46 Great Opening Lines: 46

This is it, 46 of 46. More importantly, together with the 54 Great Opening Lines I posted a couple of years ago (click on ‘categories’ to go there), now there are a hundred all together.

This last opener is from my (unpublished) translation of a book of short stories. Here today in Canberra it’s mid-winter, about 10 degrees celsius with an icy breeze that spoils a good walk. Winter Tales came to mind not only because of the weather but because, as a translator, I’ve been reading it so closely for so long that I want to show you a little of its magic.

Tom River Valley, near Tomsk, western Siberia, courtesy Andrei Zverev, Flickr

It was Christmas, a few years ago. I had been invited to join a wolf hunt in a province of the Russian interior. The morning was superb: ten degrees of frost, a bright sun in a blue sky, not a breath of wind; plains stretching to the horizon, everything a raw white with pink glints and hints of gold; a dead world gleaming like old bone china.

First lines, Winter Tales, Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, 1893, my translation

Certain words of the first two sentences had my attention from the start: Christmas, wolf hunt, Russian interior.

Set in Russia and Ukraine, these tales are the writing of a French diplomat who lived there for seven years and married a Russian aristocrat. His unnamed narrator, invited to join the wolf hunt, was staying with a host who had lived through the times of serfdom and its abolition. The host tells stories of former serfs, beginning and ending with his own story as a property and serf owner during this era.

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And that, my friends, is my last offering to the list of Great Opening Lines. I do hope you’ve been inspired to hunt down some of these books, particularly the less-known novels and collections. If you have, please leave me your kind reflections on them.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 45

The thousand arms of the forest were grey, and its million fingers silver.

First line, ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’, G.K. Chesterton, 1911

G.K. Chesterton wrote 53 stories about a very short priest with ‘a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling’. Many of them have intriguing opening lines, but I particularly like this one for its imagery, the inspired words of Chesterton, the formally trained artist.

G K Chesterton and dog, 1919

It’s the beginning of a story about a hero, a soldier, for whom a monument was placed in the highest position in a church yard. Beside the recumbent sculpted soldier lay a sword, its tip broken off. The story reveals how it broke, and how a myth was born and believed.

Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown is self-effacing and enigmatic with no need of a magnifying glass or fingerprint powder. His interventions in crime cases, appearing at first bumbling and irrelevant, are intentional, based on his intuition and his sensitivity to evil. Chesterton is well known for paradoxes in his writing – even Father Brown’s offsider is a reformed criminal, as tall as the priest is short. Read ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’ and see if your intuition leads you to pick the paradox.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 44

The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended.

Opening line, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, 1968

I’ve seen the movie, and have read Part One of the six parts of the book. The opening line was nothing like I expected. So earthy.

It’s the kind of opener that makes me read on, and indeed the first chapters were compelling. I enjoyed reading Clarke’s depiction of early man and the many uses he found for rocks and bones as tools. But I probably won’t read any more. From Part Two we’re into the space odyssey, and if it’s like the movie…

The movie was not compelling, at least, not for me, particularly after “Intermission”. I struggled to stay awake. 2001 A Space Odyssey was made in 1968, 50 years ago, and according to a recent article in The New Yorker it may have been hippies that saved the film, since ‘stoned audiences’ flocked to it. It was described as ‘somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring’.

While Arthur C. Clarke was writing the novel, he and Stanley Kubrick, the film producer, were also preparing the script for the screenplay, derived from the novel. In the end Clarke was writing them both simultaneously. The movie came out several months before the book.

But this blog post is about stories and their opening lines, and this story has a good one. Perhaps the word ‘drought’ right at the start got my attention, since it’s such a familiar weather event where I live. I even like the mention of lizards in the first sentence. Two words, drought and lizards, and I’m hooked.

Arthur C. Clarke, 1965, with the EVA pod from ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’, photo Wikimedia Commons

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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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