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.
Two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.
First line of the story ‘Solomon’s Wise Judgement’, 1 Kings 3:16
The lowest of the low approach the highest of the high. It’s an extraordinary situation evoked by concise, simple language. I try to imagine two prostitutes approaching Queen Elizabeth and demanding a hearing, but I’ve immediately restricted the meaning to my own experience, and, voilà, the opening line has hooked me in. (A little research later reveals that ancient Eastern monarchs often sat in judgement at the city gates and anyone could appeal directly to them for a legal decision. But it’s too late, I’m already curious and reading on…)
This story from the second half of Chapter 3 of the first book of Kings in the Bible was frequently chosen as a subject by artists up until the 1700s, obviously drawn in by the first line!
The painting below is one of my favourites because of its Caravaggesque chiaroscuro and drama, and the emotion of each player evident on his or her face. The essence of the story: two prostitutes each have a baby boy, one accidentally smothers hers while she sleeps; she steals the other baby, claiming it’s hers. Now the women are before King Solomon, arguing over ownership of the boy. The king asks for a sword to be brought to divide the live baby in two so each woman can have half. The real mother, whose love is greater, tells him to give the other woman the baby rather than have it cut up. The child lives because of Solomon’s wisdom.
The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, abounds with stories that are short and to the point, and therefore get straight into the main idea in the first sentence. It’s a good source for great opening lines.
In Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, which adorns numerous war memorials around Australia, there is a verse that every Australian knows:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…
Opening line of the Author’s Note, Desert Boys, Peter Rees, 2012
I’ve heard the line ‘They shall grow not old…’ every year of my life, yet it still catches me out. Wars need poets.
When I look at the photo above from my father’s World War Two album, taken during his time in North Africa in 1941/42, I wonder whether these soldiers fell or grew old. Unfortunately the photo is uncaptioned and I have no names for them. They seem to be posing, demonstrating a lesson in warfare.
I’m struck by its similarity to the image on the cover of Desert Boys by Peter Rees, a book about Australian soldiers who fought in the desert in both world wars. In each photo there are five young Australian men in helmets, focusing on something to their left. Perhaps these cover men are also posing. In any case, their photos remind us that they went to the desert to fight, and may not have returned to grow old.
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.
When an author or translator completes a novel, the work is not over by a long shot. She then has to seek out a publisher, another endurance test a lot like job-seeking. When one says ‘Yes, I’ll publish it,’ the author might then think she can hand her work over, sit back and get on with the next book. But no, for the author is expected to be involved in the marketing of her own work… This is a writer’s fact of life that I’m slowly learning.
Part of the marketing involves getting readers to write reviews. Good or bad, apparently they all lead to sales. The publisher of my translation of George Sand’s Spiridion had offered to send it out for reviews, but none have appeared. Three kind readers have voluntarily reviewed it on Amazon and Goodreads. But if I want to pique the interest of more buyers, and perhaps eventually be paid a little something, I have to be proactive. A recommended road is the one that leads to literature bloggers. Out of four I contacted, one responded, Francine Maessen at booksien.com. She asked for a copy of the book, which I bought and sent, and then I waited eight months while she completed some university studies, and now, finally, her long and positive review is available on her blog. She’s also written a brief review for Goodreads. Proactivity pays.
Francine praised Sand’s writing, which is indirectly a compliment for me:
George Sand’s writing is just amazing. She is seen as one of the best writers of her period, even better than Honoré de Balzac. What I personally enjoy so much about her style in this specific novel, is that she still uses the beautiful style we know from realist writers for such a different genre as the gothic novel.
Another literary translator today recommended a website that seeks out translated European books for review, the European Literature Network. Since, after nearly three years, my Spiridion account is still in the red, I’ve got nothing to lose by pointing them to my book.
If you’ve read this far you might like to know a bit about Spiridion by George Sand. Published in 1839 initially, then revised and re-published in 1842, it’s a gothic philosophical novel with a little horror and a lot of analysis of the Catholic monastery as an institution and its corrupting potential for men locked away from women and the rest of the world. The founder of this fictional monastery dies and haunts the cloisters for years, searching for a monk who is uncorrupted, who has the courage to go down into the crypt to seek the truth, which turns out to be a grim experience for a young novice.
When I first read the French version I easily imagined the creepiness of the monastery and its tenants, but I found the illustrations available online added to the pleasure of it.
First, I liked the images used to illustrate an old version published in Brussels, and was pleased to see the cover chosen for mine by SUNY Press, both of them featuring an arched entrance to a mysterious cloister.
Here’s a hint if you buy the English translation: look up the illustrations in the original French version from 1839 (mine is from the revised 1842 edition), available freely online, illustrated by Tony Johannot and George Sand’s son, Maurice. You’ll see images of the monastery, its corrupt monks, a couple of good souls, and the ghostly founder.
Thank you, Francine Maessen, for reading and reviewing Spiridion!
At dawn in an outlying district of Warsaw, sunlight swarmed around the trunks of blooming linden trees and crept up the white walls of a 1930s stucco and glass villa where the zoo director and his wife slept in a bed crafted from white birch, a pale wood used in canoes, tongue depressors, and Windsor chairs.
Opening line, The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman, 2007
On a long-haul flight back to Australia, I watched the movie of The Zookeeper’s Wife twice. The first time I could barely hear the sound, the earphones were poor quality, so I took a second bite at it, imagining the storyline by the visuals. In the stopover airport I spotted the novel of the same name at the newsagent. On the opening page I read the line you’ve just read above, and was hooked by the setting described in that long sentence, being able to match it to my memory of film images. I got hold of the book once I was back home. It was unputdownable.
It’s a true story about a Polish zookeeper, but particularly about his wife, Antonina Zabinski, who hid about 300 Jews and resistance fighters from the Gestapo. The zoo’s animals had all been let loose or killed in the 1939 bombing of Warsaw, so she and her husband, Jan, allowed people to hide in animal cages, shelters and underground tunnels on their way to longer-term hiding places. Antonina and Jan and many of their illegal guests survived the war.
I recommend the film as well. The actress, Jessica Chastain, like the woman she plays, has an awesome affinity with animals that’s delightful to watch.
Sometimes an opening line of a story or book can distract a reader from everything else in that moment. He reads on, regardless of the noisy world around him. Nothing matters but the next line and the next.
A shrewd author can arouse this desire in the holder of his book. He can capture our attention by stating an impossibility as truth, and leave us begging to know the consequence. Marcel Aymé is not only a master of beginnings, but his first lines deliver what they promise: intriguing stories that answer a “what if…” question. So, what if a man who’d always been short suddenly grew to normal height? He might, like Valentin in “The Dwarf”, discover the delights of seeing his favourite woman, a circus bareback rider, face to face.
Sixty years after it was first published, this was one of five Aymé stories selected for an art book produced by Bird & Bull Press, printed by letterpress from metal type, on mouldmade paper, without any digital aid, and illustrated with wood engravings by Gaylord Schanilec. I’m fortunate to live close to the National Library which holds one of 150 copies, and this week I spent an hour totally distracted from the holiday season by the tactile and visual pleasure of this special book. Here’s a taste of the illustrations: the dwarf is depicted at the circus, before he began to grow:
Black are the brooding clouds and troubled the deep waters, when the Sea of Thought, first heaving from a calm, gives up its Dead.
From The Chimes, a Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In, Charles Dickens, 1845
Sometimes it’s not the first chapter that has a memorable opening line. It could be a later chapter like this one that comes from the Third Quarter of a short novella in Dickens’ Christmas collection. Rather than four chapters, it has four quarters, like the quarters of an hour at which church bells chime. The tale is set on New Year’s Eve. And since, today, it is indeed New Year’s Eve, I’ve chosen it to end my year.
Here is the story’s true opening line, for your comparison:
There are not many people — and as it is desirable that a story-teller and a story-reader should establish a mutual understanding as soon as possible, I beg it to be noticed that I confine this observation neither to young people nor to little people, but extend it to all conditions of people: little and big, young and old: yet growing up, or already growing down again — there are not, I say, many people who would care to sleep in a church.
While I agree with Dickens that not many people would care to sleep in a church, particularly a church whose bells mark every quarter hour, I was especially struck by the Sea of Thought giving up its Dead.
At this point in the tale, a poor and aging messenger nicknamed Trotty Veck (for he trots) believed that chiming bells were speaking to him as he sat on the church porch waiting for messenger jobs. He was a pessimist, he could see no way up and out of a pauper’s life; he believed that poor people are naturally bad. Now he climbs the stairs of the belfry to see these bells that speak to him. But the bells have spirits in the form of goblins who reprimand him for his lack of faith in a poor man’s ability to improve. They want to teach him a lesson: if the poor are not oppressed, they can strive for better things, and, like time, they must advance.
The goblins are excellently illustrated on the opening pages of the novella.
The Chimes is another of Dickens’ tales about injustice and the impoverished of Victorian England. Grim as it is throughout, the story has a happy ending. The goblins may or may not have been real, but Trotty Veck learned his lesson:
“I know there is a Sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves.”
A Sea of Thought. A Sea of Time.
And now to conclude 2017, some lines from The Chimes describing the past and future of any year:
“The New Year! The New Year! Everywhere the New Year! The Old Year was already looked upon as dead; and its effects were selling cheap like some drowned mariner’s aboardship. Its patterns were Last Year’s and going at a sacrifice, before its breath was gone. Its treasures were mere dirt, beside the riches of its unborn successor!”
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
Luke 2:1, King James Version
While ‘all the world’ that Caesar Augustus had in mind was all the Roman world, this story is about the birth of a child, Jesus, who would change all the expansive Western world, and indirectly much of the rest of the world.
Back in 1611 when the King James Version of the Bible was published, ‘all the world’ was bigger than the Roman world, but not as big as ours. Today’s translators qualify the extent of Caesar’s decree:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (New International Version).
They’ve defined the ‘world’ as Roman, and the decree as a census, a population registration, through which Caesar would be able to tax everyone. The records would also be used for military service, though Jews were exempt.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder back in 1566 made it easy for us to imagine Mary and Joseph trudging through the December snow to register their names in Bethlehem (though he painted a Flemish village…). His painting of the census is amazingly detailed. A high-resolution version on a large screen is the best way to see all the activities. There’s Mary on a donkey with Joseph heading towards the tax office where a group is already waiting to register and pay, women are preparing food, people are carrying heavy loads over a frozen lake, there are children playing and people bent and laboring, and even some castle ruins. An image I’d like to see on a Christmas card.
And now it’s Christmas Eve, and time for bed. Tomorrow my family and I will celebrate the birth of Jesus with feasting and gifts and pleasure. And freedom.
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.