46 Great Opening Lines: 32

Tuesday, July 23rd. – Am aroused by violent knocking at the door in the early gray dawn – so violent that two large centipedes and a scorpion drop on to the bed.

First line of A Hippo Banquet by Mary Kingsley, 1897

This is the first line of the first story in a small book, A Hippo Banquet, published by Penguin as no. 32 of 80 Little Black Classics. The line certainly drew me in, fearful as I am of bugs dropping down on me in my bed. Quite the contrast is this fearless English woman, Mary Kingsley, who lived in West Africa in the 1890s and wrote of her life there in Travels in West Africa from which this little black book was made.

The hippo banquet occurs at night when hippos graze on hippo grass. Mary has gone for a canoe ride alone in the middle of the night because she can’t sleep (mosquitoes and lice in the bed…), and it’s then she comes upon five hippos feasting.

Hippo and baby, photo courtesy Wikipedia

The first line of the whole work, Travels in West Africa, is much longer but equally compelling and worth quoting:

“The West Coast of Africa is like the Arctic regions in one particular, and that is that when you have once visited it you want to go back there again; and, now I come to think of it, there is another particular in which it is like them, and that is that the chances you have of returning from it at all are small, for it is a Belle Dame sans merci.”

La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a poem written by John Keats in 1819, in which the Belle Dame is at once a figure of love and fantasy, death and decay.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 31

It was late, and Holofernes’ guests quickly withdrew. Bagoas closed the tent from the outside, dismissed the attendants, and everyone went to their lodgings to sleep, tired from too much drinking. Holofernes had collapsed onto his bed, completely drunk. Judith was left alone with him in the tent.

Opening of Chapter 13 of the Book of Judith

Judith and Holofernes, Jan de Bray, 1659, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I like the opening of this chapter, which in many versions of the book of Judith is given the title ‘Judith beheads Holofernes’. Even if this spoiler is present, the opening sentences contain enough intrigue to keep us reading. Holofernes is dead drunk, passed out, and all his guests have been asked to leave, except for Judith…

As an art history student I studied a few paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes, but when I viewed this one at the Dutch Masters exhibition in the Art Gallery of New South Wales last month, I thought I’d do well to read the story. It’s a good one. I recommend it. One thing I learnt is that the maidservant who is most often present in the artworks as a tense witness, was in fact asked by Judith to wait outside the tent. As the opening lines say, she remained alone with Holofernes. Like his fellow Baroque artists, Jan de Bray has included the maid, but I was drawn to this painting because of what he excluded. He portrays Judith in the moment before she brings the sword down on his neck, in contrast to painters who preferred the following moment with all its gore.

Judith was a beautiful Hebrew widow who convinced an evil general of Nebuchadnezzar that she could help him to kill the Jews in her town. She was lying. He invited her to his banquet, and under the spell of her beauty, he drank more than he’d ever drunk on any day of his life, and collapsed. Judith dispatched her enemy and saved her town.

The lines quoted above are my translation of a French translation from a 1997 bible published by the Société biblique française.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 30

I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.

Opening line of St Patrick’s Confession, translated from the Latin by Ludwig Bieler, 1950.

Today is St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, so I looked up St Patrick’s Confession and was surprised to learn in these very first words that he was ‘utterly despised’. And sad as this is, the worst is the last line: ‘This is my confession before I die.’

How hard his life must have been, to have reached its end and written a confession of faith that reveals he had spread good news but was despised, utterly despised. Still, this was Patrick’s belief about himself, and if he was so repugnant then his life story must have been rewritten to make a saint of him within 150 years, by the 7th century AD.

Mosaic of Saint Patrick by Russian artist, Boris Anrep, Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland

My interest is in the various translations of that first line. The following examples are available on the Internet, though undoubtedly there are many more. The words ‘utterly despised by many’ shocked me, for all I knew of St Patrick was that he did good deeds and was therefore, I assumed, liked. Yet we can all see the word ‘contempt’ glaring at us from within the original Latin phrase:

Ego Patricius peccator rusticissimus et minimus omnium fidelium et contemptibilissimus apud plurimos…

The other three translations I found did not have the same impact.

On www.confessio.ie, the English for contemptibilissimus apud plurimos is rendered ‘I am looked down upon by many.’ Simple and straightforward.

On www.whatsaiththescripture.com, it is ‘most contemptible to many’. Close to contemptibilissimus, but lacks the loathing of ‘despised’.

On bbc.co.uk/religion, it is ‘for many people I am the most contemptible’. Similar to the previous example but twice the words.

And of course there’s now Google: ‘in many contemptibilissimus’. Not very helpful.

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I never had a thing for St Patrick until, as a consequence of family history research last year, I met a first cousin once removed (i.e. my mother’s cousin), born on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, daughter of an Irish Catholic. Her middle name is Patricia in honour of the saint. She’s 91 today! My own name is Patricia, and I too am the daughter of a Catholic mother who chose that name. I’m now wondering…

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46 Great Opening Lines: 29

If an anaconda bites your hand – as, no doubt, one someday will – gulps your fist whole and holds fast, fight the keen urge to yank back. Really.

Opening line, Emergency Instructions: If an Anaconda Bites Your Hand, David Macey

This is the first line of a short short story, perhaps it’s called flash fiction, found in issue 84 of the journal Agni.

I definitely don’t have a thing for snakes, but in this three-paragraph story I saw something humorous, reminiscent of an illustration in Le Petit Prince of a boa constrictor swallowing an animal.

Image result for "little prince" boa constrictor
First illustration in ‘Le Petit Prince’, Antoine de Saint Exupéry

It also reminded me of a rock formation I once saw, with a long snakish snout, a semblance of teeth and a fierce eye.

Like anacondas, and boa constrictors, rock can be dangerous. You can be washed off it, fall from the top, disappear into its midst like Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock. But rock doesn’t search for prey, doesn’t coil about those too near, is never hungry. Its jaws won’t open, it won’t bite your hand. My husband is safe.

Eden NSW

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46 Great Opening Lines: 28

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Opening line, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949

From the last word of the first line, Orwell has us in his hands with not just one clock but all clocks striking thirteen.

I thought about Nineteen Eighty-Four when writing my last post about books discarded by libraries. One of the excuses given by library administrators is the digitisation of books, the physical copies of which can then be sold or given away or thrown into landfill. The trouble is that digitised writing can be altered permanently with quick and simple keystrokes, and if the only printed copy is dead and buried, there’s no way of knowing exactly what its author wrote.

Therein lies the connection with Nineteen Eighty-Four. One of its creepy elements was Winston’s job as a falsifier of records, altering newspapers and books and “every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance.” As soon as he had completed the corrections requested for an issue of the newspaper, that issue “would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead.”

Is it any different from a handwritten manuscript that hundreds of years ago was copied by monks many times over, and where, like Chinese whispers, the content could change slightly with every new version? Diligent scholars who spent their days copying books might also have slipped in an opinion, misquoted a speech, altered figures. If they did, we’ll never know, in the same way that we’ll never know whether digitised books are an exact copy if the originals are destroyed to make space for computers.

Still, much as I scream NO to book-dumping, I see the logic in digitisation if only there could always be at least one printed copy left somewhere in the world.


 George Orwell (born Eric Arthur
Blair), 1903-1950, photo courtesy Penguin Books India

Orwell’s opening line was recommended by a fellow blogger: http://www.anevolvingscientist.org/

Thanks!

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