Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet is the first of his novels about the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr Watson. I turned to the physical centre of the book to find its change of direction, and came across a long paragraph describing a Mormon caravan of wagons, horses, walkers, and toddlers, all making their way towards the West of the great North American Continent. The Mormons are a source of some major players in the story.
However, the novel has two parts, and I found at the centres of Part I and Part II the kind of mysterious statements that urge the reader to read on and discover how Sherlock solves the crime.
Halfway through Part I, a shonky detective, Lestrade, believes a murderer has written part of the name Rachel on the wall, in blood. But Sherlock’s logical reasoning produces a different theory on how the man was murdered:
“Poison,” said Sherlock Holmes curtly, and strode off. “One other thing, Lestrade,” he added, turning round at the door: “‘Rache,’ is the German for ‘revenge’; so don’t lose your time looking for Miss Rachel.”
Today I’ve found a book on my shelf which I’d forgotten about because it’s not memorable, despite its fame as a prizewinner. I’d bought it and read it because of an excellent piece I knew by the same author; it was about translating, a thing I love to do. So, I know he’s a great writer. I don’t think, however, that Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, the reflections of a self-indulgent older man, deserved a big prize. Nevertheless, it has a middle as all writing does, and the narration on pages 75 and 76, at the rough centre, is well-written, the work of a close observer.
Here the narrator is lunching with his ex-wife, discussing an issue which has arisen about one of his ex-girlfriends, ‘The Fruitcake’:
There was a silence. We ate. Then Margaret tapped her knife against my plate.
“And if the presumably still-unmarried Miss Veronica Ford happened to walk into this café and sit down at our table, how would the long-divorced Mr Anthony Webster react?”
She always puts her finger on it, doesn’t she?
“I don’t think I’d be especially pleased to see her.”
Something in the formality of my tone caused Margaret to smile. “Intrigued? Start rolling up your sleeve and taking off your watch?”
I blushed. You haven’t seen a bald man in his sixties blush? Oh, it happens, just as it does to a hairy, spotty fifteen-year-old. And because it’s rarer, it sends the blusher tumbling back to that time when life felt like nothing more than one long sequence of embarrassments.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is the first adult novel I ever read. I remember the moment when I was thirteen and found it on the school library bookshelf, and I remember how grown-up I felt reading it.
In my $1 edition I bought at a flea market, I searched today for the pages at the centre of the novel, where I was surprised to find Jane and Rochester falling in love; this then is the turning point.
It’s a huge problem for her; he is anything but available. Jane feels now, at 19 years old, as though she has mastered life. But the second half of the story from here on will reveal that she stands not on a rock of love but on quicksand, while above her, hidden in the attic, is his mad wife:
“A sneer, however, whether covert or open, had now no longer that power over me it once possessed: as I sat between my cousins, I was surprised to find how easy I felt under the total neglect of the one and the semi-sarcastic attentions of the other – Eliza did not mortify, nor Georgiana ruffle me. The fact was, I had other things to think about; within the last few months feelings had been stirred in me so much more potent than any they could raise – pains and pleasures so much more acute and exquisite had been excited than any it was in their power to inflict or bestow – that their airs gave me no concern either for good or bad.”
This morning I pulled from my bookshelf a translation of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. I flipped to the end, p. 1,463! Then I backflipped to the middle, where I read on p. 731 the essence of Hugo’s message about the miserable poor of France. Next to it on the shelf was a five-volume set of the novel in French, so I pulled out the third volume and had a go at translating the lines myself.
Just before the lines of my translation, the narrator had recounted an incident where Marius, walking at a wintry nightfall, had run into two barefoot girls in torn rags whispering to each other about their narrow escape from the police. Once they had disappeared, he continued his walk:
Along the way, in an alley off the Rue Mouffetard, he saw a child’s coffin covered in a black cloth, lying across three chairs and lighted by a candle. It brought to his mind the two girls of the twilight.
‘Poor mothers!’ he thought. ‘There’s one thing sadder than seeing your children die, and that’s seeing them live bad lives.’
Sometimes at the centre of a novel a new character is introduced who changes everything. In John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it’s not until the middle that we meet the title character. And it’s then that everything changes for the German boy, Bruno:
“The boy was smaller than Bruno and was sitting on the ground with a forlorn expression. He wore the same striped pyjamas that all the other people on that side of the fence wore, and a striped cloth cap on his head. He wasn’t wearing any shoes or socks and his feet were rather dirty. On his arm he wore an armband with a star on it.”
Half-way through Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, the patient arrives at the point in his tale where his tough personal barrier was penetrated. ‘I am a man who kept the codes of my behaviour separate,’ he says on p. 144. Then the turning point: we learn why and how he ended up in hospital (well, a hospital of sorts), the turning point in his life where it dawned on him that Clifton’s wife, Katharine, was breaking down his defences, and this led to a relationship, and this led to an accident. On p. 150 of 300 pages, I read this:
“He said later it was propinquity. Propinquity in the desert. It does that here, he said. He loved the word – the propinquity of water, the propinquity of two or three bodies in a car driving the Sand Sea for six hours. Her sweating knee beside the gearbox of the truck, the knee swerving, rising with the bumps. In the desert you have time to look everywhere, to theorize on the choreography of all things around you.”
The War of the Worlds. Read the blurb on the front cover of this 1910 edition: ‘It is a story which no ordinary reader can possibly put down half finished.’
And that’s because when you’ve half-finished reading it, you’re at a point of suspense that drives you onwards through the chapters. I’ve been reading this book online, having succumbed to the temptation of instant literature. Normally I go to a library and get the physical book to read, which should be possible with any classic. But not this time. To my disappointment, my local libraries don’t have copies of it; it’s either lost, available only as an audio-book or video, or is held in a faraway place. You’d think that libraries in a capital city would ensure they have copies of every classic on their shelves. Of course, I could always go out and buy it but then it would be yet another book to store in my house. Libraries are a gift.
Searching for the centre of The War of the Worlds online, I took the plain text version which is 111 pages long, then went to p. 55 and read these tense lines in the chapter ‘The Exodus from London’ which follows a number of chaos-filled chapters where Martians had invaded the suburbs of London, killing citizens with their Heat-Ray and a black vapour they discharged into the streets:
‘All the railway lines north of the Thames and the South-Eastern people at Cannon Street had been warned by midnight on Sunday, and trains were being filled. People were fighting savagely for standing-room in the carriages even at two o’clock. By three, people were being trampled and crushed even in Bishopsgate Street, a couple of hundred yards or more from Liverpool Street station; revolvers were fired, people stabbed, and the policemen who had been sent to direct the traffic exhausted and infuriated, were breaking the heads of the people they were called out to protect.’
Header: artwork by Alvim Corréa for a 1906 Belgian edition. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (translated by Carol Brown Janeway) is 216 pages long and the middle page (of my edition) is p. 108, where Hanna, a former guard in a Nazi concentration camp, is on trial for her part in locking women prisoners in a church which was then bombed and burnt down. Two pages later, on p. 110, Hanna asks the judge a question which leaves him, and us the readers, on shaky ground. The judge searches for an answer, stalls for time, and eventually answers unsatisfactorily. We the readers read on, hoping a better answer is offered in the second half of the novel.
Here’s the portion of the conversation that puts the ball in the judge’s court:
‘Did you not know that you were sending the prisoners to their death?’
‘Yes, but the new ones came, and the old ones had to make room for the new ones.’
‘So because you wanted to make room, you said you and you and you have to be sent back to be killed?’
Hanna didn’t understand what the presiding judge was getting at.
‘I … I mean … so what would you have done?’ Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done.
Today, telling my daughter-in-law about the turning point at a novel’s centre, I picked up a book lying on her table, Wuthering Heights, to demonstrate. I calculated the number of pages in the story, then halved it and turned to that page, ending up at p. 166, the early part of Volume Two where Heathcliff asks Nelly Dean how Catherine died. Nelly replies:
‘Her life closed in a gentle dream – may she wake as kindly in the other world!’
And Heathcliff responds darkly, horrifying many of the readers in 1847 who were frightened by this unstable, devilish man and what he was going to do with this consuming love in the second half of the story:
‘May she wake in torment!’ he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. ‘Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there – not in heaven – not perished – where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers.’
To find the centre of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (translated by William Weaver), I have to begin by counting the pages of the first prologue which precedes the second prologue. The first one appears to be a kind of introduction by the author, an account of how Eco came to write this story. But he’s shrewd; the first prologue is all fiction, just like the rest of the story. Added to the pages of the story, (pp. 3 – 493), the total number in my edition is about 498, making the centre a sub-title page, “Fourth Day”. But I turn the page and find the spot where the young monk, the narrator, starts to feel certain his fellow monks are not simply dying one by one, they are being murdered. A coincidence is revealed at this halfway point, leading the reader to guess why the monks in this wealthy Italian monastery are being permanently silenced.
“The other day I observed Venantius’s hands, when the blood had been washed off, and I noticed a detail to which I attached little importance. The tips of two fingers of Venantius’s right hand were dark, as if blackened by some dark substance. Exactly – you see? – like two fingertips of Berengar now. In fact, here we have a trace also on the third finger. At the time I thought that Venantius had handled some inks in the scriptorium. . . . “