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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
My Christmas wish for my blog readers: May you not be caught filching baubles.
Merry Christmas to all of you wonderful bloggers out there.
There were 700 or 800 of them at least. Of medium height, but strong, agile, supple, framed to make prodigious bounds, they gambolled in the last rays of the sun, now setting over the mountains which formed serried ridges westward of the roadstead.
Opening lines of Gil Braltar by Jules Verne, 1889, translated by I.O. Evans, 1965
Can you guess what they are, these gambollers? Perhaps if you’ve been to Gibraltar you’ll know they are monkeys. The title of this fantastical tale, ‘Gil Braltar’, is also the name of the main character, an ugly Spaniard who resembles the macaque monkeys that possess the great Rock. To convince them to follow him as their leader, Gil dons a monkey skin, fur side out. He tries to recapture Gibraltar from the British, but fails, defeated by an Englishman, General MacKackmale, a pun on the French words macaque mâle.
When Verne’s science fiction/fantasies were first published in French, they were quickly followed by English translations. But not this one, which wasn’t translated until 1965. Hmmm. Clearly, Verne’s satire on the British claim to the Rock didn’t impress British publishers. But like many things that at first feel unpleasant, we find a few decades later that perhaps there are interesting elements, after all.
In my previous post I wrote about Dr Trifulgas. This and Gil Braltar were both written by Jules Verne in his house in Amiens, France, which I visited earlier this year. While the ground floor is elegant and nothing out of the ordinary for a 19th-century French house, a climb up the spiral staircase takes you to Verne’s writing world, where at the top of the stairs there is an improvised ship’s deck, a larger space filled with exhibits, and a compact study-cum-bedroom where Monsieur Verne wrote many of his famous stories. There’s even a list in English of stories written in this house – if you look closely at the photo below, you’ll see Dr Trifulgas (Frritt Flacc in French) and Gil Braltar.
It’s funny that I’ve read so many stories by Jules Verne recently; I once had no time at all for science fiction. After visiting his house and seeing the upstairs space filled with books and maps and puppets and posters, not forgetting the ship’s deck, I had a whole new appreciation for the work that goes into producing an imaginative piece of literature. As a translator, I had not thought long about it until then.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.