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Thu, 09 Feb 2006
I’ve just finished reading Lily Brett’s Just Like That. It took me a little while to get into it and I wasn’t quite sure why that was. Now that I’ve had time to reflect on it a bit, I can see several factors.
For one thing, I was a bit disinclined to be dragged back into all the horrors of the Holocaust. My visit to Auschwitz and the time I’ve spent with survivors and their children has been harrowing enough and I’m not strongly inclined to revisit. (Of course, it was far more harrowing for the victims; I’m talking about it as something that one might choose to be interested in, not as something that was forced by tragic circumstances.)
And, from past experience with her, I knew Lily Brett was pretty strong on the subject—and with very good reason. In the end, I got through the horrible bits of the book; they were only a small part of it and they were balanced by some hysterically funny material.
The other thing that made it hard for me to engage was more of a style thing. She writes succinctly. Most of her sentences are very short. And she piles them up. As a rule, I think short sentences that give a clear picture are admirable. And I’m certainly not the best person to be giving advice about sentence length, especially in view of one of my memorable experiences as a school kid (of which more below). But there was something too staccato and jarring, to my ears at least, in the early pages of this book. In time, as I got further into it and became interested in the story and the characters, I forgot my concerns with the language. And, once I realised that it was largely autobiographical, I just went with the story. At the end, I felt that it had been a really good book and I’m glad I read it.
My school story involved an English assignment which required a small piece of writing. We handed in our work, it was marked and handed back to us. Mine was not marked, but the teacher asked me to stand and read out the first sentence to the class. Being an idiot, I stood up and began reading. After a while, kids began to laugh. I kept reading, by now desperately searching for the full stop that would end my misery. I got to the bottom of the page, still on the first sentence. Finally, about halfway down page two, I found the beautiful full stop. I stopped and sat.
The teacher did admit that it was a well-constructed sentence, as was shown by the fact that I managed to read it out and make sense. But he was very clear that such long sentences were invariably a huge mistake. His final words were, “You’ll never be a writer, Joe Bloggs.” (Well, he didn’t really call me Joe Bloggs, but the name he used isn’t important now.)
I was mortified. I spent years trying to prove him wrong, in itself a strange thing to do since he was probably dead and would not have recognised any of the names I’ve used since then anyway. Perhaps that’s why I became a programmer.