One of the reasons it is so important to set up and maintain a regular routine of reading is that we have to put ourselves in front of—see and examine and estimate—the language that good writers write. Without models, it is terribly difficult, if not ultimately impossible, to achieve what we aspire to; with models, we can think about the reasons behind the choices an author has made in sentence structure and design, and keep our eye on where the boundaries are today on standard and acceptable usage—a line that is always moving.
I am reading at the moment a beautiful and I think profound novel called The River Below by Franҫois Cheng, a Chinese-born French novelist, poet, and calligrapher. Among any number of provocative passages is this:
Once again, the youth of China were on the alert, idealistic, young people still concerned about their country’s destiny; who since the beginning of the century had been in the vanguard each time the country was in danger of suffocation and death; who at the beginning of the war had not hesitated to participate en masse in every resistance activity.
I call this passage provocative not for its ideas but for its punctuation, and although Cheng’s novel was originally published in French and we can wonder about what the punctuation looks like in that language, we have before us a reputable translation and so can accept what has been published as it has been published (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2000). The passage gives us a fruitful chance to read grammatical structure very closely and hear echoes of implications that might otherwise pass us by.
We are tempted first to complain about the comma after idealistic: we would standardly regard young people as a compound noun, and so idealistic, its adjective, should not be separated from it by a comma. But where is our understanding brought if we accept the construction as it stands? We would then have to regard the comma after idealistic, and too the comma after alert, as marking an ellipsis, an omission of words that implies an idea without explicitly stating it. Commas often indicate such omissions, but not usually in so involved a way as here. Given the punctuation as we have it, we are compelled to read this opening portion of the sentence as: Once again, the youth of China were on the alert; they were idealistic and they were young people still concerned about their country’s destiny.
The commas, in other words, are marking two further predications (were idealistic and were young people) moving underneath the original sentence. These ideas appear stealthily, not openly; they pull us into the sentence like an undertow off the shore, and as we read further into the sentence, that unexpected style continues with the unusual use of semicolons, not commas, before the two relative pronouns: who since the beginning and who at the beginning. The cumulative effect of all this is that the passage builds in its presence and strength of assertion, just like the youth about which the author is writing.
Such close reading hones in us the skill to read between the lines, to find what is implied, and to realize that irony often abounds in a world we might be too quick to take as self evident and so misread. Keeping close to structure prevents us from slipping off into mere subjectivity, a private vision that only isolates us even more from the world and others. But closely reading what we have before us and examining it according to the rules and requirements of the craft of writing, we can sometimes see more insightfully into an author’s vision and assume for ourselves the same techniques. Thus it is that writers read.