Hiding behind the hedge, the wolf was patiently watching the house.
Opening line, The Wolf, Marcel Aymé (my translation)
The Wolf is a children’s story written by Marcel Aymé in 1932. Aymé is more famous for his science fiction/fantasy stories, particularly about characters who have a supernatural ability, like walking through walls, or existing only every second day. This story is about a wolf who convinces two small blonde girls (wolves prefer blondes) to let him into the house while their parents are out. The ending is a happy one, for the girls.
The translation is mine. One day it might be published.
From the fourth Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke
– translated by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, an epigraph opening Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
This post is about a great opening line, but also about a great title.
When I was twenty, I watched a movie with Mum. An average Friday night movie, with cups of tea, relaxing together in the loungeroom I spent so much of my life in. The movie was Sophie’s Choice, with Meryl Streep in the role of Sophie, based on the novel by William Styron. When the story turned to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz and the gassing and systematic elimination of Jews, I turned to Mum and said “Did this really happen?”. Of course she said yes, but nothing more.
There had been plenty of talk in our household about wars. My father was a soldier in the second world war, his father was in the first. Various uncles and older relatives had also played their part. I had only heard them talk about fighting against the Germans, you know, gunfights and bombings on battlefields. Why had I never heard about concentration camps and the wilful destruction of Jews and various other unwanted people? Mum didn’t say much after this (she never talked about anything dark) and I was so horrified at my fellow humans that I asked no more questions.
The words Sophie’s Choice will always remind me of that night, that piece of knowledge I acquired. I’ve since read the book, a hard read, some of which I skipped. The climax is in this exchange between a Nazi doctor and Sophie, his victim, a mother of two:
…the doctor said, ‘You may keep one of your children.’
‘Bitte?’ said Sophie.
‘You may keep one of your children,’ he repeated, ‘the other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?’
‘You mean, I have to choose?’
‘You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege – a choice.’
Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. ‘I can’t choose! I can’t choose!’
This week I was casually browsing The Canberra Times when I came across the entertainment guide, with this on the cover:
The article inside about a woman named Sophie Monk is written by the journalist Michael Lallo. The opening line is not one of the great ones that will make my collection, but is worth quoting here:
When Sophie Monk did her first bikini shoot, for a men’s magazine, she cried in the bathroom.
And what choice did this particular Sophie have to make? Lallo writes:
She began to question previous choices. ‘Why not?’ she thought, when Playboy made its umpteenth approach.
Michael Lallo has taken Styron’s title and made it his own, rather than making up his own. It might be forgivable if the topic of his story had some relevance to the original. I guess he used it because it had already made a big impact, and I suppose it got my attention. If Lallo wanted me to reflect on life, then it worked. I reflected immediately on literary appropriation and Nazis torturing and gassing people.
This is a writing lesson for me. Be careful not to inappropriately use analogies.
It’s Christmas, a time of year when half the world is not covered in snow. Half the world is not even chilly. Many of us are melting in mid-summer heat. I had to find a Christmas story that Australians would ‘get’, where the characters were not wearing long sleeves!
Christmas in the Floods by Olaf Ruhen sounds like a true story, if only because it tells of a disaster that could typically happen here at Christmas. It’s written from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old boy who has been watching the river rise. It’s not long before dawn and the flood has chased him and his family into the attic. So at the turning point of the story they are on the roof, the characters not being able to go any higher. It’s a great movement from ground level upwards.
I went to sleep, but Ralph wakened me. It was still dark, but there was a little light coming, and I knew there was only one more day to Christmas Eve.
There was water on the attic floor now, and Dad and Ralph wanted us to shift on to the roof. It didn’t seem as if the flood could come any higher but if it did, they said we mustn’t be trapped inside the attic. They had rigged up the trestle-table so it was half out of the attic window, and you could climb on it and step back on the roof at the gully between the two gables.
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 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.
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. . . . “
In the middle of a novel, a few lines often show the reader that a character’s world is about to become unfamiliar and unsafe. It can be a turning point, a point where a journey begins and when the action starts.
I’d like to share some of these lines with you. I’ll go to the half-way point of a novel, give or take a page, and scan it for something I wish I’d written myself. Today I picked up The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, turned to the opening page, p. 13, then the last page, p. 253, and calculated the rough centre would be at about p. 120. I read the page and found these admirable words, which indeed are the point where a journey begins:
“There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go. Before you could get round Mirkwood in the North you would be right among the slopes of the Grey Mountains, and they are simply stiff with goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description. Before you could get round it in the South, you would get into the land of the Necromancer; and even you, Bilbo, won’t need me to tell you tales of that black sorcerer.”