And they pop up in the strangest places. Hunter Biden – assuming he wrote his memoir; and it looks as though he did – turns out to be a good writer. One sentence from his book has been quoted rather a lot, and if we look at it closely, we can see why.

“Our relationship began as a mutually desperate grasping for the love we had both lost, and its dissolution only deepened that tragedy.”

He’s talking about his affair with his brother’s widow.

Why is this a very good sentence? Well, concision would be part one. See how his complex sentence manages to cover a lot of time, a before as well as an after, without going on and on, or needing to break into multiple shorter sentences? That one little comma after “lost” does all the work, balancing the reader on an edge of expectation (comma? what next?), and then fulfilling in a very satisfying way that expectation. Note that the sentence is both straightforwardly chronological (this happened; then that happened) and emotionally, philosophically, chronological (we were naive; now we are sadder but wiser). The sentence delicately captures a complex, uber-proustian irony: those who go desperately grasping after lost love will only learn all the more painfully just how lost that love is. Biden throws in alliteration, too, to lend the sentence rhythm: love/lost; dissolution/deepened. And a lesser writer might not have known to end the sentence on its strongest word: tragedy.

In its dissolution, the tragedy only deepened is less interesting – indeed, it’s inching toward the maudlin. And that’s the last point SOS will make about this sort of content: it’s rife with maudlin-danger. Note how Biden avoids that throughout, offering a simple, direct, stoical, controlled, dignified tone.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The last line of Gatsby captures the beat of Biden’s sentence, its terrible and true two-step.

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4 Responses to “Scathing Online Schoolmarm says: Some people are just good writers.”

  1. Greg Says:

    It is well done.

    For fun, I tried rewriting it to avoid “tragedy,” preferring the simpler “loss.” But perhaps this is one of those occasions in which the t word is apt, either literally, or as a hyperbolic, but emotionally accurate, approximation to subjective truth. And “lost” and “loss” (which I’d like to use) may be too repetitive in one sentence – or even in two or three adjacent sentences – unless there is a very good balance of reasons pointing in that direction. One might use “it” instead of “tragedy,” but that requires a reader to work a little too hard to find the right antecedent – which for me would be “loss.”

    If I could think of something simpler than “relationship” that is equivalent, I might have substituted. Probably, unfairly, “relationship” hits me, at first, as overused and a bit jargony. But not only is there no simple real substitute, but the r word does hint at the complex strands of what went on in the deeper past and in more recent times. And actually “relationship” strikes me as jargony or facile only in certain contexts of, say, youngish “love” with lots of hand wringing.

    Recently I’ve been rereading Proust. I’m near the middle of “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.” However I will admit to missing the suggestion of factors of time in the Biden quotation, which you admirably excavate.

    I’d green light (or Egg on) any analysis that makes good use of Gatsby.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Greg: I too think “tragic” is overused (“Tragically, the cat got stuck in the tree.”); but here the larger theme is an apparently very good – even noble? – man dying young, and okay.

  3. Greg Says:

    I do think that “tragic” is overused. But my larger interest is an open-minded one in what’s appropriate for today, when the echos of the almost superhuman classical world are largely gone. And perhaps, even for the most sensitive and scrupulous of current writers, the interactions of so many sorts sadness and unintended consequences might easily qualify. Bo’ s death and the totality of its circumstances when it happened, the positive parts of Hunter and Bo’s widow’s connection with each other and the past, the inevitable cost in guilt of those positive parts, the effect on Joe, how that reverberated with Bo and Joe’s former D-I-L. It’s all certainly multi-vectored and complex enough to merit a powerful word. (Confession: I don’t know even the published the details of what transpired.)

    A little clarification. I’d never correct someone who suffered a substantial loss in their use of “tragedy” not even by using a substitute word right after. That’s pedantry over compassion, and, besides, the degree and nature of someone else’s pain is unknowable. Also don’t want to be understood as suggesting that actual love among the very young is impossible. My point was that people who talk excessively about relationships are a little suspect to me. Still that word is often indispensable. Finally, with respect to Proust, there is almost no real love in those seven volumes – just Marcel Mom and Grams, certainly not young Gilberte or Albertine. Still there is enough of almost everything else in life to make very gradual, non-exclusive, lifelong rereading unavoidable for me. Finally, finally Anatole France’s Revenge of the Angels is proving a hoot.

  4. Greg Says:

    Oops “The Revolt of the Angels.”

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