Six degrees of separation: ‘Where am I now?’ to ‘The Collector’

The blog Booksaremyfavouriteandbest asks once a month if we can find links between books in six moves. I like this kind of challenge. My thoughts often drift irrationally from one thing to another and I curse myself for not being able to stay on one brain path. But analysing my links between the following books helps me see there are indeed connections, be they gossamer-thin. September’s starting point, as suggested by Kate from the blog above, is Where am I now? by Mara Wilson.

I ended up at The Collector. Let me take you there:

1. I haven’t read ‘Where am I Now?’ but I immediately knew the little girl on the cover. It’s Matilda, from the movie of the book by Roald Dahl. Of all the movies Mara Wilson was in as a child actor, the name Matilda stuck with me because I wanted her to be Australian, but of course she was American.

2. And that was because Matilda made me think of Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Paterson and a book that includes some of his songs and stories called Bush Songs, Ballads and Other Verse that I picked up at a garage sale.

3. It came with a matching volume, Best Stories by Henry Lawson. ‘The Drover’s Wife’ is the opening story which I use when tutoring to help new Australians get a taste of our history and the harsh life for women who were left alone on the land to raise children and fend off snakes.

4. As I sat in sadness over drovers’ wives, I thought of another fictional woman who had to go it alone with her child, the protagonist of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Agnes Brontë. I’ve read it twice.

5. And another book I’ve read twice with a theme not unlike The Tenant, is The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. The movie with Meryl Streep is one of my favourites.

6. This brought to mind The Collector, also by John Fowles, a book about a creepy guy who collects butterflies and enjoys pinning them into display cases to admire them. But then he collects a young woman and traps her like a butterfly. I listened to this book in the car on a long trip and at a particularly disturbing part I stopped at a café for a break where on the wall were multiple pictures of individual butterflies.

I had fun doing this! No doubt I’ll do it again in October when the starting point is The Outsiders. (Not the French one.)

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Excerpts of literary hope

In the past few months I’ve had four translated stories accepted by journals. In my last post I lamented the silence of two of those journals, but, good news!, one has announced the story will be published in September. And two more have promised to publish another couple of stories, so I’m hoping that all will go well for those journals.

As a lover of Great Opening Lines, I thought I’d include their first lines here as excerpts from the three forthcoming stories.

First:

Hiding behind the hedge, the wolf was patiently watching the house.

Opening line, ‘The Wolf’, Marcel Aymé, translated by me, forthcoming in ‘Delos Journal’

A story for children and adults about a wolf that wants to be good and kind but deep down he’s still an animal …

Cover, Le Loup, Marcel Aymé, illus Roland & Claudine Sabatier, pub. Gallimard

Second:

Not long ago and not far away, a sculptor in love with his statue as in the days of Pygmalion the King of Cyprus, reproduced the same miracle and brought her to life, transforming the marble into living flesh through which glorious blood flowed by his will and the force of his overpowering desire.

Opening line, ‘The Lydian’, Théodore de Banville, translated by me, forthcoming in ‘Black Sun Lit’

The Lydian is the mythological Queen Omphale who was given Hercules as her slave for a year (his punishment for a murder). She wore the skin of the lion he had killed, and carried his club. Banville’s story tells of a sculptor who produced a statue of Omphale that came to life. He thought his dreams had come true…

Omphale statue, Schlosspark Schönbrunn, Austria, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Third:

Once when the valiant knight Roland was returning from fighting the Moriscos, he was letting his horse catch its breath in a Pyrenean pass when he heard a shepherd tell of an enchanter, not far from there, who was making himself odious to the whole country by his tyranny and cruelty.

Opening line, ‘Tears on the Sword’, Catulle Mendès, translated by me, forthcoming in ‘The Clarion Call’ anthology

A fantasy about the French medieval hero, Roland, who revels in fights with lances and swords but now must defend his country against a sorcerer who has invented a diabolical weapon that allows cowards to kill from afar.

Roland and his loyal sword, illustration by Charles Copeland in ‘Page Esquire and Knight’, Marion Lansing

Keep checking back to this blog to hear news of the stories making it into print.

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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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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: 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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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: 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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46 Great Opening Lines: 35

The rabbits came many grandparents ago.

First line, The Rabbits, John Marsden, 1998

The phrase ‘many grandparents ago’ is a brilliant way of defining time for Australian descendants of immigrants. For me, it’s a great opener to an unsettling story.

The Rabbits is a fable about two things multiplying prolifically in this country: rabbits and non-Indigenous people.  John Marsden is cryptically commenting on the coincidence of the human and rabbit population explosion since the arrival of the British in 1788. The illustrator Shaun Tan produced quite disturbing images for the award-winning book destined for older children but for us adults too.

This week, I read two conflicting things. I read The Rabbits with my adult student who has come here from across the seas, and explained to her the problem caused by introducing these cute fluffy creatures into Australia. And also this week I read this advertisement near my house:

Are they serious?

Rabbits near Lake Burley Griffin shoreline
Rabbits near the underpass of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra
Rabbits near underpass of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra

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46 Great Opening Lines: 34

There was a desert wind blowing that night.

Opening line, Red Wind, Raymond Chandler, 1938

Dennis Aubrey at Via Lucis commented that his favourite opening line is this one from the short story Red Wind.

It’s somewhat relevant today with the wind howling outside my window. Not that’s it’s a desert wind. More of an inland mountain wind blowing dust over our city from the drought-stricken west, blighting our mountain view with a grey haze.

Chandler’s opening continues grimly:

“It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Has he got your attention? Philip Marlowe, private detective, is going to a bar for a beer, but someone has to die.

Image result for "raymond chandler" "red wind"Thanks Dennis for introducing me to Philip Marlowe. I liked his references to the hot wind through the narration. ‘Outside the wind howled’; ‘… he looked cool as well as under a tension of some sort. I guessed it was the hot wind.’; ‘The wind was making enough noise to make the hard quick rap of .22 ammunition sound like a slammed door…’; ‘The wind was still blowing, oven-hot, swirling dust and torn paper up against the walls.’

Confession: after the third chapter, I couldn’t go on. Too many guns.

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