54 great opening lines: 15

Mother died today.

The Outsider, Albert Camus (trans. by Stuart Gilbert.  Originally L’étranger)


Yesterday (no. 14) I posted the first line from The Outsiders.  With a final s.  Different book, different author, but the same theme of a protagonist who feels like he’s outside of society.  Like a misfit.

Today’s post is about The Outsider by Albert Camus.  Thousands of words have been penned and keyed about his opening line.  In French, it is ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.’  Literally, ‘Today, Mum died.’  Three words that various translators render variously.  Today, Mother died.  Today, Mummy died.  Today, my mother died.  My mother died today.  Mum died today.  Mummy died today.  Mama died today.  Today, mum is dead.  If it’s published in the US, Mum would be Mom.

The maman quandary was mine when I translated the short story Origami by Anne Bihan, in which a small girl refers to her mother as maman, French for Mum and Mummy.  Since the girl is Japanese and the setting is Japan, I searched the web and happily found that some Japanese children are starting to use the European-sounding Mama, which I liked for my translation because of its similarity to Maman, and thought it good for retaining a closeness to the French.  (I also liked Mama because one of my sons uses it when addressing me…)  Of course, I put myself in the shoes of the little girl and remembered that I used to address my own mother as Mummy.  But that doesn’t sound Japanese or French;  it sounds English.  Or Australian.  Like me.

What about the actual Japanese word for Mum: Okaasan?  There’s not really any question of using it;  an English reader with no knowledge of Japanese would be lost.  But did I want this child to sound Japanese or French or Australian?  Well, Japanese.  Ok, so I should write either Okaasan or Mama.  Yet, as I wrote Mama Mama Mama, my life’s experience continually prompted me:  as a child and then a mother, the word was Mummy (except for one son!).  So, at first, I wrote Mummy, then read the story into a recorder and listened to the playback as objectively as possible.  It didn’t sound Japanese or French.  But does it have to?  For me, for this story, it does.  I changed it to Mama and read it again into the recorder, played it back and liked it for its Frenchness and modern Japaneseness.  Mama it is.

A sidenote:  I couldn’t have written this post, repeatedly typing ‘my mother died’, if my very own mother were alive!  A second sidenote:  On the day Mum died, I was doing some paid work for the French lecturer who had taught me Camus’ L’étranger, and I had to send him an email to say I needed time off for the funeral.  I began the email, at first, with Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.  Then I deleted it and wrote something less direct, less literary.  Perhaps he thought of Camus, anyway.

54 great opening lines: 14

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.

The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton


Yesterday’s great opening line (no. 13) was the same as the book’s title.  Today’s opening line of The Outsiders is the same as its last line:  ‘When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind:  Paul Newman and a ride home…’

I’ve just read this novel because I have to teach it, but it was no effort.  All through the book I kept thinking about the author penning the manuscript at 16 years of age.  A born writer.

Weekly photo challenge: Lost in the detail

This week I borrowed a library book, Poésies de F. Coppée, less for the poetry than for the detail in the book’s production.   It packages poems like treasure.  What you can’t tell from the photos below is that this book is just 10 x 16cm, fits nicely in one hand and is surprisingly heavy – 330 grams!  If this is how poetry was published in Paris in 1871, I’d like to travel back in time to Alphonse Lemerre, Editeur, if ever I’m wanting a book published.  And if this happens, you’ll know my book when you see it on the shelves in your favourite bookshop;  it will look just like this:

‘Poésies de F. Coppée’, pp. 6, 7

54 great opening lines: 12

Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England:  they lie very thick on the hills;  every parish has one or more of them;  they are young enough to be very active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good.

Shirley, Charlotte Brontë


Are you imagining it, the shower of curates?

54 great opening lines: 11

There is a French saying which runs:  ‘A dry fisherman and a wet hunter have the same sad look.’

Living Relic, Ivan Turgenev


One of Turgenev’s ‘Sketches from a Hunter’s Album’:  a short story that could be told on canvas, so intimate are the descriptions, so charged the emotions.  The reader is pulled into the wattle hut to sit beside the narrator in an unexpected conversation with a ‘living relic’.

54 great opening lines: 10

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens


I had to read it at school and liked it then; I still like it now.  There’s enough Gothic darkness and joyful resolution to satisfy me.

54 great opening lines: 9

All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.

Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë


Agnes Grey is trying to be independent and earn an income, albeit to help her poor parents.  It is the 1840s and she has little choice but to work as a governess.  Although she has no trouble finding a couple of jobs, her charges, the children, are unmanageable and their families unexpectedly scorn her.

I empathised with Agnes as she struggled to tutor pupils in their own homes, who feel free to run around the room or sit under the table or go into the garden and kill innocent chicks in a nest.

The opening line of Agnes Grey is a great piece of Brontë wisdom.


54 great opening lines: 8

My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born.

Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt


I was surprised to find my own family in this book.
This afternoon I was about to list the similarities, but was silently checked by this commandment:  ‘Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.’
It is enough to say, Read it.

A Short Story from New Caledonia about Japan. Translated from French


by Anne Bihan

(© Translation by Patricia J.F. Worth)

Trembling.  It’s what I do best. I’m an expert at trembling. I have an incredible mastery of trembling. Had it since I was very small. Since the day I started kindergarten, the teacher has been telling my mother who comes to pick me up every day, running from the Sendai–Minami Sanriku train; she has been telling my father who never misses a fete at the Shizugawa school: Your daughter, she trembles; it’s amazing how she trembles; it’s amazing how well she trembles. Perhaps she didn’t say exactly that at the end, Your daughter, how well she trembles, but she looked so impressed that I think she did. I am the best at trembling.

It began the first time someone said, All children under the table. At first, I hesitated. When the voice repeated, All children under the table, the Earth is trembling, I thought, it’s the table with the red tablecloth, and on top of it all the flowers and the birds and the horses and the multicoloured lanterns of the origami class for the school fete, if it starts trembling, us underneath, no one to watch it, everything will be knocked to the ground, the fete knocked to the ground. But the voice insisted, so I slipped under the table with the others, and I thought the only thing to do was to tremble all together, me, us, the table, the flowers, the birds, the horses, the multicoloured lanterns of the origami class for the school fete. And that’s what I did; every time, that’s what I did and the teacher said, Your daughter, she’s an earthquake on legs; and the old doctor Tokiji Watanabe looked at me for a long time, a long time, and he said, There is actually a sickness called ‘Essential Tremor’ or ‘Familial Tremor’, but to be sure, we’ll have to wait till she grows up, and she’ll have to learn to live with it.

Learn to live with it; Papa says, It’s Shinto, it’s knowing that everything is connected, nothing and no one is ever separated, it’s our pride. I’m not sick, my name is Katsumi, Victorious Beauty; my father chose my name and he never misses the school fete that takes a long time, a long time to get ready, sometimes all year, and every day when parents ask, What did you do today?, me, Katsumi, I answer, Today we got ready for the school fete, and the next day, and for days and days, when Papa or Mama asks What did you do today?, always the same answer, Today we got ready for the school fete.

This morning, Friday 11th March 2011, for the school fete, for the origami class, I brought in some beautiful old paper that Grandma Sadako gave me. There’s a drawing on it that frightens me, but Papa says, Fear is like the tengu, like trembling, you must tame it; take this picture, it’s by Hokusai, our ‘Old man mad on painting’, his Great Wave off Kanagawa, it’s everywhere in the world, it’s our pride. So I dared to take it because folding, it calms my trembling, and especially because I saw her in the folds, the creases, the teeth and the claws of the sea on the paper: the crane of my dream. She was just waiting for me so she could fly away. And that’s what I did. All morning, I had to fight with this rotten drawing and my trembling. In the end, she was standing on the table with the red tablecloth; the one‑thousandth crane for Grandma Sadako, who folds one every day, saying, It’s my prayer; and she was the most beautiful, too.

She’s Prussian blue and yellow ochre, with greys like you’ve never seen over her whole body; here pale like shellfish soup, there dark like pea soup, and a very white spot on her throat. The great wave living inside her doesn’t frighten me any more. Papa is right. Everything is connected, no one is separated. It was 2.30pm when the voice shouted, All children, quick, the Earth’s trembling. I held her close to me under the table with the red tablecloth. Both of us lying down, folded, patient. When I put her up to my ear, I clearly heard the roar of the sea; Mama, running from the Sendai–Minami Sanriku train; Papa, his footsteps, full of pride, coming to the school fete. She was just waiting for me so she could fly away. I’m not trembling any more.

Anne Bihan, Noumea, New Caledonia, 29 April 2011

'Great Wave off Kanagawa', Hokusai
‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’, Hokusai (Image courtesy Wikipedia)