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: 39

What was known of Captain Hagberd in the little seaport of Colebrook was not exactly in his favour.

First line of To-morrow, Joseph Conrad, 1902

The story of a man who is quietly going mad waiting for his son to return, convinced he will turn up tomorrow, has an opening line promising an unsavoury old English sea captain whose ship had never gone far from home.

Reading this little book I learnt a few things about writing well, surprising really, since Conrad was born in Ukraine, was educated in Poland, and learnt English as an adult. His words had me feeling a particular pity for the poor girl who lived next door to Captain Hagberd. The two of them talked over the fence each day:

“You wait till you get married, my dear,’ said her only friend, drawing closer to the fence. […]
But she only said in self-mockery, and speaking to him as though he had been sane, ‘Why, Captain Hagberd, your son may not even want to look at me.'”

To-morrow is no. 64 in the collection of little Penguin classics, but is available online at Gutenberg and is one of the freely available e-books produced by the University of Adelaide.

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Tears on the Sword

The Agorist Writers Workshop has just announced the titles of stories for their new anthology, Fairytale Riot. I’m very fortunate to have one of my translations included, “Tears on the Sword”, originally “Les Larmes sur l’épée” by Catulle Mendès. The theme for this, their 4th anthology, is libertarian retellings of classic folklore, fables, and fairy tales. Mendès, who reworked a large number of fairy tales during the Belle Époque, fits the bill.

This morning I discovered memes on their Facebook page for each of the 28 stories, teasing little images that give you a taste for each one. They’ve chosen fairy tale illustrations that seem appropriate to each title. Here’s the meme for mine:

Our next story is…https://bit.ly/2wzKSTv

Posted by Agorist Writers Workshop on Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Release of the printed anthology and ebook will be in July 2018. I’m so pleased knowing someone wants to publish my work! There’s such a lot of effort goes into a translation and then finding an editor who wants to show it to the world. It’s a good day today!

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46 Great Opening Lines: 38

Had it not been for a murder and robbery on Sunday, 26 March 1848, the University of Queensland would not be sited at St Lucia.

The Mayne Inheritance, Rosamond Siemon, 1997

The first line of this book contains the beginning and end of the story. A great way to start. Especially in a book about a real murder and a real university.

But the reader finds in the preface that the author “has taken a little licence”.

I discovered Siemon’s book in a relative’s personal library this week in Brisbane. My interest was piqued by the discovery that Patrick Mayne, the protagonist, lived very close to my great great great-grandfather, Joseph Burley, in the new streets of the new town of Brisbane. Mayne, as an alderman, helped Burley solve the problem of drays flinging mud up against his door. For the streets were then nothing but rutted tracks of dirt, turning to mud on rainy days.

Rosamond Siemon wrote the story of the successful businessman Patrick Mayne who died in 1865 and left an inheritance to his wife and children. Patrick’s son and daughter, James and Mary, made a number of philanthropic donations with their inheritance, including the acreage on which the University of Queensland has been built.

University of Queensland, St Lucia, 1948

The topic of the book is the inherited money and its possibly dark origin: Patrick Mayne may have gruesomely butchered a cedar woodcutter in order to rob him of a substantial sum. Another man hanged for it. However, though the credibility of the story is a deathbed confession by Mayne, no actual confession has been found by anyone but the author…  Until we can all have access to this proof, the book must remain a mythical murder mystery.

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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: 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: 34

There was a desert wind blowing that night.

Opening line, Red Wind, Raymond Chandler, 1938

Dennis Aubrey at Via Lucis commented that his favourite opening line is this one from the short story Red Wind.

It’s somewhat relevant today with the wind howling outside my window. Not that’s it’s a desert wind. More of an inland mountain wind blowing dust over our city from the drought-stricken west, blighting our mountain view with a grey haze.

Chandler’s opening continues grimly:

“It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Has he got your attention? Philip Marlowe, private detective, is going to a bar for a beer, but someone has to die.

Image result for "raymond chandler" "red wind"Thanks Dennis for introducing me to Philip Marlowe. I liked his references to the hot wind through the narration. ‘Outside the wind howled’; ‘… he looked cool as well as under a tension of some sort. I guessed it was the hot wind.’; ‘The wind was making enough noise to make the hard quick rap of .22 ammunition sound like a slammed door…’; ‘The wind was still blowing, oven-hot, swirling dust and torn paper up against the walls.’

Confession: after the third chapter, I couldn’t go on. Too many guns.

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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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