46 Great Opening Lines: 15

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.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 13

The men of the twenty-ninth century live in a perpetual fairyland, though they do not seem to realise it.

Opening line, In the Twenty-Ninth Century, by Michel and Jules Verne, 1889, translated by I.O. Evans, 1965

The full title of this short story which is mostly the work of Jules Verne’s son, Michel, is In the Twenty-Ninth Century. The day of an American journalist in the year 2889. The story was originally written in English by an uncredited translator working with Michel Verne, and was later improved by Jules and published in French. (Michel’s English was too poor to write a publishable story.) It appeared in a New York periodical, The Forum, in 1889, a thousand years before the events depicted.

I had an ‘Ah!’ moment when I recently read the story in a Jules Verne collection. Near the end, a scientist tries to hibernate for 100 years, for pure love of science, by exposing himself to a cold of 172 deg Centigrade and then being shut up in a tomb. On the appointed day for his resurrection, the coffin is opened and the body is still mummified. Nothing brings it back to life. It’s concluded that the method ‘still needs to be perfected’.

But I had already suspected that Verne had written something about the dead returning to life because of this postcard I bought at his house (now a Jules Verne museum) in Amiens earlier this year, which was definitely more interesting than any tomb. As you see, he’s bursting up out of his grave, alive again, though only in a sculpture that was added two years after his death in 1905.

Tomb of Jules Verne, Amiens, France

An amusing foresight in the story is the phonotelephotic apparatus used by the characters Francis and Edith Bennett, who like to have lunch while in two separate places, talking to each other on the screen while eating. A video phone, we might call it. It’s a part of the fairyland mentioned in the opening line, but it’s also a good prediction on the part of Jules’ son Michel.

And it’s elements like these in old science fiction that make the stories fun to read, picking out what has actually come to pass and what is yet to be ‘perfected’.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 12

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.

Orchard swallowtail butterflies, Papilio aegeus

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46 Great Opening Lines: 8

A ridiculous rumour is going round the neighbourhood about new restrictions. In order better to anticipate shortages and to guarantee improved productivity in the working portion of the population, the authorities are going to put unproductive consumers to death; unproductive meaning: older people, retirees, those with private income, the unemployed and other superfluous mouths.

Opening lines of “Tickets on Time” by Marcel Aymé (translated by Sophie Lewis)

Another story by Marcel Aymé. In this one, “La Carte” in French, the reader must accept the assumption of time-rationing. It’s like food rationing in wartime, and indeed the story is set during the occupation of France in the early 1940s. But now the consumer is forced to ration his time, having the right to only a certain number of days per month, and will be temporarily put to death according to his entitlement. Aymé makes mischievous fun of his own profession as a writer: his main character, Jules Flegmon, is horrified that writers have been lumped together with painters, sculptors and musicians as consumers decreed to be unproductive for the State and returning less than their upkeep.

Aymé’s fictitious character died for 15 days each month. But the real writer Marcel Aymé lived every day of his life until he died in 1967. He lived in Montmartre and has a Place named after him (see header photo of the Place Marcel Aymé), and he’s buried in Montmartre where his character Jules Flegmon lived, died and lived until the decree was abolished.

Grave of Marcel Aymé – Saint-Vincent Cemetery, Montmartre, Paris

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46 Great Opening Lines: 7

In Montmartre there lived a poor fellow named Martin who existed only every second day.

From Dead Time by Marcel Aymé, 1936, translated by me!

This is the opening line of another short story by Marcel Aymé, Le Temps mort in French, Dead Time in English. The main character, Martin, who is alive one day and dead the next, falls in love with a woman who at first doesn’t have a problem with his absences, but eventually finds them expedient.

I’ve translated a bit more than the first line, and when I get to the end I’ll send it out into the world to see if someone would like to publish it.

I’m writing this in an airport lounge, waiting for a flight that doesn’t leave for two hours. A satisfying way to fill dead time.

My previous post about Great Opening Lines was in praise of Marcel Aymé’s The Man Who Walked Through Walls, another of his excellent fantastical stories for children and adults. All of them highly recommended. Here he is at his desk:

Marcel Aymé, 1929. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

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46 Great Opening Lines: 6

In Montmartre, on the third floor of 75b Rue d’Orchampt, there lived an excellent gentleman called Dutilleul, who possessed the singular gift of passing through walls without any trouble at all.

From The Man Who Walked Through Walls, 1941, Marcel Aymé, translated by Sophie Lewis

In my previous post about a great opening line I introduced the French author, Marcel Aymé, and his short story, The Wolf, written for children albeit with a pretty scary moral. Aymé also wrote fantasy for adults, and is possibly most famous for his tale about a man who walked through walls. There are several English translations around, but this one (above) is the best I could lay my hands on.

Man in the Wall, tribute to Marcel Aymé, photo courtesy of www.briansolis.com

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46 Great Opening Lines: 1

At dusk they pour from the sky.

There’s a chair at the kitchen table that I sit on for hours some days. Reading my own work forwards and backwards – backwards is a trick I learned in translation school – I’m forever searching for better ways to say everything. To get an editor’s tick, I have to stay on the chair. So I stay until the job’s done, or until life interferes.

Right now, a book of French fairy tales keeps me here. The repetitive acts of translating, reading, editing and reading again, in the hope of arriving at the perfect story, are driving me into an unproductive blankness. So here I am, writing on this blog, writing just for the distraction of it, analysing what makes writing work well.

My story has to make it further than an editor’s slush pile, and one element, more than any other, is the lure: the very first line. If it’s not great, he might not read the second.

Once, because I was 54 years old, I wrote 54 blog posts about opening lines (click the category link…). It was a thoroughly enjoyable exercise that taught me a lot. Now, as I have in life, I’m going on from 54 to see how many more I can find. It won’t be simple, for not all the stories on my bookshelves begin with a great opener. But I’ll challenge myself even further, now and then, to find great translated opening lines. You know, the sort of oft-quoted line such as “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Rosemary Edmonds.

Today I won’t begin with translation but with a novel originally written in English. I found this great opener that immediately had me hooked in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, on a page entitled ‘Leaflets’:

At dusk they pour from the sky.

The story is set in World War Two in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France. Fascinating. A page-turner. Great to read aloud.

Saint-Malo, Brittany, France, image courtesy  CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=183293

It shouldn’t be hard to get to 100 (blog posts that is…). I’ll write about great opening lines whenever I need a break, which happens every few days! Please tell me if you know of any yourself!

 

Header credit: Jean-Christophe Windland, on Wikimedia Commons

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James Burley

I have often thought that many a youngster when he was hit out there on the Passchendaele heights … and he knew that the end had come – must have thought to himself: “well at least they’ll remember me in Australia”. C.E.W. Bean

We all have ancestors but not all of us study their lives. I do, but I don’t know whether I’d recommend it. Many of my ancestors died young, which means I’m a descendant of the few survivors. And every young loss has a tragic story behind his or her death.

Two brothers who enlisted in the army together, numbers 5046 and 5047, James and Frederick Burley, were my great-grandmother’s cousins. Both of their lives ended in France in 1917. Frederick was never found.

But James was wounded in one of the horrific battles in Passchendaele near Ypres in Belgium, died in hospital in Rouen, France, and is buried there. This week, news articles are appearing about the commemorations of the hundred years that have passed since the Ypres battles. By coincidence, James Burley had his name projected onto the Australian War Memorial last night. I was there to see it for the 30 seconds it was shining on the facade of the building.

Like many Australians, I have descended from a convict ancestor, Joseph Burley, who was transported to New South Wales for trying to sell a stolen watch. Seven years he got. Pretty harsh penalty for a pretty petty crime.

Frederick and James Burley were his grandsons.

James was wounded on 20th October when his battalion was fighting near Zonnebeke in the region of Ypres, where 30 mm of rain had fallen two weeks earlier. Not only was the ground wet from heavy rain, but parts of the battlefield were swamp or reclaimed swamp, and digging and shelling only produced more water.

View of the swamps of Zonnebeke on the day of the First Battle of Passchendaele. Ruins of Zonnebeke church in background. Photo from Australian War Memorial taken on 12th October 1917.

Note from War diary for James’ 47th battalion, 12th October 1917: Country almost impassable being very boggy and shell holes full of water… Weather very bad, cold, raining… Men’s feet very sore owing to continually standing in shell holes full of water…

James died seven days after he was wounded. He was 32 and had got married the year before.

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This is the last of my relatives’ names to be projected onto the War Memorial. Five in all.

I have so little to complain about.

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Weekly photo challenge: Bridge

If I were young and in love I might be tempted to engrave my name and his on a padlock and attach it to a beautiful bridge, casting the keys to an unreachable depth and thereby hopefully cementing the relationship. Now that I’m oldish I see these padlocks as akin to litter. Young lovers who attach the piece of not-easily-removable coloured metal see it through the rosy glow of their love. The decorative wrought iron of the bridge panels is little more than a place to hang their public bling. When I saw this and other footbridges in the Englischer Garten in Munich I felt an old woman’s frustration.

Footbridge, Englischer Garten, Munich

Later I despaired at the sight of a love-lock stand framed by a huge walk-through heart that was covered in them. Lovers could purchase padlocks for the specific purpose of attaching them to the narrow ironwork of a bridge and throwing the keys into the river below. Like a fast food outlet, the stand eliminated the need for forethought and preparation.

But not all pretty garden footbridges are made with decorative ironwork. In Albert on The Somme in northern France there’s a small public garden with a narrow stream, a waterfall and this bridge, where lovers would need to bring something pretty big and heavy to permanently attach it to the branch-sized bars.

The public garden in Albert is at the back of the Somme 1916 Museum where there is much to see regarding all the parties fighting in and around Albert in that year. Lots of grim reminders of war. The garden, by contrast, is a place of joy and peace.

Thanks WordPress for the Bridge prompt for this week’s photo challenge.

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Weekly photo challenge: Transient

The soaring Gothic cathedral in Amiens is a medieval beauty by day with an abundance of statuary and stone lace, but at nightfall in summer it becomes a giant canvas for a light show of high-definition coloured images. Nightfall means 11 pm. At 10.45 when I took the first photo, the sky was still deep blue. The days are very long in a northern French summer, but this one just happened to be the summer solstice. The longest day.

La cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens, 10.45 pm, 21st June

The projections are modern for the most part, following the lines of the facade, highlighting them and even appearing to move parts of the cathedral about.

11:08 pm, the solid cathedral resembling a line engraving
11:13 pm, making smaller details the main attraction
11:22 pm, drawing with light

The best is left till last. In the beginning of their existence (approx. 1220 – 1270) the statues were polychrome, a feature revealed during the laser cleaning of the facade in the 1990s. Time has stripped them back mostly to bare stone; only a few small areas of colour can be detected here and there, and if you didn’t know they were once painted, you wouldn’t notice even these patches. But, for one transient moment, our brilliant 21st-century lighting people can restore the medieval colours for us.

11:29 pm, just when we thought it was all over, the colours of the tympana appeared for the pleasure of those who hadn’t walked away.

The statuary is mostly far above my head, so photography is a good way to look closer at the details. I particularly like the central tympanum depicting the last judgment. In the middle register, the naked damned are led to hell, while the saved are clothed and led to heaven. I’m hoping to be among the clothed.

Each image projected onto the cathedral facade lasts but a moment, the spectacle itself lasts half an hour, and even the lighting patterns change from time to time. But the cathedral itself has stood solid and unchanging since the 13th century, a survivor of wars and revolutions. It reminds me that if I leave something behind, it had better be good; it may be around for centuries.

Thanks to WordPress for the transient challenge.

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