The Art of the Sentence: Vladimir Nabokov

Nathaniel Rich

“I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.” —Vladimir Nabokov, “A Guide to Berlin

I can’t choose a favorite sentence, but this one seems appropriate because it takes sentences as its subject.

The sentence, I’ll admit, has problems—the best sentences usually do. Too verbose, certainly. Some infelicitous repetitions: “ordinary,” “objects,” “every/everyday,” “future times”/“far-off times.” (What’s this? The comp lit student begs to differ: the repetitions are, in fact, “reflections” that evoke the “mirrors of future times.” Hmph. Maybe.) But the final clause makes up for any grammatical shortcomings. It is a sublime description of one of literature’s great powers: to distill the eternal from the stuff of plain everyday life.


Nathaniel Rich lives in New Orleans. He is the author of San Francisco Noir & The Mayor’s Tongue.