46 Great Opening Lines: 21

On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.

Opening line, Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Constance Garnett

Last night I could have written:

On an exceptionally hot evening early in January a middle-aged couple came out of the house in which they lodged in H. Street and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards C. bridge.

Yesterday evening and this evening are the endings of exceptionally hot days in Canberra. Today, 39 degrees.

Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra, dusk yesterday

Perhaps you didn’t imagine Dostoyevsky’s character walking towards a bridge like this one. Rather, since I don’t have any photos of Russian bridges, you might have seen him heading for a bridge resembling this old one in Cairo, where the evenings are undoubtedly hot:

English Bridge, Cairo, nightime, c1941

I confess I haven’t read Crime and Punishment though I have read other Dostoyevsky works. But when I compared the opening line translated into English by three different translators, I thought it was worth writing about. My favourite is Constance Garnett’s 33 words in a succinct sentence, quoted above. Compare it with the 46 words of Katz’s translation:

In the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, toward evening, a young man left his tiny room, which he sublet from some tenants who lived in Stolyarnyi Lane, stepped out onto the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, set off towards the Kokushkin Bridge. (Translated by Michael Katz)

Plenty of detail, but I was lost after ‘sublet’. In my humble opinion there are 13 words too many. That said, I can’t read Russian and therefore can’t really say if there are omissions or additions. Now look at this one by Oliver Ready:

In early July, in exceptional heat, towards evening, a young man left the garret he was renting in S–y Lane, stepped outside, and slowly, as if in two minds, set off towards K–n Bridge. (Translated by Oliver Ready)

The number of words is similar to Garnett’s, but what it loses (for me) is the immediacy in her first words, “On an exceptionally hot evening…”. The other two translators tell us first off what month it is, but that’s not as good a beginning for a great opening line.

Perhaps I’m presently susceptible to Garnett’s first words since it’s about 10 pm and the temperature in my house is still 30 degrees.

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Changing Seasons: December

Here we are at the end of the year, and here I am, writing the last of my twelve Changing Seasons posts in response to Cardinal Guzman’s photo challenge.

Canberra, December. Last week, schools finished for the year, and children began six weeks of summer holidays. In anticipation of Christmas, they’re enjoying the city’s decorations and festivities. In past years the local government has put up a huge FAKE Christmas tree in the centre of the city, which, in my humble opinion, has always been disappointing. But this year they’ve made an effort. We have a forest of trees within a forest of trees.

Children are invited to pick up a bag of decorations and dress the trees. The December sunlight filtering through the tall trees and small trees makes a pretty carpet. And the innocence of children taking pleasure in choosing their own decoration and their own tree was a perfect subject for me with my camera. Two toddlers, however, were reprimanded by their mothers for pinching a coloured ball and carrying it off… The innocence was relative, after all.

Glebe Park, Canberra

My Christmas wish for my blog readers: May you not be caught filching baubles.

Merry Christmas to all of you wonderful bloggers out there.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 12

I had never seen so many white coats in my little room.

Opening line of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated by Jeremy Leggatt

When Jean-Dominique Bauby wakes from a coma after a stroke, he’s surrounded by medical staff. He can’t move much of his body, just his head and one eye. By blinking it, he communicates with a speech therapist and dictates this book.

The diving bell represents his body confined and greatly restricted with Locked-in Syndrome. The butterfly is his mind taking flight, as it used to before the stroke when he was the chief editor of Elle, a French fashion magazine.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is amazing. Short and elegant, both the original and the translation. Highly recommended.

I thought about butterfly freedom this morning when I came across these two embracing beauties clinging to the fig branch in my garden. You see? Sometimes even a butterfly can be confined and restricted.

Orchard swallowtail butterflies, Papilio aegeus

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Changing Seasons: November

This weekend I went to a kind of food fair, a Taste of Braddon, a suburb that some are calling the hipster suburb of Canberra. A couple of streets that not long ago were the place to go if you wanted to buy or repair a car have now been transformed into the place to eat hip food all day, drink coffee in the mornings and anything else you’d like in the evenings.

A Taste of Braddon is happening because it’s November, it’s warm, and the foodies of the inner suburbs are happy to be out in the sunshine. The ice cream limousine is sure to attract a lot of customers, even if it’s just for a look.

I would have been more tempted to buy a cone full of gelato if I’d not just finished a large cappuccino made by Ben the barista (my son) from the Lonsdale Street Roasters stall. The colourful shop-in-a-limo attracted a lot of children (not that they could have bought an ice cream without a debit card…). But isn’t it a great idea? One thing was curious: the fridge was running on a generator sitting on the grass off to the right, but how did they transport it without it all melting?

Only one more month to go in Cardinal Guzman’s seasonal photo challenge. Check out his Norwegian Oktober.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 10

Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, where the right way was lost.

Opening line of Canto 1, “Hell”, The Divine Comedy, Dante, completed 1320, translated by Charles Eliot Norton.

 

Dante has lost the “right way” and hopes to find it before he grows old. But he begins his work “Midway upon the journey of our life”, that is, when he was about 43, though it was not midway for him; he died at 56.

Many of us live long past 56, though some old people seem to be still in the dark wood that comes with weariness and a tired mind, a thought that occurred to me this week in the National Gallery of Australia where thirteen old men in electric wheelchairs are rolling around a room aimlessly, dozing, sleeping, or staring into space. They’re not real. They’re an exhibit by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, “Old People’s Home”, part of the Hyper Real sculpture exhibition.

Unlike Dante I’m not in a dark wood turning over thoughts of hell, purgatory and heaven. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to purgatory, but I’m not so certain I won’t end up in its earthly counterpart as a model for the two Beijing artists when they create the female version of Old People’s Home.

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Changing Seasons: October

In October around Canberra there are fetes and fiestas and spring celebrations. This one is called Party at the Shops.

It’s on today. There are dancing schoolgirls, a big band and sausage sizzle, Thai food and a jumping castle. There’s also a home-made lemonade stand. Note that the signs don’t just offer lemonade. Let’s hope the preschoolers visiting their stand can’t read, or else they might ask for Carlton Dry or Iron Jack lager or rum or whisky or Vodka Cruiser.

The weather is superb, perfect for dancing outdoors. The girls danced to Michael Jackson (above) and Bollywood (below), and in between there was an umbrella dance to Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Note the fairness of their skin, the result of being covered up for months during the long Canberra cold season. Quite a contrast to coastal skin which is, on most people in this country, tanned.

Thanks to Cardinal Guzman for the Changing Seasons inspiration.

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Changing Seasons: September

On 1st September the Australian spring officially sprang. While those north of Canberra may think it might as well still be called winter down here, the inhabitants of this capital can see the seasonal signs that temperatures are slowly slowly creeping up.

Before yesterday, before 6.12am yesterday, I could’ve said I’d lived in Canberra for 20 years and had never seen the sun rise over Lake Burley Griffin. Now I can say I have. I rose at 5 to get to the lake for the ephemeral moment of joy at 6.12. It wasn’t the cloudy, fiery sunrise of the previous morning (see Brand New Day), it wasn’t breathtaking like the dawn seen by rowers in winter fog. There were no orange clouds and no pastel mist; it was an absolutely clear sky giving me a brilliant start to the day. Sure, the temperatures were not springy. It was 3 degrees when I left home at 5.45, barely 1 degree down at the lake, then after an hour of sunrise-watching it had warmed up to 4, but back home it was down to 2.

Still, this post is about the signs of changing seasons. If the dawn temperature has improved little since winter, it’s evidently spring when the trees are slowly putting on their new clothes. Some even burst out in flower before leaf. A close look at the branches highlit by the new sun reveals tiny prunus bouquets here and there.

Moments before sunrise,  facing the moon
Sunrise, Lake Burley Griffin. Two long shadows, one is a tree, one is me.

That moment when the ball of fire that is our sun appears in full over the horizon is always a head-turner. It’s hard to believe I didn’t feel the earth move even though it did.

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The Changing Seasons photo challenge comes from Cardinal Guzman.

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Brand New Day

This is the first post on my new blog, soundslikewish the sequel.

I had a good start to the day when I woke at 6am and saw the white curtains glowing pale orange over the east-facing window. I zipped out to the back yard to see a fiery sunrise. Of course I had a camera in my hand…

It’s also a day when I’m beginning a new translation requested by a publisher, though I’ve just this minute received a warning from the Australian Society of Authors about the offer. Has the publisher provided me with a contract? No. Well then, proceed with extreme caution. That’s the advice I’m heeding as I cautiously take the French story about Pierrot and Polichinelle down to the local café, translate it, drink a cappuccino and eat a croissant.

Later today I’ll think about asking for a contract. Unless there’s a brilliant sunset and I’m drawn away from the tedious details of life to admire the beauty of the sun that will rise and set no matter what we humans do.

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James Burley

I have often thought that many a youngster when he was hit out there on the Passchendaele heights … and he knew that the end had come – must have thought to himself: “well at least they’ll remember me in Australia”. C.E.W. Bean

We all have ancestors but not all of us study their lives. I do, but I don’t know whether I’d recommend it. Many of my ancestors died young, which means I’m a descendant of the few survivors. And every young loss has a tragic story behind his or her death.

Two brothers who enlisted in the army together, numbers 5046 and 5047, James and Frederick Burley, were my great-grandmother’s cousins. Both of their lives ended in France in 1917. Frederick was never found.

But James was wounded in one of the horrific battles in Passchendaele near Ypres in Belgium, died in hospital in Rouen, France, and is buried there. This week, news articles are appearing about the commemorations of the hundred years that have passed since the Ypres battles. By coincidence, James Burley had his name projected onto the Australian War Memorial last night. I was there to see it for the 30 seconds it was shining on the facade of the building.

Like many Australians, I have descended from a convict ancestor, Joseph Burley, who was transported to New South Wales for trying to sell a stolen watch. Seven years he got. Pretty harsh penalty for a pretty petty crime.

Frederick and James Burley were his grandsons.

James was wounded on 20th October when his battalion was fighting near Zonnebeke in the region of Ypres, where 30 mm of rain had fallen two weeks earlier. Not only was the ground wet from heavy rain, but parts of the battlefield were swamp or reclaimed swamp, and digging and shelling only produced more water.

View of the swamps of Zonnebeke on the day of the First Battle of Passchendaele. Ruins of Zonnebeke church in background. Photo from Australian War Memorial taken on 12th October 1917.

Note from War diary for James’ 47th battalion, 12th October 1917: Country almost impassable being very boggy and shell holes full of water… Weather very bad, cold, raining… Men’s feet very sore owing to continually standing in shell holes full of water…

James died seven days after he was wounded. He was 32 and had got married the year before.

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This is the last of my relatives’ names to be projected onto the War Memorial. Five in all.

I have so little to complain about.

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Nervous

We arrived at the ruins of the burnt-out observatory at Mount Stromlo before the sun set yesterday, excited about the performance we were about to see: “Nervous” by the Australian Dance Party, an hour of contemporary dance, music and lighting.

At eight o’clock, inside the structure in the light of the early evening, four dancers began their interpretation of the inner turmoil of nervousness, while the audience waited outside in anticipation, peeking in through the doorway. At last we were invited into the space to find a chair or floor cushion to settle into for the performance as the dancers slowly and aimlessly walked about the circular centre of the floor, confronting each other and almost colliding, wondering about the thing that was making them nervous.

And then they seemed to come together in harmony and moved as one.

Once the audience was comfortably seated, the dancers picked up speed, and the idea moved from wondering to worrying. The nerves were back in control, and we soon learnt why, through the dialogue of the blonde dancer: “Hey, there’s something I really need to talk to you about.” We heard it over and over in different phrasings, as she talked to herself or moved up to the audience and addressed them directly. Hello, there’s something…. No. Hey, how are you? There’s something I… No. Ahhhh, there’s something I really… No. Ughhh, just act natural… Why is this so hard?…

And as she practised her speech, the other three were her conscience, the angels and devils telling her she was doing it right and doing it wrong and she was hopeless at this but had to do it anyway. The four became one conscience and approached the audience, and again the blonde spoke, Hey, there’s something I really…, while a second dancer held her breath, another writhed and the fourth groaned painfully. All of that stuff that goes on inside us while we’re trying to appear calm and in control.

Eventually the nervousness conquered its victims and they could do no more than lie on the cold concrete floor in the purple light of defeat…

Over all of this movement was the intense electronic music composed by Ben Worth (my son), pulsating and vibrating and making us physically vibrate with it. It was loud and soft and occasionally absent but it always returned. And there was Robbie, the lighting guy up there on the platform with Ben, playing his lights over the dancers as darkness descended. Robbie’s light show became one of the players playing with the dancers’ nerves.

Ben, left, Robbie, right (behind scaffold)

By nine o’clock, the sky above the roofless structure was black and starry with a crescent moon and nearby Venus growing brighter by the minute. Some cords from the floor became a prop that lit up and tangled about them, winding around and wrapping them up. The music stopped, the darkness was almost complete. Someone began clapping, and we realised this was the end.

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