This morning I pulled from my bookshelf a translation of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. I flipped to the end, p. 1,463! Then I backflipped to the middle, where I read on p. 731 the essence of Hugo’s message about the miserable poor of France. Next to it on the shelf was a five-volume set of the novel in French, so I pulled out the third volume and had a go at translating the lines myself.
Just before the lines of my translation, the narrator had recounted an incident where Marius, walking at a wintry nightfall, had run into two barefoot girls in torn rags whispering to each other about their narrow escape from the police. Once they had disappeared, he continued his walk:
Along the way, in an alley off the Rue Mouffetard, he saw a child’s coffin covered in a black cloth, lying across three chairs and lighted by a candle. It brought to his mind the two girls of the twilight.
‘Poor mothers!’ he thought. ‘There’s one thing sadder than seeing your children die, and that’s seeing them live bad lives.’
Sometimes at the centre of a novel a new character is introduced who changes everything. In John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it’s not until the middle that we meet the title character. And it’s then that everything changes for the German boy, Bruno:
“The boy was smaller than Bruno and was sitting on the ground with a forlorn expression. He wore the same striped pyjamas that all the other people on that side of the fence wore, and a striped cloth cap on his head. He wasn’t wearing any shoes or socks and his feet were rather dirty. On his arm he wore an armband with a star on it.”
Half-way through Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, the patient arrives at the point in his tale where his tough personal barrier was penetrated. ‘I am a man who kept the codes of my behaviour separate,’ he says on p. 144. Then the turning point: we learn why and how he ended up in hospital (well, a hospital of sorts), the turning point in his life where it dawned on him that Clifton’s wife, Katharine, was breaking down his defences, and this led to a relationship, and this led to an accident. On p. 150 of 300 pages, I read this:
“He said later it was propinquity. Propinquity in the desert. It does that here, he said. He loved the word – the propinquity of water, the propinquity of two or three bodies in a car driving the Sand Sea for six hours. Her sweating knee beside the gearbox of the truck, the knee swerving, rising with the bumps. In the desert you have time to look everywhere, to theorize on the choreography of all things around you.”
The War of the Worlds. Read the blurb on the front cover of this 1910 edition: ‘It is a story which no ordinary reader can possibly put down half finished.’
And that’s because when you’ve half-finished reading it, you’re at a point of suspense that drives you onwards through the chapters. I’ve been reading this book online, having succumbed to the temptation of instant literature. Normally I go to a library and get the physical book to read, which should be possible with any classic. But not this time. To my disappointment, my local libraries don’t have copies of it; it’s either lost, available only as an audio-book or video, or is held in a faraway place. You’d think that libraries in a capital city would ensure they have copies of every classic on their shelves. Of course, I could always go out and buy it but then it would be yet another book to store in my house. Libraries are a gift.
Searching for the centre of The War of the Worlds online, I took the plain text version which is 111 pages long, then went to p. 55 and read these tense lines in the chapter ‘The Exodus from London’ which follows a number of chaos-filled chapters where Martians had invaded the suburbs of London, killing citizens with their Heat-Ray and a black vapour they discharged into the streets:
‘All the railway lines north of the Thames and the South-Eastern people at Cannon Street had been warned by midnight on Sunday, and trains were being filled. People were fighting savagely for standing-room in the carriages even at two o’clock. By three, people were being trampled and crushed even in Bishopsgate Street, a couple of hundred yards or more from Liverpool Street station; revolvers were fired, people stabbed, and the policemen who had been sent to direct the traffic exhausted and infuriated, were breaking the heads of the people they were called out to protect.’
Header: artwork by Alvim Corréa for a 1906 Belgian edition. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (translated by Carol Brown Janeway) is 216 pages long and the middle page (of my edition) is p. 108, where Hanna, a former guard in a Nazi concentration camp, is on trial for her part in locking women prisoners in a church which was then bombed and burnt down. Two pages later, on p. 110, Hanna asks the judge a question which leaves him, and us the readers, on shaky ground. The judge searches for an answer, stalls for time, and eventually answers unsatisfactorily. We the readers read on, hoping a better answer is offered in the second half of the novel.
Here’s the portion of the conversation that puts the ball in the judge’s court:
‘Did you not know that you were sending the prisoners to their death?’
‘Yes, but the new ones came, and the old ones had to make room for the new ones.’
‘So because you wanted to make room, you said you and you and you have to be sent back to be killed?’
Hanna didn’t understand what the presiding judge was getting at.
‘I … I mean … so what would you have done?’ Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done.
Today, telling my daughter-in-law about the turning point at a novel’s centre, I picked up a book lying on her table, Wuthering Heights, to demonstrate. I calculated the number of pages in the story, then halved it and turned to that page, ending up at p. 166, the early part of Volume Two where Heathcliff asks Nelly Dean how Catherine died. Nelly replies:
‘Her life closed in a gentle dream – may she wake as kindly in the other world!’
And Heathcliff responds darkly, horrifying many of the readers in 1847 who were frightened by this unstable, devilish man and what he was going to do with this consuming love in the second half of the story:
‘May she wake in torment!’ he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. ‘Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there – not in heaven – not perished – where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers.’
To find the centre of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (translated by William Weaver), I have to begin by counting the pages of the first prologue which precedes the second prologue. The first one appears to be a kind of introduction by the author, an account of how Eco came to write this story. But he’s shrewd; the first prologue is all fiction, just like the rest of the story. Added to the pages of the story, (pp. 3 – 493), the total number in my edition is about 498, making the centre a sub-title page, “Fourth Day”. But I turn the page and find the spot where the young monk, the narrator, starts to feel certain his fellow monks are not simply dying one by one, they are being murdered. A coincidence is revealed at this halfway point, leading the reader to guess why the monks in this wealthy Italian monastery are being permanently silenced.
“The other day I observed Venantius’s hands, when the blood had been washed off, and I noticed a detail to which I attached little importance. The tips of two fingers of Venantius’s right hand were dark, as if blackened by some dark substance. Exactly – you see? – like two fingertips of Berengar now. In fact, here we have a trace also on the third finger. At the time I thought that Venantius had handled some inks in the scriptorium. . . . “
In the middle of a novel, a few lines often show the reader that a character’s world is about to become unfamiliar and unsafe. It can be a turning point, a point where a journey begins and when the action starts.
I’d like to share some of these lines with you. I’ll go to the half-way point of a novel, give or take a page, and scan it for something I wish I’d written myself. Today I picked up The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, turned to the opening page, p. 13, then the last page, p. 253, and calculated the rough centre would be at about p. 120. I read the page and found these admirable words, which indeed are the point where a journey begins:
“There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go. Before you could get round Mirkwood in the North you would be right among the slopes of the Grey Mountains, and they are simply stiff with goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description. Before you could get round it in the South, you would get into the land of the Necromancer; and even you, Bilbo, won’t need me to tell you tales of that black sorcerer.”
Trembling. It’s what I do best. I’m an expert at trembling. I have an incredible mastery of trembling. Had it since I was very small. Since the day I started kindergarten, the teacher has been telling my mother who comes to pick me up every day, running from the Sendai–Minami Sanriku train; she has been telling my father who never misses a fete at the Shizugawa school: Your daughter, she trembles; it’s amazing how she trembles; it’s amazing how well she trembles. Perhaps she didn’t say exactly that at the end, Your daughter, how well she trembles, but she looked so impressed that I think she did. I am the best at trembling.
It began the first time someone said, All children under the table. At first, I hesitated. When the voice repeated, All children under the table, the Earth is trembling, I thought, it’s the table with the red tablecloth, and on top of it all the flowers and the birds and the horses and the multicoloured lanterns of the origami class for the school fete, if it starts trembling, us underneath, no one to watch it, everything will be knocked to the ground, the fete knocked to the ground. But the voice insisted, so I slipped under the table with the others, and I thought the only thing to do was to tremble all together, me, us, the table, the flowers, the birds, the horses, the multicoloured lanterns of the origami class for the school fete. And that’s what I did; every time, that’s what I did and the teacher said, Your daughter, she’s an earthquake on legs; and the old doctor Tokiji Watanabe looked at me for a long time, a long time, and he said, There is actually a sickness called ‘Essential Tremor’ or ‘Familial Tremor’, but to be sure, we’ll have to wait till she grows up, and she’ll have to learn to live with it.
Learn to live with it; Papa says, It’s Shinto, it’s knowing that everything is connected, nothing and no one is ever separated, it’s our pride. I’m not sick, my name is Katsumi, Victorious Beauty; my father chose my name and he never misses the school fete that takes a long time, a long time to get ready, sometimes all year, and every day when parents ask, What did you do today?, me, Katsumi, I answer, Today we got ready for the school fete, and the next day, and for days and days, when Papa or Mama asks What did you do today?, always the same answer, Today we got ready for the school fete.
This morning, Friday 11th March 2011, for the school fete, for the origami class, I brought in some beautiful old paper that Grandma Sadako gave me. There’s a drawing on it that frightens me, but Papa says, Fear is like the tengu, like trembling, you must tame it; take this picture, it’s by Hokusai, our ‘Old man mad on painting’, his Great Wave off Kanagawa, it’s everywhere in the world, it’s our pride. So I dared to take it because folding, it calms my trembling, and especially because I saw her in the folds, the creases, the teeth and the claws of the sea on the paper: the crane of my dream. She was just waiting for me so she could fly away. And that’s what I did. All morning, I had to fight with this rotten drawing and my trembling. In the end, she was standing on the table with the red tablecloth; the one‑thousandth crane for Grandma Sadako, who folds one every day, saying, It’s my prayer; and she was the most beautiful, too.
She’s Prussian blue and yellow ochre, with greys like you’ve never seen over her whole body; here pale like shellfish soup, there dark like pea soup, and a very white spot on her throat. The great wave living inside her doesn’t frighten me any more. Papa is right. Everything is connected, no one is separated. It was 2.30pm when the voice shouted, All children, quick, the Earth’s trembling. I held her close to me under the table with the red tablecloth. Both of us lying down, folded, patient. When I put her up to my ear, I clearly heard the roar of the sea; Mama, running from the Sendai–Minami Sanriku train; Papa, his footsteps, full of pride, coming to the school fete. She was just waiting for me so she could fly away. I’m not trembling any more.