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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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: 35

The rabbits came many grandparents ago.

First line, The Rabbits, John Marsden, 1998

The phrase ‘many grandparents ago’ is a brilliant way of defining time for Australian descendants of immigrants. For me, it’s a great opener to an unsettling story.

The Rabbits is a fable about two things multiplying prolifically in this country: rabbits and non-Indigenous people.  John Marsden is cryptically commenting on the coincidence of the human and rabbit population explosion since the arrival of the British in 1788. The illustrator Shaun Tan produced quite disturbing images for the award-winning book destined for older children but for us adults too.

This week, I read two conflicting things. I read The Rabbits with my adult student who has come here from across the seas, and explained to her the problem caused by introducing these cute fluffy creatures into Australia. And also this week I read this advertisement near my house:

Are they serious?

Rabbits near Lake Burley Griffin shoreline
Rabbits near the underpass of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra
Rabbits near underpass of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra

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46 Great Opening Lines: 33

To rear a boy under what parents call the ‘sheltered life’ system is, if the boy must go into the world and fend for himself, not wise.

Opening line, Thrown Away, Rudyard Kipling, 1890

In this beginning there’s a hint about the ending.

The story comes in a little black Penguin book, The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows by Rudyard Kipling, a collection of six stories taken from a larger collection, Plain Tales from the Hills.

It’s a story of a Boy who “was beautifully taught in all that wins marks by a private tutor, and carried the extra weight of ‘never having given his parents an hour’s anxiety in his life’.”

Most Boys give their parents an hour’s anxiety, and countless hours of unspeakable joy.

Singing sons

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46 Great Opening Lines: 32

Tuesday, July 23rd. – Am aroused by violent knocking at the door in the early gray dawn – so violent that two large centipedes and a scorpion drop on to the bed.

First line of A Hippo Banquet by Mary Kingsley, 1897

This is the first line of the first story in a small book, A Hippo Banquet, published by Penguin as no. 32 of 80 Little Black Classics. The line certainly drew me in, fearful as I am of bugs dropping down on me in my bed. Quite the contrast is this fearless English woman, Mary Kingsley, who lived in West Africa in the 1890s and wrote of her life there in Travels in West Africa from which this little black book was made.

The hippo banquet occurs at night when hippos graze on hippo grass. Mary has gone for a canoe ride alone in the middle of the night because she can’t sleep (mosquitoes and lice in the bed…), and it’s then she comes upon five hippos feasting.

Hippo and baby, photo courtesy Wikipedia

The first line of the whole work, Travels in West Africa, is much longer but equally compelling and worth quoting:

“The West Coast of Africa is like the Arctic regions in one particular, and that is that when you have once visited it you want to go back there again; and, now I come to think of it, there is another particular in which it is like them, and that is that the chances you have of returning from it at all are small, for it is a Belle Dame sans merci.”

La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a poem written by John Keats in 1819, in which the Belle Dame is at once a figure of love and fantasy, death and decay.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 31

It was late, and Holofernes’ guests quickly withdrew. Bagoas closed the tent from the outside, dismissed the attendants, and everyone went to their lodgings to sleep, tired from too much drinking. Holofernes had collapsed onto his bed, completely drunk. Judith was left alone with him in the tent.

Opening of Chapter 13 of the Book of Judith

Judith and Holofernes, Jan de Bray, 1659, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I like the opening of this chapter, which in many versions of the book of Judith is given the title ‘Judith beheads Holofernes’. Even if this spoiler is present, the opening sentences contain enough intrigue to keep us reading. Holofernes is dead drunk, passed out, and all his guests have been asked to leave, except for Judith…

As an art history student I studied a few paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes, but when I viewed this one at the Dutch Masters exhibition in the Art Gallery of New South Wales last month, I thought I’d do well to read the story. It’s a good one. I recommend it. One thing I learnt is that the maidservant who is most often present in the artworks as a tense witness, was in fact asked by Judith to wait outside the tent. As the opening lines say, she remained alone with Holofernes. Like his fellow Baroque artists, Jan de Bray has included the maid, but I was drawn to this painting because of what he excluded. He portrays Judith in the moment before she brings the sword down on his neck, in contrast to painters who preferred the following moment with all its gore.

Judith was a beautiful Hebrew widow who convinced an evil general of Nebuchadnezzar that she could help him to kill the Jews in her town. She was lying. He invited her to his banquet, and under the spell of her beauty, he drank more than he’d ever drunk on any day of his life, and collapsed. Judith dispatched her enemy and saved her town.

The lines quoted above are my translation of a French translation from a 1997 bible published by the Société biblique française.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 29

If an anaconda bites your hand – as, no doubt, one someday will – gulps your fist whole and holds fast, fight the keen urge to yank back. Really.

Opening line, Emergency Instructions: If an Anaconda Bites Your Hand, David Macey

This is the first line of a short short story, perhaps it’s called flash fiction, found in issue 84 of the journal Agni.

I definitely don’t have a thing for snakes, but in this three-paragraph story I saw something humorous, reminiscent of an illustration in Le Petit Prince of a boa constrictor swallowing an animal.

Image result for "little prince" boa constrictor
First illustration in ‘Le Petit Prince’, Antoine de Saint Exupéry

It also reminded me of a rock formation I once saw, with a long snakish snout, a semblance of teeth and a fierce eye.

Like anacondas, and boa constrictors, rock can be dangerous. You can be washed off it, fall from the top, disappear into its midst like Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock. But rock doesn’t search for prey, doesn’t coil about those too near, is never hungry. Its jaws won’t open, it won’t bite your hand. My husband is safe.

Eden NSW

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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: 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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