Six degrees of separation: Vanity Fair to Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Booksaremyfavouriteandbest invites us each month to find six degrees of separation between books. November’s starting point is Vanity Fair by Thackeray.

1.  I haven’t read Vanity Fair but the name of William Makepeace Thackeray immediately brought George Sand’s Spiridion to mind because Thackeray said, in relation to her novel Spiridion (that I translated), that she was “the most elegant writer, I think, that her sex ever produced.”

2. Thinking of Spiridion leads me to Cœurs russes (Russian Hearts) by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé which I’ve also translated. It’s a book of short stories written by a French ambassador to Russia in the 1880s, set in Russia and written in the style of Turgenev and Tolstoy.

3. Now I’m remembering the pleasure of reading A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev, especially the short story ‘The Tryst‘.

4. I’ve used ‘The Tryst’ several times when tutoring migrants in English because of its delicious descriptions. One student who enjoyed it has now asked for us to read Picnic at Hanging Rock together. I can’t believe my luck, I love this book.

5. Of course the images in my head now are from the movie of the same name, where floaty, pure, muslin-robed girls wander over forbidding boulders, as though returning to their fairy homes. This triggers a memory of Théodore de Banville’s story ‘L’Enfant bossue’ (The Hunchback Girl) in Contes féeriques (Tales of Faerie) about a convent girl who wants to return to her fairy parents.

6. I’ve got fairies on the brain, having translated a great number of French fairy tales in the last few years and read several illustrated books of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Four of these six books are collections of short stories, which says something about my translating life: stories are more likely to be accepted by publishers than novels. But they’ve made me love 19th-century literature even more.

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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: 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: 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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46 Great Opening Lines: 24

The forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death.

Opening line, The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht, 2011

I’m staying this weekend in an apartment with only three days to read. There are no bookshelves here, but I did find some books in a drawer, from which I chose The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht after reading the prologue. Unfortunately three days are not enough to read a novel and I’ll have to put it back in the drawer before I go home. But yesterday I took it to lunch with me, and its yellow and red cover went well with the yellow and red restaurant.

The meal was excellent. Delicious. What you’d expect in A Taste of Eden. (I’m in Eden.)

By the way, the prologue held my attention with its description of a visit to see tigers in a zoo. There was an incident…

And the opening line? It introduces a paragraph describing the movement of the soul away from the dead body, and the rituals of the living to keep it from leaving the house.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 20

At dawn in an outlying district of Warsaw, sunlight swarmed around the trunks of blooming linden trees and crept up the white walls of a 1930s stucco and glass villa where the zoo director and his wife slept in a bed crafted from white birch, a pale wood used in canoes, tongue depressors, and Windsor chairs.

Opening line, The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman, 2007

On a long-haul flight back to Australia, I watched the movie of The Zookeeper’s Wife twice. The first time I could barely hear the sound, the earphones were poor quality, so I took a second bite at it, imagining the storyline by the visuals. In the stopover airport I spotted the novel of the same name at the newsagent. On the opening page I read the line you’ve just read above, and was hooked by the setting described in that long sentence, being able to match it to my memory of film images. I got hold of the book once I was back home. It was unputdownable.

It’s a true story about a Polish zookeeper, but particularly about his wife, Antonina Zabinski, who hid about 300 Jews and resistance fighters from the Gestapo. The zoo’s animals had all been let loose or killed in the 1939 bombing of Warsaw, so she and her husband, Jan, allowed people to hide in animal cages, shelters and underground tunnels on their way to longer-term hiding places. Antonina and Jan and many of their illegal guests survived the war.

I recommend the film as well. The actress, Jessica Chastain, like the woman she plays, has an awesome affinity with animals that’s delightful to watch.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 11

1918. 8 March. There is so much influenza about that they’ve had to shut the university.

Opening line, The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla, 1966, translated by Peter Bush

 

Catalonia is in the news and on my mind. I’m reading Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook. And it’s in my face, for my desktop picture is a 1915 painting, L’esmorzar (Breakfast) by Joaquim Sunyer, one of Pla’s favourite Catalan artists.

Sometime last year I found this image online, bright and deep and earthy. But for an unknown reason I can’t find it again, so here’s a photo of my desktop picture. And my desktop. I so enjoy this painting that I haven’t removed it from my screen since I found it. The couple look friendly, as if they’d happily prepare me a meal even if I don’t speak Catalan, or even Spanish. They’re tanned from working outdoors, probably producing the food on their table and the tables of the townspeople. They’re rugged and strong, a little reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters but healthier.

The colours of south-east France and north-east Spain (or Catalonia) are warm and inviting, baked yellow and clay red, like the colours of the Catalan flag, like the colours in this wall plaque I snapped in Port-Vendres, not far north of the French-Spanish border.

This sense of real life, of a colourful realism, is what I’m reading in Josep Pla. The book is a diary written over twenty months, beginning the day Josep turns 21, but it wasn’t published until he was 69, by which time he had transformed it with added stories, reflections and a little stretched truth. It’s filled with descriptions, yarns, recalled childhood images, and plenty of cynicism. More than anything it revives my own pleasant memories of Pla’s part of the world, Catalonia.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 1

At dusk they pour from the sky.

Opening line, All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

There’s a chair at the kitchen table that I sit on for hours some days. Reading my own work forwards and backwards – backwards is a trick I learned in translation school – I’m forever searching for better ways to say everything. To get an editor’s tick, I have to stay on the chair. So I stay until the job’s done, or until life interferes.

Right now, a book of French fairy tales keeps me here. The repetitive acts of translating, reading, editing and reading again, in the hope of arriving at the perfect story, are driving me into an unproductive blankness. So here I am, writing on this blog, writing just for the distraction of it, analysing what makes writing work well.

My story has to make it further than an editor’s slush pile, and one element, more than any other, is the lure: the very first line. If it’s not great, he might not read the second.

Once, because I was 54 years old, I wrote 54 blog posts about opening lines (click the category link…). It was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise that taught me a lot. Now, as I have in life, I’m going on from 54 to see how many more I can find. It won’t be simple, for not all the stories on my bookshelves begin with a great opener. But I’ll challenge myself even further, now and then, to find great translated opening lines. You know, the sort of oft-quoted line such as “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Rosemary Edmonds.

Today I won’t begin with translation but with a novel originally written in English. I found this great opener that immediately had me hooked in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, on a page entitled ‘Leaflets’:

At dusk they pour from the sky.

The story is set in World War Two in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. Fascinating. A page-turner. Great to read aloud.

Saint-Malo, Brittany, France, image courtesy  CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=183293

It shouldn’t be hard to get to 100 (blog posts that is…). I’ll write about great opening lines whenever I need a break, which happens every few days! Please tell me if you know of any yourself!

 

Header credit: Jean-Christophe Windland, on Wikimedia Commons

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The Mask

My translation of Claudine Jacques’ short story Le Masque has just been published by Volkeno Books, Vanuatu, in a bilingual edition. Hold the book one way to read the original French story, then flip it over to read it in English.

The setting is a fare ofe, a bamboo house in New Caledonian bushland. The protagonist sees it as exotic and inspirational, just the impetus she needs to begin her writing career. She talks to a tribal mask left behind by a previous tenant, and it responds…

Available to order at noiraublanc.fr, here: http://noiraublanc.fr/index.php?route=product/category&path=62

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