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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The Lydian

Today my translation of Théodore de Banville’s ‘La Lydienne’ (The Lydian) was published by Black Sun Lit on their web site.

The Lydian is a statue of Queen Omphale, queen of Lydia in Greek mythology. Théodore de Banville’s story is about a sculptor who creates a marble statue of her and falls in love with it. With her. His love is so powerful that she comes to life…

There are a few real sculptures of her in the world and even more paintings, particularly accompanied by Hercules who was her slave for a year. This sculpture by Constantin Dausch is my favourite of all those I’ve seen online:

Omphale by Constantin Dausch, Museum im Kornhaus Bad Waldsee

It’s been more than a year since I’ve had any of my translations published, so I’m having a very good day.

The original was written in 1882. For me the second half of the 19th century was one of the greatest eras for literature. If you too enjoy fantasy and “art for art’s sake” (de Banville’s literary philosophy), this story will be a good one for you.

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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: 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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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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