Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Great Lines: Jason Elliot

Afghanistan occupies a powerful, constant place in the imagination of English travel writers. Perhaps it was Robert Byron, in his highly influential The Road to Oxiana (1937), who established the country as a crucial reference point and testing ground for writers. Or maybe the literary interest came out of an earlier fixation, one borne out of the wars of the nineteenth century and reinforced during later conflicts.

A recent contribution is Jason Elliot's An Unexpected Light (1999), from the introduction of which comes this sentence:

'It was the strangest thing, but as soon as we'd stepped out of the little plane onto Afghan soil, I felt as though some inner clock of mine, which had stopped since I had last been there, began to tick again: it was like going into a room which has stayed locked while the rest of the house has been lived in.' (p. 12)

Here are six reasons why I like it.
  1. At 60 words the sentence is long. I find this ignoring of the shorter is better rule interesting. It makes Elliot's use of punctuation a central part of his style, and in this way connects his writing to earlier, often criticised traditions that value rhetorical flourish.
  2. The punctuation creates a three-part sentence, an idea with three aspects, a house with three rooms.
  3. Momentum is carried by the conversational tone of the first part, a tone that loosens the sentence structure and establishes a reason for the tighter, increasingly figurative tone of the second and third.
  4. The similes are given purchase by the opening idea of physical arrival, and the expression and expansion of a link between the exterior and inner worlds of the writer. Physical arrival triggers an inner change.
  5. I understand what Elliot means: he expresses an idea that I can relate to my own experience of returning to Iceland, my country of birth.
  6. In its staggered movement from the outer to inner worlds, and in the sense of loss that it evokes, the sentence reminds me of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945), a personal favourite.
The book:
Elliot, Jason. An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan. Picador, 1999.