For expert writers like Bellow, Woolf, Carter and Nabokov, excess, somewhat paradoxically, is of the essence – so that excess might not even be the correct term after all. Life, they seem to say, is rarely transparent, and therefore neither are their sentences. More than this, their sentences do not merely reflect reality in any passive or apathetic sense, but actively work to create their own multiple realities. This is not to conflate their styles. They are fiercely individualistic writers. Excess serves very different functions for each of them, whether as an expression of wonder, adaptability, individuality, free will; or as a means of self-fashioning; even as a survival tactic. But whatever it embodies or performs, the sentence in their hands is expansive rather than constrictive. They demonstrate to us, again and again, that sentences are made up of multiple units – from the clause to the phrase to the individual word to the punctuation mark – and that each of these units can be its own little world, its own site of possibility. When the units are made to work in unison, the sentence becomes a powerful space of transformation and particularity that transcends any straightforward declarative utterance.

Above all else, language should be generous and liberating, and these writers remind us of the pure pleasure to be found in the free play and musicality of words. Their sentences sing rather than grumble or shout, and we are all the richer for them.

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