to describe even my fictitious characters except by their actions. It has always seemed to me that in a novel the reader should be allowed to imagine a character in any way he chooses: I do not want to supply him with ready-made illustrations.”
“But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. for some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.”
I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire… To eradicate the experience of separation must inevitably have a dramatic effect. What will the consequence be? You know you can reach the other person anytime, and if you can’t, you get impatient—impatient and angry like a little stupid god. I understood that background silence had long been abolished from restaurants, elevators, and ballparks, but that the immense loneliness of human beings should produce this boundless longing to be heard, and the accompanying disregard for being overheard…
“There it was: the tactless severity of vital male youth, not a single doubt about his coherence, blind with self-confidence and the virtue of knowing what matters most. The ruthless sense of necessity. The annihilating impulse in the face of an obstacle. Those grand grandstand days when you shrink from nothing and you’re only right. Everything is a target; you’re on the attack; and you, and you alone, are right.”
Here’s an almost random sentence from Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer:
We talked about literature and I was in heaven—also in a sweat from the spotlight he was giving me to bask in.
An unassuming sentence at first, but it’s more complex than it looks. We expect our fine writing to be a little flowery or at least descriptive, but this is not: no adjectives! no interesting verbs! (If you’re a real pedant, you can point out that it even ends in a preposition.) Still, this is fine writing. It’s conversational, which hides some of the economy and skill.
Roth is leaning heavily on rhythm here. It’s not quite verse or meter, but you can read this out loud and know exactly how it should sound; there’s really no question of where to put the emphasis. He controls this especially well with the similar structures in the first half of the sentence: “We talked…”; “I was…” Noun and verb out of the way in two words each.
But the real reason this sentence works: it’s a joke. The only reason Roth gets away with the cliche “in heaven” is because he needs it for “in a sweat.” The dash sets off the punchline. It forces you into that joke timing. We have the measured stuff of the first half—but then it’s broken by that dash.
Think about if we phrased it differently. Let’s not even change any of Roth’s words, let’s just jostle some of the clauses:
We talked about literature and I was in heaven—also, from the spotlight he was giving me to bask in, in a sweat.
Isn’t this much worse? Forget the “in, in.” Doesn’t something feel wrong about the timing? It seems like my change should improve the sentence, since we don’t end with the clunky subordinate clause “the spotlight he was giving me to bask in.” But when we shoehorn in it there, the repeated elements of the joke get separated, too far apart to be funny. By the time you get to “in a sweat,” you’ve forgotten about “in heaven.” Roth’s clearly done some work here (or his ability to write in his voice is so good that he doesn’t need to). Even just take out the dash and see how flat it becomes:
We talked about literature and I was in heaven and in a sweat from the spotlight he was giving me to bask in.
Or make it a period, and the sentence changes from something that shows you how to read it into something you’d see on the internet today, on a middlebrow site with lots of snark and lists. A little less subtle:
We talked about literature and I was in heaven. Also in a sweat from the spotlight he was giving me to bask in.
Of course, jokes aren’t funny if you have to explain them. But you have to learn how to tell them somehow, right? We usually don’t think of prose as having timing, but Roth’s showing that verbal comedy isn’t too different. The writer still has tools to pull off the effects that would come across in his voice.