Fantastic Paragraphs (i)

When it comes to paragraphs in academic writing, I can think of no better approach than Joseph Williams’s as explained in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. I often teach a distilled version of Williams’s model for coherent and cohesive paragraphs, but his explanation is far more nuanced and capacious than what I cover in workshops.

But for this series of posts what I’m interested in is primarily the ways that creative writers use and abuse the form of the paragraph for effects of various kinds: humour, surprise, reflections of a character’s deranged mind, etc. These strange and interesting paragraphs get much of their power from how they deviate from our expectations of what a paragraph should do.

My first “case study” is a paragraph early in one of the most incredible novels I’ve read recent, Gerard Murnane’s Border Districts (2017). Impossible to explain, this novel is one of my top-ranked books of recent years, generally similar–but only very generally–to other amazing novels including Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. I think you can get a fairly good sense of the novel from the paragraph I quote, in which the elderly narrator reflects, over the course is many paragraphs, on his Catholic upbringing. Here it is:

The Holy Ghost, called nowadays the Holy Spirit, was sometimes referred to as the forgotten person of the Blessed Trinity. Not only did I never forget him; he was by far my favourite of the three divine persons. When I was in my tenth year and attending a school conducted by a different order of brothers from those mentioned earlier, my class teacher was a young layman who was in love with the Virgin Mary. He claimed no more than to have a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, as he mostly called her, but I, who was continually falling in love with personages known to me only from illustrations in newspapers or magazines or from fictional texts–I never doubted that my teacher was truly in love. More than thirty years later, while I was reading some or another passage in the fiction of Marcel Proust about the odd ways of some of another character in love, I remembered that my teacher of long ago would use any pretext for bringing the name of his beloved into classroom discussions. I sensed that my classmates were embarrassed by our teacher’s special devotion, as he called it, but I felt a certain sympathy for him. I was not in love with Mary, but I felt as though I ought to have been so. Of course the name Mary hereabout denotes a mental image. My trouble was that I had never seen on any picture or statue of Mary such a face as I was apt to fall in love with. More than ten years later, I saw too late just such a face as would have won me over earlier. I have not forgotten that this paragraph began as an account of my liking for the Holy Ghost.

Gerard Murnane, Border Districts (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2017): 25-6.