Life Sentence and The Blue Cross

Today I was thrilled to receive ten copies of a small bilingual book of two short stories, Life Sentence and The Blue Cross, my translations of Condamné à perpétuité and La Croix bleue by the New Caledonian author, Claudine Jacques.

Life Sentence was published last year in Southerly Journal (Sydney University), and now it’s available in this little edition from Volkeno Books, Vanuatu. This is the second bilingual book published by Volkeno that includes Jacques’ original and my translation. The first was Le Masque / The Mask Both The Mask and the new book are available to purchase from Les Éditions noir au blanc.

Life Sentence is concerned with leprosy, once an incurable disease among poorer New Caledonians. The Blue Cross tells the story of a wife dealing with an alcoholic husband. Both stories end with hope.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 43

It was a pleasure to burn.

First line, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1954

I’ve been reading it for the past few days, and just finished.

In case you’re wondering about the title, Bradbury offers an explanatory epigraph:

FAHRENHEIT 451: the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns

As for the first line of the first chapter, it took me aback. As I read on, I started to lose interest, not being into dystopian societies, but when it came to the pages about a book-burning by ‘firemen’ I couldn’t put it down.

My favourite lines are not the first ones, but a short paragraph that comes almost midway through this three-part novel. The protagonist’s wife has been sucked into the ways of their commercialised bookless world. But though he is a book-burner by profession, he keeps a secret stash of books and when he establishes friendship with a girl with a ‘tireless curiosity’, a quality he has rarely seen, he quotes what seems to come from one of his books:

We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over, so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.

These two sentences were a compensation for the violence of the story against literature and its readers.

Ray Bradbury’s opening line was so catching it was used again as the title of a collection of 16 of his short stories, A Pleasure to Burn, about book-lovers and book-burners.

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Today, for me, was a day of fiery fiction cooled by fluffy snow as I visited Corin Forest, not far from Canberra, and walked through a snowfall just because it was so novel… (I haven’t seen snow for a decade or so.)

Fire and ice: reading Fahrenheit 451 this afternoon in a wintry Corin Forest

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46 Great Opening Lines: 42

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed; with an anxiety that almost amounted to agony I collected instruments of life around me that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.

First line of Chapter 7th, Frankenstein (draft), Mary Shelley, 1816, from Shelley, M. W. “Frankenstein, Volume I”, in The Shelley-Godwin Archive, MS. Abinger c. 56, 21r. Bodleian Library, Oxford University

The Bodleian Library has made Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s handwritten draft of Frankenstein available online here. A very interesting resource. The draft contains 87% of the final text as published two years later in 1818. It’s not just an amazing insight into Shelley’s work, but into the many changes of words that occur in any story by all writers great and small. The draft also shows suggestions added by her husband, Percy Shelley.

In the 1818 edition the first words of this chapter are:

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.

Many will agree with me, I’m sure, that the first draft of this sentence was better. However, flipping back a page we see that the last sentence of Chapter 6 in the draft ended with ‘completed’, so Mary has found another way to begin her chapter to avoid repeating the word. Such is the fiddliness of writing.

First page, Chapter 7th, ‘Frankenstein’, Mary Shelley, Bodleian Library, Oxford University

On a side note, I was surprised to read a comment on another web site, theverge.com, that the Bodleian Archive has transcribed “the nearly indecipherable text to make it readable”. Nearly indecipherable! I find this observation nearly unbelievable. Since I learnt cursive writing from seven years of age, I have no trouble at all reading Mary Shelley’s handwriting or the suggestions added by Percy. Not teaching or persisting with cursive handwriting in our schools today is one of our great cultural losses.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 41

Seventeen weeks after they moved to the city, Sofia stole her boyfriend’s mouth.

Opening line, ‘Magpie’, Mikaella Clements, in Overland, Issue 227, Winter 2017

This is the kind of opener I can’t look away from. What on earth is Sofia doing?

Reading through the story I learn that Sofia wished she could speak German like her boyfriend. She’s been trying to learn it by herself with phone apps and lessons, but is frustrated with her failures. So she steals his mouth while he’s sleeping.

I could relate to the conversational trip hazards in a language-other-than-your-own, wishing I could suck the language from a native speaker’s head and pump it into my own.

Now, to leave the opening line theme and go to the very first thing a reader reads, the title. ‘Magpie’ as a title threw me. I didn’t get the connection between it and the content of the story until I read that the author is Australian but lives in Berlin. European magpies have a reputation for thievery, and the story’s protagonist becomes a magpie herself. A European magpie. Australian magpies, on the other hand, are infamous for bad behaviours like swooping but not really thieving. So the story being published in an Australian journal by an Australian author about a common Australian bird, or so it seemed, confused me. It’s simply another language trip hazard.

European magpie thief, image from pxhere.com

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46 Great Opening Lines: 40

It’s pre-dawn, all dark. Breeding season.

First words of ‘Breeding Season’, Amanda Niehaus, in Overland, Spring 2017

I’ve been buying literary journals for a couple of years now, reading short stories to see how writers write in the 21st century. My translations are mostly of 19th-century stories, so I need to prompt myself to read today’s writing. It’s never good to get stuck in the past.

Overland is one of the Australian journals I’ve been reading. Not every piece is to my taste, but there’s usually one in each issue that I read and re-read. ‘Breeding Season’ was such a story, drawing me in with the very word breeding, not in the title but in the first line. And then, later, the mention of an antechinus.

I once caught sight of an antechinus in a sawn tree trunk in Wangaratta. I’d heard about them, how they resemble mice and rats, how we can confuse them all, but this one was prettier than any rat and I suspected that the crevices of the old trunk were more suited to a native marsupial than an introduced species. He stood still long enough for me to snap his photo. I wrote about the antechinus and my trip to Wangaratta in an earlier blog post.

Antechinus, North Beaches Reserve, Wangaratta (river beaches not ocean beaches…)

To return to the great opening line: my interest was triggered by the word breeding, evidence that the first words of a story can click somewhere in the reader’s experience, or in their hopes and fears. I wasn’t disappointed, for within ‘Breeding Season’, Amanda Niehaus writes about the jelly-bean sized babies of the antechinus and a woman’s own baby growing inside her.

I read this prize-winning story in my copy of Overland but it’s also available online.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 39

What was known of Captain Hagberd in the little seaport of Colebrook was not exactly in his favour.

First line of To-morrow, Joseph Conrad, 1902

The story of a man who is quietly going mad waiting for his son to return, convinced he will turn up tomorrow, has an opening line promising an unsavoury old English sea captain whose ship had never gone far from home.

Reading this little book I learnt a few things about writing well, surprising really, since Conrad was born in Ukraine, was educated in Poland, and learnt English as an adult. His words had me feeling a particular pity for the poor girl who lived next door to Captain Hagberd. The two of them talked over the fence each day:

“You wait till you get married, my dear,’ said her only friend, drawing closer to the fence. […]
But she only said in self-mockery, and speaking to him as though he had been sane, ‘Why, Captain Hagberd, your son may not even want to look at me.'”

To-morrow is no. 64 in the collection of little Penguin classics, but is available online at Gutenberg and is one of the freely available e-books produced by the University of Adelaide.

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Tears on the Sword

The Agorist Writers Workshop has just announced the titles of stories for their new anthology, Fairytale Riot. I’m very fortunate to have one of my translations included, “Tears on the Sword”, originally “Les Larmes sur l’épée” by Catulle Mendès. The theme for this, their 4th anthology, is libertarian retellings of classic folklore, fables, and fairy tales. Mendès, who reworked a large number of fairy tales during the Belle Époque, fits the bill.

This morning I discovered memes on their Facebook page for each of the 28 stories, teasing little images that give you a taste for each one. They’ve chosen fairy tale illustrations that seem appropriate to each title. Here’s the meme for mine:

Release of the printed anthology and ebook will be in July 2018. I’m so pleased knowing someone wants to publish my work! There’s such a lot of effort goes into a translation and then finding an editor who wants to show it to the world. It’s a good day today!

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46 Great Opening Lines: 38

Had it not been for a murder and robbery on Sunday, 26 March 1848, the University of Queensland would not be sited at St Lucia.

The Mayne Inheritance, Rosamond Siemon, 1997

The first line of this book contains the beginning and end of the story. A great way to start. Especially in a book about a real murder and a real university.

But the reader finds in the preface that the author “has taken a little licence”.

I discovered Siemon’s book in a relative’s personal library this week in Brisbane. My interest was piqued by the discovery that Patrick Mayne, the protagonist, lived very close to my great great great-grandfather, Joseph Burley, in the new streets of the new town of Brisbane. Mayne, as an alderman, helped Burley solve the problem of drays flinging mud up against his door. For the streets were then nothing but rutted tracks of dirt, turning to mud on rainy days.

Rosamond Siemon wrote the story of the successful businessman Patrick Mayne who died in 1865 and left an inheritance to his wife and children. Patrick’s son and daughter, James and Mary, made a number of philanthropic donations with their inheritance, including the acreage on which the University of Queensland has been built.

University of Queensland, St Lucia, 1948

The topic of the book is the inherited money and its possibly dark origin: Patrick Mayne may have gruesomely butchered a cedar woodcutter in order to rob him of a substantial sum. Another man hanged for it. However, though the credibility of the story is a deathbed confession by Mayne, no actual confession has been found by anyone but the author…  Until we can all have access to this proof, the book must remain a mythical murder mystery.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 37

1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.

Opening line, Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, 1847

A dark novel with not one happy moment. At least not for me. I’ve read it twice without pleasure. Still, the opening line is worth studying for its invitation to read on, to find out what kind of trouble the neighbour will cause.

Emily was 29 when her only novel was published. She died the next year.

I have a little black Penguin book (no. 63), “The Night is Darkening Round Me”, containing 30 of Emily Brontë’s poems. Many of them suggest she knew her life would be short and death was not far off. She also writes of others who are already dead and buried, as though thoughts of them, and knowing she would soon go to be with them, were constantly turning in her mind. Take, for example, the first stanza of Remembrance:

Cold in the earth – and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far, removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Or take the last stanza of The Old Stoic:

Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
‘Tis all that I implore;
In life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

Charlotte Brontë, in her ‘biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’ ( pseudonyms of Emily and Agnes Brontë), described her sister Emily as “stronger than a man, simpler than a child”. “Under an unsophisticated culture”, she wrote, “lay a secret power and fire”; “Her temper was magnanimous, but warm and sudden; her spirit altogether unbending.”

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Today as I was waiting for some singers to sing in Sydney, I read Emily’s poems. Many are grim, yet in their truthfulness are more satisfying than the novel. I would put this small Penguin book on a recommended reading list. I wonder what Emily would have thought if she were looking into a crystal ball in the 1840s, seeing a woman on the other side of the world reading her poetry while drinking coffee with a heart painted in its froth…

Coffee with Emily Brontë at Bellaccino, Hornsby

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46 Great Opening Lines: 36

My brother Jack does not come into the story straight away.

Opening line, My Brother Jack, George Johnston, 1964

A great first line that lets the reader know he’ll have to read on for a while before encountering the man of the title, Jack.

It’s a story about an Australian bloke who is a likeable larrikin, tough and uneducated, but it’s also about the effect of war-damaged parents on their children. The father is a sapper and the mother an army nurse who have had roles in World War 1, on the Front, and who have now returned to suburban life. On Anzac Day this week I thought of my own father and grandfather, veterans of the two world wars, who also returned to the dullness of suburbia, bringing with them troubled minds as shell-shocked soldiers.

The soldiers marching this week in the Anzac parade in Yass looked clean and smart, untroubled.

Army waiting to march, Anzac Day, Yass NSW 2018

I liked seeing the odd ones in this group, a New Zealander with a red-banded flat-brimmed hat, and a Fijian in a beret and three-quarter trousers, his muscly arms almost too big for his sleeves, catching sight of me catching sight of him as he adjusted his belt. I was also amused by the Australian soldier to his left, looking at something under his arm that was not quite right…

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