Seeing Structure

Even in translation, great writers have much to teach us about composition and style. Here is an excerpt from one very long sentence from Anton Chekhov’s short story Gooseberries. The passage here comprises the first two-thirds of a 119-word sentence, and its architectonic structure is surely the first reason the towering sentence does not fall to the ground in confusion. I reproduce it here from 100 Great Short Stories, edited by James Daley (Dover, 2015); no translator is named. I have set in boldface and underlined certain words to make reference easier.

And only when the lamp was lit in the large drawing-room up-stairs, and Bourkin and Ivan Ivanich, dressed in silk dressing-gowns and warm slippers, lounged in chairs, and Aliokhin himself, washed and brushed, in a new frock coat, paced up and down evidently delighting in the warmth and cleanliness and dry clothes and slippers, and pretty Pelagueya, noiselessly tripping over the carpet and smiling sweetly, brought in tea and jam on a tray, only then did Ivan Ivanich begin his story….

Let’s look first at the last eight words: only then did Ivan Ivanich begin his story. This independent clause is the central pillar of the passage; it states the idea to which everything before it is leading, and its opening adverbial phrase, only then, marks a sense of time which works correlatively with the phrase only when at the very beginning of the passage. The word when is a temporal subordinating conjunction, which means it introduces a thought (a clause) that points to some circumstance in which the action of the main clause is occurring. Here the word when appears only once but in fact introduces four clauses: when the lamp was lit, [when] Bourkin and Ivan Ivanich lounged, [when] Aliokhin paced, and [when] Pelagueya brought in. The verbs of each of these four clauses are underlined above.

The fact that the subordinating conjunction when appears only once while it governs four separate clauses is, if not usual, not problematic either. Such an omission of words which are otherwise grammatically or logically necessary is called ellipsis, and it is a widely common device all of us use all the time in conversation. What is curious here, though, is the internal structure of the last three of the four subordinate clauses. Between the subject Bourkin and Ivan Ivanich and its predicate lounged in chairs, there is the subordinate element dressed in silk dressing-gowns and warm slippers, an adjective phrase describing the subject; we can see, then, a compositional design of subject + subordinate element + verb. That same design then appears again in the next clause, which is still governed by the elliptical when: Aliokhin himself, the subject, paced up and down, the verb, and washed and brushed, in a new frock coat the intervening subordinate element. And then a third time in the final clause of the trio: Pelagueya, the subject, brought in, the verb, and noiselessly tripping over the carpet and smiling sweetly the subordinate element between the two. A masterful triadic design.

And it is this triadic structure which accounts for the stability of such a long passage and even longer sentence, for the sentence in its entirety continues another 38 words after the section I have extracted for analysis. If we were to regard this passage as a complete statement in itself, it would comprise what is called a periodic sentence, one that begins with subordinate elements and concludes with the independent clause. The initial subordinate clauses of this particular periodic sentence, though, would each have, as we have seen, subordinate elements of their own, and so the effect is to descend and rise, descend and rise, three times from subject to predicate as we are taken through the circumstances that precede Ivan Ivanich’s finally beginning his story. A grand, almost panoramic scene is set as the tale begins.

It is important to remember that such close analysis like this is meant to serve awareness. Understanding the compositional structure of a passage not only brings a more vivid enjoyment of the reading—as when we might marvel all the more knowing the harmonics of a musical phrase that so moves us or knowing the techniques a gymnast has employed to suddenly leap and twirl and land so balanced and poised—but also teaches us how we might begin to do new things with our own sentences. We are, as the psychologists say, to internalize what we become so consciously aware of, one day surprising ourselves that we might just be able to do something we didn’t think we could.


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