19 December 2010

commas and just one semi-colon


Back in September, I blogged about Muriel Barbery's use of the comma in her novel The elegance of the hedgehog. I'm now reading Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt and there's a wonderful sentence that uses commas in quite an extraordinary way: series within series with just commas and only one semi-colon. The passage appears on page 202 in the Vintage International paperback edition and it reads:

"The children themselves, of whom there were perhaps fifty or sixty in the Tower, were not present at this oration, for various ladies had voluntarily taken upon themselves to teach the little creatures the skills of the old civilisation, to wit, reading, writing, figuring, languages, dead and alive, sewing, plain and ornamental, drawing and painting, singing, dancing, playing on flutes, fiddles, tambourines and glockenspiel, making paper carnations, cooking little cakes, observing such humble creatures as spiders, lizards, flies, cockroaches, earthworms and mice; also the growth of beans and mustard seeds."

That single semi-colon is wonderful as a sort of delicacy.

The novel includes two narratives: one set in the present day about a woman rediscovering herself after escaping an abusive marriage and another set in undetermined time, rather medieval or post-apocalyptic. The two stories have some parallels and not. The book was recommended by an artist friend, Moira Kelly, who gave me a little evangelical pamphlet which I decided became an artist's book even though Moira's intervention in the creation of the book was merely the act of giving it to me, with enthusiasm and spontaneity during the NY Art Book Fair which, again this year, blew my socks off at P.S. 1.

(The image is Pieter Brueghel's "Tower of Babel" which is in the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Vienna. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)

2 comments:

bklynbiblio said...

I think you know that I LOVE A.S. Byatt, and certainly it's her technique of writing that is part of what I love. She's quite Germanic in her training, to the point where some of her descriptions can be exhausting reading them. She frequently uses partial run-on sentences at times, but she manipulates the rules of grammar so well, figuring out exactly when commas and semi-colons can be powerful, as you so aptly point out. The last phrase after the semi becomes a precious gem of imagery unto itself as a result. And just for the hell of it, the word glockenspiel gets thrown in there as well. Truly delectable textual imagery. I haven't read Babel Tower yet, so I'm looking forward to it, but Paul R. happened to give me Muriel Barbery's book for Christmas, so I must read that first.

Roberto said...

Sherman, my friend, I wrote a poetic follow-up comment about commas and Barbery, but the damn blogger software deleted my whole comment! In any case, I wanted to let you know that I just finished reading Barbery's book and simply loved it. The comma chapter was hilarious, and it justified my own reactive insanity when I see such abuses of grammar in the world. I wish I could read French fluently, because I have no doubt the original text for the book probably used exquisite language that only added to the book's content. As for the denouement...what can I say but that I now have a mission to seek out and appreciate "camellias" in whatever form they may take.