The War of the Worlds. Read the blurb on the front cover of this 1910 edition: ‘It is a story which no ordinary reader can possibly put down half finished.’
And that’s because when you’ve half-finished reading it, you’re at a point of suspense that drives you onwards through the chapters. I’ve been reading this book online, having succumbed to the temptation of instant literature. Normally I go to a library and get the physical book to read, which should be possible with any classic. But not this time. To my disappointment, my local libraries don’t have copies of it; it’s either lost, available only as an audio-book or video, or is held in a faraway place. You’d think that libraries in a capital city would ensure they have copies of every classic on their shelves. Of course, I could always go out and buy it but then it would be yet another book to store in my house. Libraries are a gift.
Searching for the centre of The War of the Worlds online, I took the plain text version which is 111 pages long, then went to p. 55 and read these tense lines in the chapter ‘The Exodus from London’ which follows a number of chaos-filled chapters where Martians had invaded the suburbs of London, killing citizens with their Heat-Ray and a black vapour they discharged into the streets:
‘All the railway lines north of the Thames and the South-Eastern people at Cannon Street had been warned by midnight on Sunday, and trains were being filled. People were fighting savagely for standing-room in the carriages even at two o’clock. By three, people were being trampled and crushed even in Bishopsgate Street, a couple of hundred yards or more from Liverpool Street station; revolvers were fired, people stabbed, and the policemen who had been sent to direct the traffic exhausted and infuriated, were breaking the heads of the people they were called out to protect.’
Header: artwork by Alvim Corréa for a 1906 Belgian edition. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
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.
Today, telling my daughter-in-law about the turning point at a novel’s centre, I picked up a book lying on her table, Wuthering Heights, to demonstrate. I calculated the number of pages in the story, then halved it and turned to that page, ending up at p. 166, the early part of Volume Two where Heathcliff asks Nelly Dean how Catherine died. Nelly replies:
‘Her life closed in a gentle dream – may she wake as kindly in the other world!’
And Heathcliff responds darkly, horrifying many of the readers in 1847 who were frightened by this unstable, devilish man and what he was going to do with this consuming love in the second half of the story:
‘May she wake in torment!’ he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. ‘Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there – not in heaven – not perished – where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers.’
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.”