My father died eons ago, but I’ll post one of his poems today, Father’s Day, to thank him for volunteering to join the army to go the Middle East back in the 40s.
I get the feeling from this poem that as he was thinking and writing, he was probably regretting his decision to go so far from home, but at last he was coming back and couldn’t wait to get off the ship he had sailed on for weeks, the Duntroon. I also get a sense of appreciation for the hard-working nurses who attended him in Kantara Hospital, Egypt, and now on board this ship.
As I lie in my bed and gaze around,
I long for the day they set me aground,
My mind wanders back to my hometown
For this goddamned ship is getting me down.
I think of the fun and the times I’ve had
I think of my Sweetheart, my Mum and Dad,
I wish for the places I’m longing to see,
I wish for the faces of those dear to me.
You see, I’m in dock, on board this fine ship,
And I’m anxiously waiting the end of this trip.
I watch all the faces, the expressions they wear,
Some fat, some thin, and some have no hair.
Then there’s the Sisters in capes coloured red,
As they carry the medicine to ease a sick bed,
Their hours are endless, thanks often nil,
I’ve ne’er heard one grumble
And p’raps never will.
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:
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.
Apparently, it’s good for writers to write reviews of other writers’ work. I’ve never done it and never wanted to, till now.
I had a great morning walking round some natural ponds and listening to hundreds of frogs croaking among reeds, all thanks to one small book: Walking Canberra by Graeme Barrow, self-published in 2014. So I feel compelled to share this pleasure with anyone who might be contemplating a walk in our beautiful bush capital. Here goes my first book review…
Waiting to be served at my local newsagent, my eyes fell on this little book propped up among the sweets at the counter. The full title held my attention: Walking Canberra: 101 ways to see Australia’s national capital on foot. I’d long been considering how to get some exercise and at the same time discover some of the unknown treasures and pleasures in our world, and this title promised to deliver exactly that.
Walking Canberra is nothing like the stuff I work on as a translator, it’s neither a fairy tale nor a New Caledonian drama, yet it’s currently a favourite book that I’ve been referring to for the past four weeks. I’ve heard there aren’t many copies left because it’s going out of print. Graeme Barrow self-published his books through his own business, Dagraja Press. He was a Canberra journalist who wrote books on bushwalking in this region, as well as a few local histories. He died in May last year, so here’s hoping that someone else will take on the project of updating his advice on walking in Canberra’s parks and bushland as the city changes and grows and old paths and landmarks are moved or removed.
Barrow wrote like a friend to friends. The information and instructions are clear as a bell, and though he published it in 2014, I’ve found that the details (in the walks I’ve taken so far) are still correct. There are small maps on each page, and a description of what to see along the way, an outline of where to turn, where to linger and what to avoid.
Last weekend and this, my husband and I walked the Gungaderra Creek Circuit, chosen by me because of its level of difficulty: “Easy”. The local government has created a series of ponds instead of the usual concrete stormwater drains, and these ponds attract water birds and frogs frogs frogs which are invisible among the reeds but loud! There are no frogs in my suburb so this sound was a surprise.
While walking in what is essentially still suburbia, there are reminders here and there of human slips in the design: a thorny rosebush growing as though grafted onto a young eucalypt, a pink soccer ball fallen into the dense reed bed…
… and there’s the street beside Gungaderra Creek that was named and renamed after two Australian authors…
Minnie Bruce was the author Mary Grant Bruce, famous for her Billabong series, who was granted a street name in a suburb (Franklin) where Australian authors were the theme. Ten years ago her family asked for the name to be revoked since her mother was known as Minnie, and Mary was known as Mary (despite being named Minnie at birth). So, Morris West, another Australian author, was given the street. West was famous for many novels but particularly his first, The Devil’s Advocate, which has been reprinted more times than any other modern Australian novel. Now there’s a claim to fame that deserves its own street!
Out of the 101 ways to see Australia’s national capital on foot I’ve already done about 47 by dint of having lived here for 21 years. I’m thrilled to have found this special book that gives me ideas for filling my free days for the next 21 years.
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.
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 …
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…
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.
Keep checking back to this blog to hear news of the stories making it into print.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.