46 Great Opening Lines: 2

Who’ll show a child just as it is?

From the fourth Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke
– translated by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, an epigraph opening Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

This post is about a great opening line, but also about a great title.

When I was twenty, I watched a movie with Mum. An average Friday night movie, with cups of tea, relaxing together in the loungeroom I spent so much of my life in. The movie was Sophie’s Choice, with Meryl Streep in the role of Sophie, based on the novel by William Styron. When the story turned to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz and the gassing and systematic elimination of Jews, I turned to Mum and said “Did this really happen?”. Of course she said yes, but nothing more.

There had been plenty of talk in our household about wars. My father was a soldier in the second world war, his father was in the first. Various uncles and older relatives had also played their part. I had only heard them talk about fighting against the Germans, you know, gunfights and bombings on battlefields. Why had I never heard about concentration camps and the wilful destruction of Jews and various other unwanted people? Mum didn’t say much after this (she never talked about anything dark) and I was so horrified at my fellow humans that I asked no more questions.

The words Sophie’s Choice will always remind me of that night, that piece of knowledge I acquired. I’ve since read the book, a hard read, some of which I skipped. The climax is in this exchange between a Nazi doctor and Sophie, his victim, a mother of two:

…the doctor said, ‘You may keep one of your children.’

Bitte?’ said Sophie.

‘You may keep one of your children,’ he repeated, ‘the other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?’

‘You mean, I have to choose?’

‘You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege – a choice.’

Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. ‘I can’t choose! I can’t choose!’

This week I was casually browsing The Canberra Times when I came across the entertainment guide, with this on the cover:

Cover, The Canberra Times entertainment guide, 18th September 2017

The article inside about a woman named Sophie Monk is written by the journalist Michael Lallo. The opening line is not one of the great ones that will make my collection, but is worth quoting here:

When Sophie Monk did her first bikini shoot, for a men’s magazine, she cried in the bathroom.

And what choice did this particular Sophie have to make? Lallo writes:

She began to question previous choices. ‘Why not?’ she thought, when Playboy made its umpteenth approach.

Michael Lallo has taken Styron’s title and made it his own, rather than making up his own. It might be forgivable if the topic of his story had some relevance to the original. I guess he used it because it had already made a big impact, and I suppose it got my attention. If Lallo wanted me to reflect on life, then it worked. I reflected immediately on literary appropriation and Nazis torturing and gassing people.

This is a writing lesson for me. Be careful not to inappropriately use analogies.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 1

At dusk they pour from the sky.

Opening line, All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

There’s a chair at the kitchen table that I sit on for hours some days. Reading my own work forwards and backwards – backwards is a trick I learned in translation school – I’m forever searching for better ways to say everything. To get an editor’s tick, I have to stay on the chair. So I stay until the job’s done, or until life interferes.

Right now, a book of French fairy tales keeps me here. The repetitive acts of translating, reading, editing and reading again, in the hope of arriving at the perfect story, are driving me into an unproductive blankness. So here I am, writing on this blog, writing just for the distraction of it, analysing what makes writing work well.

My story has to make it further than an editor’s slush pile, and one element, more than any other, is the lure: the very first line. If it’s not great, he might not read the second.

Once, because I was 54 years old, I wrote 54 blog posts about opening lines (click the category link…). It was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise that taught me a lot. Now, as I have in life, I’m going on from 54 to see how many more I can find. It won’t be simple, for not all the stories on my bookshelves begin with a great opener. But I’ll challenge myself even further, now and then, to find great translated opening lines. You know, the sort of oft-quoted line such as “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Rosemary Edmonds.

Today I won’t begin with translation but with a novel originally written in English. I found this great opener that immediately had me hooked in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, on a page entitled ‘Leaflets’:

At dusk they pour from the sky.

The story is set in World War Two in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. Fascinating. A page-turner. Great to read aloud.

Saint-Malo, Brittany, France, image courtesy  CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=183293

It shouldn’t be hard to get to 100 (blog posts that is…). I’ll write about great opening lines whenever I need a break, which happens every few days! Please tell me if you know of any yourself!

 

Header credit: Jean-Christophe Windland, on Wikimedia Commons

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01

WWII, Winter, Syria and Lebanon

Colonel Gee, Syria

Some years ago I scanned hundreds of photos from an album my father brought back from the Middle East in 1942.  The original snaps are small, about 2″ x 3″, so I’m fascinated by the detail I now see in these scanned and enlarged photos, such as the people on the right in the image above. The caption for this picture says “Col. Gee, Syria”. Nothing about the other guy. However, it’s uncertain whether it was taken in Syria or Lebanon. The photo below, the ski school for the soldiers, is marked as located in Syria when in fact it was in Lebanon.

Australian Army ski school,  Lebanon, 1942

Easy mistake to make, since the Australian soldiers were sent to train in Syria in the winter of 1941/42, but from there they went to Lebanon to train to fight in snow country. A disused chalet near Bcharre in the Lebanon ranges was turned into a ski school. It was pretty hard on the Australians, used to extreme heat but not extreme cold.

So much snow. The magnificent cedars of Lebanon form the only contrast in this black and white image.

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Changing Seasons: September

On 1st September the Australian spring officially sprang. While those north of Canberra may think it might as well still be called winter down here, the inhabitants of this capital can see the seasonal signs that temperatures are slowly slowly creeping up.

Before yesterday, before 6.12am yesterday, I could’ve said I’d lived in Canberra for 20 years and had never seen the sun rise over Lake Burley Griffin. Now I can say I have. I rose at 5 to get to the lake for the ephemeral moment of joy at 6.12. It wasn’t the cloudy, fiery sunrise of the previous morning (see Brand New Day), it wasn’t breathtaking like the dawn seen by rowers in winter fog. There were no orange clouds and no pastel mist; it was an absolutely clear sky giving me a brilliant start to the day. Sure, the temperatures were not springy. It was 3 degrees when I left home at 5.45, barely 1 degree down at the lake, then after an hour of sunrise-watching it had warmed up to 4, but back home it was down to 2.

Still, this post is about the signs of changing seasons. If the dawn temperature has improved little since winter, it’s evidently spring when the trees are slowly putting on their new clothes. Some even burst out in flower before leaf. A close look at the branches highlit by the new sun reveals tiny prunus bouquets here and there.

Moments before sunrise,  facing the moon
Sunrise, Lake Burley Griffin. Two long shadows, one is a tree, one is me.

That moment when the ball of fire that is our sun appears in full over the horizon is always a head-turner. It’s hard to believe I didn’t feel the earth move even though it did.

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The Changing Seasons photo challenge comes from Cardinal Guzman.

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Brand New Day

This is the first post on my new blog, soundslikewish the sequel.

I had a good start to the day when I woke at 6am and saw the white curtains glowing pale orange over the east-facing window. I zipped out to the back yard to see a fiery sunrise. Of course I had a camera in my hand…

It’s also a day when I’m beginning a new translation requested by a publisher, though I’ve just this minute received a warning from the Australian Society of Authors about the offer. Has the publisher provided me with a contract? No. Well then, proceed with extreme caution. That’s the advice I’m heeding as I cautiously take the French story about Pierrot and Polichinelle down to the local café, translate it, drink a cappuccino and eat a croissant.

Later today I’ll think about asking for a contract. Unless there’s a brilliant sunset and I’m drawn away from the tedious details of life to admire the beauty of the sun that will rise and set no matter what we humans do.

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The Nile, 1941/42

A reader of this blog, a maritime archaeologist writing a PhD, expressed an interest in some of the photos I’ve posted here over the past five years, especially images of the Nile and its boats. So this post is about the Nile River, Egypt, in a particular period, 1941/42. The photos are from my father’s album, from a time he was stationed there for seven months with the army (not counting the couple of months to get there and back). He took photos and swapped photos with his mates, stuck them in an album and left them for his family to do what they wanted with them. Many of these photos have been on this blog before, with a couple of exceptions. Where there were captions beneath the photos in the album, I’ll repeat them. Where there was none, I’ll write what I know, if I know anything. The photographers of these photos are unknown. Some were taken by my father, some were not. I don’t know which is which.

Canal sailing, Nile River
Imbaba opening bridge, Nile River, Egypt
Nile Bridge
Weir in Nile River
Felucca, Egypt
“English Bridge” Cairo, daytime
“English Bridge”, Cairo, nighttime
Camel bridge, Great Delta Barrage or Alkanater Kheireya, Nile River, Egypt
Officers’ convalescence, River Nile
Showboat celebrations on Nile, flood
Sunrise on Nile
Sunset on Nile
View to a village across the Nile

I love all my black and white 1940s photos, but I totally love the feluccas and never tire of looking photos of them.  Thanks, my reader, for asking me to take another glimpse into 1940s Nile history.

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Weekly photo challenge: Distraction

What’s guaranteed to distract you?

I confess that writing this blog post right now is distracting me from an otherwise engrossing translation project. But I can’t sit writing at the kitchen table all my life. Sometimes I have to get out and get down to the seaside to refuel. And there I’m distracted by small things on the sand.

Strolling along a beach, heading for a rocky outcrop, I’m easily sidetracked by what lies in the drift-line. Mostly it’s broken shells, seaweed, stones, twigs and branches washed up by the high tide. But occasionally something catches my eye from a distance and I leave the water’s edge and head over to take a closer look.

It could be a lost thing. Like a coloured water-ski rope. Somewhere in the Pacific, a water-skier is asking “where did that rope go?” Well, if you’re looking for it, it’s on the beach at Guerilla Bay.

It could be two lost things. Like shoes. Somewhere along the south-east coast of New South Wales, a young girl is asking “where are my new runners?” Well, they’re on the mud flats of the Clyde River in Batemans Bay. Did they wash off the side of a boat? It could be a heart. Did someone lose their heart on the beach at Guerilla Bay? Because, well, I found one. Is it yours?The WordPress people have asked this week for photos of our distractions.

But enough of this blogging distraction. Back to the project.

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Changing Seasons: August

August in Canberra is a little warmer than July when dawn was a few degrees below zero. Now we’re slowly moving back towards the sun and the wattle trees are coming out in bloom, producing bursts of  bright yellow in the bushland. Today I went up Black Mountain to our telecommunication tower known as Telstra Tower, where I saw the interesting combination of our iconic wattle and the tower, a structure that can be seen from far outside Canberra, a landmark that tells travellers they’re almost here.

If we are enjoying delightful afternoons, warm enough to sit in the sun to catch ten or twenty minutes of Vitamin D infused rays, our nights are still freezing and frosty, and the further you go above sea level the frostier it is. On Black Mountain there’s a warning sign for those driving or riding or even walking up and especially down the slope in the early hours of the morning: Ice on road. When I took photos this afternoon it was a lovely 14 degrees and this cyclist was haring down the mountain, around its curves. His wheels made a loud whirring sound as he passed me.

Here’s some evidence of August’s two weathers. Yes it’s a good afternoon for riding downhill at speed, but after the night’s frost a cyclist could be sliding not riding.

Cardinal Guzman had the idea of posting a photo of changing seasons each month. Thanks Cardinal.

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James Burley

I have often thought that many a youngster when he was hit out there on the Passchendaele heights … and he knew that the end had come – must have thought to himself: “well at least they’ll remember me in Australia”. C.E.W. Bean

We all have ancestors but not all of us study their lives. I do, but I don’t know whether I’d recommend it. Many of my ancestors died young, which means I’m a descendant of the few survivors. And every young loss has a tragic story behind his or her death.

Two brothers who enlisted in the army together, numbers 5046 and 5047, James and Frederick Burley, were my great-grandmother’s cousins. Both of their lives ended in France in 1917. Frederick was never found.

But James was wounded in one of the horrific battles in Passchendaele near Ypres in Belgium, died in hospital in Rouen, France, and is buried there. This week, news articles are appearing about the commemorations of the hundred years that have passed since the Ypres battles. By coincidence, James Burley had his name projected onto the Australian War Memorial last night. I was there to see it for the 30 seconds it was shining on the facade of the building.

Like many Australians, I have descended from a convict ancestor, Joseph Burley, who was transported to New South Wales for trying to sell a stolen watch. Seven years he got. Pretty harsh penalty for a pretty petty crime.

Frederick and James Burley were his grandsons.

James was wounded on 20th October when his battalion was fighting near Zonnebeke in the region of Ypres, where 30 mm of rain had fallen two weeks earlier. Not only was the ground wet from heavy rain, but parts of the battlefield were swamp or reclaimed swamp, and digging and shelling only produced more water.

View of the swamps of Zonnebeke on the day of the First Battle of Passchendaele. Ruins of Zonnebeke church in background. Photo from Australian War Memorial taken on 12th October 1917.

Note from War diary for James’ 47th battalion, 12th October 1917: Country almost impassable being very boggy and shell holes full of water… Weather very bad, cold, raining… Men’s feet very sore owing to continually standing in shell holes full of water…

James died seven days after he was wounded. He was 32 and had got married the year before.

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This is the last of my relatives’ names to be projected onto the War Memorial. Five in all.

I have so little to complain about.

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The Mask

My translation of Claudine Jacques’ short story Le Masque has just been published by Volkeno Books, Vanuatu, in a bilingual edition. Hold the book one way to read the original French story, then flip it over to read it in English.

The setting is a fare ofe, a bamboo house in New Caledonian bushland. The protagonist sees it as exotic and inspirational, just the impetus she needs to begin her writing career. She talks to a tribal mask left behind by a previous tenant, and it responds…

Available to order at noiraublanc.fr, here: http://noiraublanc.fr/index.php?route=product/category&path=62

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