46 Great Opening Lines: 22

In Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, which adorns numerous war memorials around Australia, there is a verse that every Australian knows:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…

Opening line of the Author’s Note, Desert Boys, Peter Rees, 2012

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I’ve heard the line ‘They shall grow not old…’ every year of my life, yet it still catches me out. Wars need poets.

Australian soldiers in North Africa, 1941/42

When I look at the photo above from my father’s World War Two album, taken during his time in North Africa in 1941/42, I wonder whether these soldiers fell or grew old. Unfortunately the photo is uncaptioned and I have no names for them. They seem to be posing, demonstrating a lesson in warfare.

I’m struck by its similarity to the image on the cover of Desert Boys by Peter Rees, a book about Australian soldiers who fought in the desert in both world wars. In each photo there are five young Australian men in helmets, focusing on something to their left. Perhaps these cover men are also posing. In any case, their photos remind us that they went to the desert to fight, and may not have returned to grow old.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 21

On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.

Opening line, Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Constance Garnett

Last night I could have written:

On an exceptionally hot evening early in January a middle-aged couple came out of the house in which they lodged in H. Street and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards C. bridge.

Yesterday evening and this evening are the endings of exceptionally hot days in Canberra. Today, 39 degrees.

Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra, dusk yesterday

Perhaps you didn’t imagine Dostoyevsky’s character walking towards a bridge like this one. Rather, since I don’t have any photos of Russian bridges, you might have seen him heading for a bridge resembling this old one in Cairo, where the evenings are undoubtedly hot:

English Bridge, Cairo, nightime, c1941

I confess I haven’t read Crime and Punishment though I have read other Dostoyevsky works. But when I compared the opening line translated into English by three different translators, I thought it was worth writing about. My favourite is Constance Garnett’s 33 words in a succinct sentence, quoted above. Compare it with the 46 words of Katz’s translation:

In the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, toward evening, a young man left his tiny room, which he sublet from some tenants who lived in Stolyarnyi Lane, stepped out onto the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, set off towards the Kokushkin Bridge. (Translated by Michael Katz)

Plenty of detail, but I was lost after ‘sublet’. In my humble opinion there are 13 words too many. That said, I can’t read Russian and therefore can’t really say if there are omissions or additions. Now look at this one by Oliver Ready:

In early July, in exceptional heat, towards evening, a young man left the garret he was renting in S–y Lane, stepped outside, and slowly, as if in two minds, set off towards K–n Bridge. (Translated by Oliver Ready)

The number of words is similar to Garnett’s, but what it loses (for me) is the immediacy in her first words, “On an exceptionally hot evening…”. The other two translators tell us first off what month it is, but that’s not as good a beginning for a great opening line.

Perhaps I’m presently susceptible to Garnett’s first words since it’s about 10 pm and the temperature in my house is still 30 degrees.

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Review of ‘Spiridion’

When an author or translator completes a novel, the work is not over by a long shot. She then has to seek out a publisher, another endurance test a lot like job-seeking. When one says ‘Yes, I’ll publish it,’ the author might then think she can hand her work over, sit back and get on with the next book. But no, for the author is expected to be involved in the marketing of her own work… This is a writer’s fact of life that I’m slowly learning.

Part of the marketing involves getting readers to write reviews. Good or bad, apparently they all lead to sales. The publisher of my translation of George Sand’s Spiridion had offered to send it out for reviews, but none have appeared. Three kind readers have voluntarily reviewed it on Amazon and Goodreads. But if I want to pique the interest of more buyers, and perhaps eventually be paid a little something, I have to be proactive. A recommended road is the one that leads to literature bloggers. Out of four I contacted, one responded, Francine Maessen at booksien.com. She asked for a copy of the book, which I bought and sent, and then I waited eight months while she completed some university studies, and now, finally, her long and positive review is available on her blog. She’s also written a brief review for Goodreads. Proactivity pays.

Francine praised Sand’s writing, which is indirectly a compliment for me:

George Sand’s writing is just amazing. She is seen as one of the best writers of her period, even better than Honoré de Balzac. What I personally enjoy so much about her style in this specific novel, is that she still uses the beautiful style we know from realist writers for such a different genre as the gothic novel.

Another literary translator today recommended a website that seeks out translated European books for review, the European Literature Network. Since, after nearly three years, my Spiridion account is still in the red, I’ve got nothing to lose by pointing them to my book.

If you’ve read this far you might like to know a bit about Spiridion by George Sand. Published in 1839 initially, then revised and re-published in 1842, it’s a gothic philosophical novel with a little horror and a lot of analysis of the Catholic monastery as an institution and its corrupting potential for men locked away from women and the rest of the world. The founder of this fictional monastery dies and haunts the cloisters for years, searching for a monk who is uncorrupted, who has the courage to go down into the crypt to seek the truth, which turns out to be a grim experience for a young novice.

When I first read the French version I easily imagined the creepiness of the monastery and its tenants, but I found the illustrations available online added to the pleasure of it.

Original 1839 French version of Spiridion, title page, image courtesy of Google Books
Spiridion by George Sand, published by SUNY Press, 2015

First, I liked the images used to illustrate an old version published in Brussels, and was pleased to see the cover chosen for mine by SUNY Press, both of them featuring an arched entrance to a mysterious cloister.

Here’s a hint if you buy the English translation: look up the illustrations in the original French version from 1839 (mine is from the revised 1842 edition), available freely online, illustrated by Tony Johannot and George Sand’s son, Maurice. You’ll see images of the monastery, its corrupt monks, a couple of good souls, and the ghostly founder.

Illustration from 1856 edition of Spiridion. The monks slip down the stairs carrying a coffin.

Thank you, Francine Maessen, for reading and reviewing Spiridion!

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46 Great Opening Lines: 20

At dawn in an outlying district of Warsaw, sunlight swarmed around the trunks of blooming linden trees and crept up the white walls of a 1930s stucco and glass villa where the zoo director and his wife slept in a bed crafted from white birch, a pale wood used in canoes, tongue depressors, and Windsor chairs.

Opening line, The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman, 2007

On a long-haul flight back to Australia, I watched the movie of The Zookeeper’s Wife twice. The first time I could barely hear the sound, the earphones were poor quality, so I took a second bite at it, imagining the storyline by the visuals. In the stopover airport I spotted the novel of the same name at the newsagent. On the opening page I read the line you’ve just read above, and was hooked by the setting described in that long sentence, being able to match it to my memory of film images. I got hold of the book once I was back home. It was unputdownable.

It’s a true story about a Polish zookeeper, but particularly about his wife, Antonina Zabinski, who hid about 300 Jews and resistance fighters from the Gestapo. The zoo’s animals had all been let loose or killed in the 1939 bombing of Warsaw, so she and her husband, Jan, allowed people to hide in animal cages, shelters and underground tunnels on their way to longer-term hiding places. Antonina and Jan and many of their illegal guests survived the war.

I recommend the film as well. The actress, Jessica Chastain, like the woman she plays, has an awesome affinity with animals that’s delightful to watch.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 19

In his thirty-fifth year, the dwarf of the Barnaboum Circus started to grow.

Opening line, ‘The Dwarf’, Marcel Aymé 1934 (my translation)

Sometimes an opening line of a story or book can distract a reader from everything else in that moment. He reads on, regardless of the noisy world around him. Nothing matters but the next line and the next.

A shrewd author can arouse this desire in the holder of his book. He can capture our attention by stating an impossibility as truth, and leave us begging to know the consequence. Marcel Aymé is not only a master of beginnings, but his first lines deliver what they promise: intriguing stories that answer a “what if…” question. So, what if a man who’d always been short suddenly grew to normal height?  He might, like Valentin in “The Dwarf”, discover the delights of seeing his favourite woman, a circus bareback rider, face to face.

Sixty years after it was first published, this was one of five Aymé stories selected for an art book produced by Bird & Bull Press, printed by letterpress from metal type, on mouldmade paper, without any digital aid, and illustrated with wood engravings by Gaylord Schanilec. I’m fortunate to live close to the National Library which holds one of 150 copies, and this week I spent an hour totally distracted from the holiday season by the tactile and visual pleasure of this special book. Here’s a taste of the illustrations: the dwarf is depicted at the circus, before he began to grow:

Wood engraving, Gaylord Schanilec, 1994

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