In V. S. Naipaul’s novel Half a Life, a boy is waging a battle, mostly silent, with his father, through stories he writes and leaves lying around strategically at home. One day the boy, Willie, is home from school for lunch and sees his exercise book still untouched.
Willie thought in his head, in English, “He is not only a fraud, but a coward.” The sentence didn’t sound right; there was a break in the logic somewhere. So he did it over. “Not only is he a fraud, but he is also a coward.” The inversion in the beginning of the sentence worried him, and the “but” seemed odd, and the “also.” And then, on the way back to the Canadian mission school, the grammatical fussiness of his composition class took over. He tried out other versions of the sentence in his head, and he found when he got to the school that he had forgotten his father and the occasion.
This passage, even apart from cultural, familial, and psychological complications, is interesting from the point of view of grammar and style. I’m curious about what ‘didn’t sound right’ to Willie in the first formulation of the line. What ‘break in the logic’ does he feel?
Is it the lack of ‘also’, which is often, though not always, included in the formula? (See my post on not only . . . but (also) for discussion.) Does the unnecessary comma detract from the emotional force of the thought? Or is it something deeper, a dissatisfaction with the idiom’s sly redirection of a negative?
And why, recasting the expression, does the inversion worry Willie? How does the ‘but’ seem odd, and the ‘also’? Are they odd in combination, or would either alone sound odd too? Do the particular nouns fraud and coward contribute to the problem? Or does it arise because English is not his first language?
These questions are pretty much moot, since we don’t know exactly what Willie, or Naipaul, thinks about not only . . . but (also) beyond those few lines. But with an author’s magnifying glass suddenly held above the idiom, it’s fun to speculate. It’s also amusing that Willie delves so deeply into the mechanics of syntax, he completely forgets his domestic angst.