46 Great Opening Lines: 11

1918. 8 March. There is so much influenza about that they’ve had to shut the university.

Opening line, The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla, 1966, translated by Peter Bush

 

Catalonia is in the news and on my mind. I’m reading Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook. And it’s in my face, for my desktop picture is a 1915 painting, L’esmorzar (Breakfast) by Joaquim Sunyer, one of Pla’s favourite Catalan artists.

Sometime last year I found this image online, bright and deep and earthy. But for an unknown reason I can’t find it again, so here’s a photo of my desktop picture. And my desktop. I so enjoy this painting that I haven’t removed it from my screen since I found it. The couple look friendly, as if they’d happily prepare me a meal even if I don’t speak Catalan, or even Spanish. They’re tanned from working outdoors, probably producing the food on their table and the tables of the townspeople. They’re rugged and strong, a little reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters but healthier.

The colours of south-east France and north-east Spain (or Catalonia) are warm and inviting, baked yellow and clay red, like the colours of the Catalan flag, like the colours in this wall plaque I snapped in Port-Vendres, not far north of the French-Spanish border.

This sense of real life, of a colourful realism, is what I’m reading in Josep Pla. The book is a diary written over twenty months, beginning the day Josep turns 21, but it wasn’t published until he was 69, by which time he had transformed it with added stories, reflections and a little stretched truth. It’s filled with descriptions, yarns, recalled childhood images, and plenty of cynicism. More than anything it revives my own pleasant memories of Pla’s part of the world, Catalonia.

*

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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The Mask

My translation of Claudine Jacques’ short story Le Masque has just been published by Volkeno Books, Vanuatu, in a bilingual edition. Hold the book one way to read the original French story, then flip it over to the back to read it in English.

The setting is a fare ofe, a bamboo house in New Caledonian bushland. The protagonist sees it as exotic and inspirational, just the impetus she needs to begin her writing career. She talks to a tribal mask left behind by a previous tenant, and it responds…

Available to order at noiraublanc.fr, here: http://noiraublanc.fr/index.php?route=product/category&path=62

*****

Under Cover of Dust

Yesterday, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative published a piece I wrote for their French month, “Under Cover of Dust”. It’s available on their Facebook page and on their blog.

Today, I inadvertently deleted the link and the post from my own blog, so here is the article, with illustrations:

 

Under Cover of Dust

by Patricia Worth (© 2017)

For an idle literary translator, what’s a good place to search for foreign fiction? Anthologies and best-seller lists, web wish-lists of books that ought to be translated? Old bookshops where floor-to-ceiling shelves are laden with literature from decades or centuries ago? All good suggestions. But there’s another source which can prove fruitful. If your local university library is like mine, there’s a mass of French fiction, purchased in the sixties or fifties, sitting neglected, waiting for a borrower. Each volume is now ageing beneath a grey layer of dust settled in the nook of its page tops.

Here you can find old French books filled with tales far removed in time and unlike anything in contemporary fiction. Read between the lines of these stories and you’ll see writers disappointed with things unchanging, say, in rigid religious traditions that influenced the behaviour of believers and atheists alike, or writers disappointed with too many changes: the advance of technology, the end of manual labour, the taste for realism versus fantasy. They were authors reluctant to let fairies die, who wanted to revive the Medieval world and the era of monarchs and superstitions.

Libraries are a gift to mankind. And womankind. Their shelves are treasure-laden and cost-free. Yet there are book lovers who never go near them. They read only books they can keep, preferring to build their own personal collection, all the while asserting that libraries are an endangered literary species. Once, a young French exchange student at my old university, searching its library for something from the twenty-first century and finding only these old tomes, curled his lip and declared it a museum.

Now, for a translator with an itchy writing hand, old books are a rich source of literature begging to be translated. Perusing the shelves, I suspect that many of them have not been translated in a hundred years, if ever, and now the dust seduces me. I dirty my fingers flicking through the yellowed pages. Opening the covers back too far breaks the aged connection between pages and spine, and I half close the book in sympathy, tilting my head to read inside the triangular space.

One little book, George Sand et le rêve monastique : Spiridion by Jean Pommier, about Sand’s novel, Spiridion, leads me to the novel itself, not far away on another shelf. Sand wrote two versions with different endings. Choosing the second version, I translate it and send it to SUNY Press. Sand’s gothic, philosophical novel set in a monastery, excluding all women bar the author and her translator, is the right choice for me: for the first time I become a published translator.

Tickled by this success, I return to the library and pull out a fragile, hand-sized, brown-covered book, Jean Lorrain’s Contes pour lire à la chandelle, ‘Stories to Read by Candlelight’. As I turn the pages I imagine sitting beside a storyteller in a candlelit corner, listening to tales about a haunted house or an ill-treated woman or a hallucinating boy. For a year I borrow and re-borrow the Contes, translating the stories in no particular order, according to my mood. With each opening of the book another page comes loose and corners flake away. Poor book! When my work is finished I return it to the librarians for conservation, and send six stories to journals to see if they like nineteenth-century French fiction. They do. Lorrain’s small stories are now available in print in Eleven Eleven Journal, and online at The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation, Danse Macabre and Sun Star Review.

My addiction has me hurrying back to the ‘museum’. Kneeling on the floor, I bend my head to read the spines along the bottom shelf, down where the dust is thicker. A small gem, Nouvelles orientales by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, appeals by its title; I blow across its top, give the heavier lint a push, read the first page, skip to the middle and scan a few lines. This little number has shortish French stories set in various non-French lands. It comes home with me.

I like some of the stories but not all. The wintry ones are the author’s better work, they make me forget I’m reading. I form a short list, for now avoiding the one that ends in a suicide. Another year passes as I translate the Nouvelles, draft after draft, renewing the library loan a dozen times. When three stories are polished, I send them off. One, my very favourite, is accepted by The Cossack Review: ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’, about a lonely man in Ukraine who falls in love with a perfumed pelisse.

Research about Jean Lorrain leads me to his Decadent peer and a great creator of fairies, Catulle Mendès, whose collection Les Contes du Rouet is available online. It’s a thoroughly pleasurable exercise to translate Mendès. A tale about a selfish princess, ‘The Only Beautiful Woman’, makes it into The Brooklyn Rail inTranslation. This is an online to online conversion, but I’m eager to work from a physical book, and am thrilled to find, back at the library, two more collections by Mendès, and I borrow them both. As you can imagine for a book entitled ‘To Read in the Bath’, and another, ‘To Read in the Convent’ (a deceptive title which would have drawn pretty young things into Mendès’s naughty fantasies), I read them with the amusement and occasional dismissal they deserve. My translation of La bague enchantée, ‘The Enchanted Ring’, has been transported to new readers via Peacock Journal.

While it’s true I translate only stories I’m pretty sure will please other readers, there has been the odd dusty book that clicked with me but by the time I reached the end of the first draft, I wasn’t convinced that anyone else would eagerly turn its pages. Henry Gréville’s Sonia was such a book. After months of work, I filed the translation manuscript at the bottom of my drawer.

It’s thanks to the library’s stubborn persistence in holding on to these books that I’ve discovered and translated bits and pieces of them. Yet, in this same university library, no searchers will ever pull Spiridion in our language from a shelf in the way I’ve picked up a few pearls simply by browsing. It is in the library catalogue, but only as an e-book. The National Library of Australia has also acquired only the e-book. Disappointing but not surprising.

Still, e-books and digital journals are here to stay and I must be grateful and push on. As Lorrain led me to Mendès, Mendès has led me to Théodore de Banville. The library has a copy of his Œuvres. I’ve translated a number of his stories and can tell you that he is indeed a witty and entertaining writer. One of my patient draft readers has declared him superior to my previous authors, though I myself love them all equally. Indeed, de Banville has driven me to purchase one of his old volumes. I’ve also bought originals by Sand, de Vogüé, Mendès and others I’m keeping for a rainy day. Yes, I’m starting a collection, but I would never have met these books and their authors if the library had not kept them under cover of dust, despite calls to dispose of them. Long live libraries of the physical kind.

*****

George, Frédéric and Valldemossa

Early morning moon, Valldemossa, Mallorca
Early morning moon, Valldemossa, Mallorca

Morning, Valldemossa.  Defeated by the insomnia of jet lag, I rise and open the curtains to a full moon shining on me.  It’s four o’clock.  Sheep down below the valley wall shuffle through grass, chewing and bleating.  No other sound; no other presence; it’s the other extreme of Valldemossa.  Twelve hours ago the streets crawled with tourists, Europeans on spring holiday spending their money in the restaurants and terrace cafés, in the souvenir and art shops.  Their numbers surprised me.  I’d expected this small village to be of minor touristic interest, but I was wrong.  It’s all because of George Sand.  Well, more precisely, because of Frédéric Chopin.

His is the famous name.  Even the non-musical could tell you he composed music in some past century.  Without him, Valldemossa’s cafés wouldn’t be nearly as profitable.  It began when he fell in love with one of nineteenth-century-France’s gifted writers, George Sand, a woman six years older with two children in tow. In need of a warmer, healing clime for his bad chest, they ventured to Mallorca in the Mediterranean.  After a few weeks of hurdles and blocks (inevitable when travelling abroad) they found themselves on the west coast of the island, temporary residents of three monk cells in a recently secularised monastery, the Real Cartuja de Valldemossa. Real for Royal. Cartuja for Carthusian.  Once a king’s residence, then a Carthusian monastery.  Now a museum and tourist attraction.

Real Cartuja, Valldemossa
Real Cartuja, Valldemossa

I’m quietly, very quietly, celebrating the publishing of my translation of Spiridion, George Sand’s novel that she finished in the cells of the Real Cartuja while Chopin, in his poor health, composed several pieces – Preludes, a Polonaise, a Ballade, a Scherzo.

When you wake at three, the morning is long.  I wait for the new day by writing, and eating scraps of leftover food, my First Breakfast, like the hobbit.  Now it’s ten to seven and the ragged Mallorcan mountains are silhouetted in the east. It’s seven o’clock and church bells in the monastery are ringing. It’s twenty past seven and there’s light, soft and shaded by mountains. The warm yellow street lamps are still on. It’s a quarter to eight and the lamps are now off.  It’s half past eight and the hotel owners have set the tables.  Time for Second Breakfast.

Valldemossa sheep
Valldemossa village with sheep

Voice Work

On Thursday, the WordPress writing prompt was “Voice Work”:  who would you like to do a voice recording of your blog?

It got me thinking about audio books, a book pleasure I enjoy from time to time.  The delight of this kind of ‘reading’ is in the hearing.  The voice of the reader combined with an excellent novel is the best kind of one-sided conversation.  Usually an actor is chosen as the reader, but hearing him read is streets ahead of seeing and hearing actors interpret a novel as film (well, for me it is).

Take, as an example of a highly-recommended audio book, Dances with Wolves read by its author, Michael Blake.  My husband and I listened to it on a long drive and often found we didn’t want to get out of the car.

danceswithwolves

Then there was The Collector, written by John Fowles, narrated by James Wilby.  Creepy story.  A butterfly collector decides to collect something less morally acceptable.  The reader played the part so well that I don’t think I could trust him in real life.

The Collector | [John Fowles]

And recently, on another long drive interstate and back again, we listened to The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by Gerard Basil Edwards, a story about a long life on the island of Guernsey, written by a Guernsey man, and read by Guernsey-born Roy Dotrice.  It was so good that we’ve replayed parts of it just to hear the narrator’s voice and the quirky dialogue, where verbs aren’t always conjugated and h’s are dropped when they exist and added when they don’t.The Book of Ebenezer le Page | [G. B. Edwards]

I tried to imagine someone (not me) reading my blog posts, but I drew a blank.  But something else sprang to mind: a book I’ve translated which will be available next year.  That is something I’d like to hear read aloud.  The story, Spiridion, is set in an 18th-century monastery where goodness is punished and females play no part.  So my reader would have to be male, for the only female in this book is the author, though she’s a writer with a man’s name:  George Sand.  She wrote in French, but for my English translation I would choose, perhaps, an eloquent Englishman.  Or Australian, because I’m Australian.  But then, perhaps not, since there are no 18th-century monasteries here;  an Australian accent might not be credible.  I’d need someone who sounds like he could have lived in the 18th century, from a country where monasteries have been around for a millennium.  How about an actor I’ve seen in a film of the same genre?  Say, Sean Connery.  Hmmm.  Did you see him in The Name of the Rose?  Yes, he’s the one.  I’d pick him.

*****

Journey to the centre: Great middle lines – 16

The Drover’s Wife, a short story by Henry Lawson published in 1896, has a plot that unfolds over an afternoon and a night, marked by time phrases like “It is near sunset” and “It must be near one or two o’clock”.  The story is an excellent example of Australian realism, well-told with dry, short sentences, few adjectives or adverbs but plenty of active verbs, all of this good for keeping the tension on, as you’ll see in this mid-point paragraph.

A bit of background:  A drover has been gone from home for six months.  His wife and children are alone in their bush hut.  A snake has slid under the floor boards and a thunderstorm brews.  The dog, Alligator, is wildly interested in the snake.

Near midnight.  The children are all asleep and she sits there still, sewing and reading by turns.  From time to time she glances round the floor and wall-plate, and whenever she hears a noise she reaches for the stick.  The thunderstorm comes on, and the wind, rushing through the cracks in the slab wall, threatens to blow out her candle.  She places it on a sheltered part of the dresser and fixes up a newspaper to protect it.  At every flash of lightning the cracks between the slabs gleam like polished silver.  The thunder rolls, and the rain comes down in torrents.

Alligator lies at full length on the floor, with his eyes turned towards the partition.  She knows by this that the snake is there.

*****

File:Henry Lawson photograph 1902.jpg
Henry Lawson, 1902

*****

Journey to the centre: Great middle lines – 15

The Sleeper Awakes.  It’s 1890s England when an insomniac falls into a sleep-like trance and awakes 203 years later to find he is the Master of the World.  But while he had been sleeping, the masses had been oppressed, and they now find he has awoken and hope he will rescue them.  One hundred and ten pages into this 220-page H.G. Wells novel, the sleeper, Graham, decides to reveal himself to the multitudes of people waiting:

“Will you let them see you, Sire? said Ostrog.  “They are very anxious to see you.”

Graham hesitated, and then walked forward to where the broken verge of wall dropped sheer. He stood looking down, a lonely, tall, black figure against the sky.

Very slowly the swarming ruins became aware of him.  And as they did so little bands of black-uniformed men appeared remotely, thrusting through the crowds towards the Council House.  He saw little black heads become pink, looking at him, saw by that means a wave of recognition sweep across the space.

*****

Journey to the centre: Great middle lines – 13

At the centre of Great Expectations is a paragraph about Pip’s love for Estella, about his great expectations to win her heart.  Though I’ve read this novel several times, I’d never thought of Dickens as romantic until today when I read this paragraph separately from the rest of the story:

Far into the night, Miss Havisham’s words, ‘Love her, love her, love her!’ sounded in my ears. I adapted them for my own repetition, and said to my pillow, ‘I love her, I love her, I love her!’ hundreds of times. Then, a burst of gratitude came upon me, that she should be destined for me, once the blacksmith’s boy. Then, I thought if she were, as I feared, by no means rapturously grateful for that destiny yet, when would she begin to be interested in me? When should I awaken the heart within her, that was mute and sleeping now?

*****

Journey to the centre: Great middle lines – 12

A few days ago in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, I found an account of Sherlock Holmes performing one of his earliest deductions, at exactly the middle of Part I. You can read about it here.

Halfway through Part II of this short novel, Doyle wrote a short paragraph that was not about scientific deduction but rather about an eerie countdown, guaranteed to keep the reader turning pages. The character John Ferrier is given a deadline – 29 days – to hand over his daughter in marriage to one of the Mormon men.  The next morning, at the breakfast table, his daughter points upwards:

In the centre of the ceiling was scrawled, with a burned stick apparently, the number 28. . . . That night he sat up with his gun and kept watch and ward. He saw and he heard nothing, and yet in the morning a great 27 had been painted upon the outside of his door.

*****