46 Great Opening Lines: 30

I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.

Opening line of St Patrick’s Confession, translated from the Latin by Ludwig Bieler, 1950.

Today is St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, so I looked up St Patrick’s Confession and was surprised to learn in these very first words that he was ‘utterly despised’. And sad as this is, the worst is the last line: ‘This is my confession before I die.’

How hard his life must have been, to have reached its end and written a confession of faith that reveals he had spread good news but was despised, utterly despised. Still, this was Patrick’s belief about himself, and if he was so repugnant then his life story must have been rewritten to make a saint of him within 150 years, by the 7th century AD.

Mosaic of Saint Patrick by Russian artist, Boris Anrep, Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland

My interest is in the various translations of that first line. The following examples are available on the Internet, though undoubtedly there are many more. The words ‘utterly despised by many’ shocked me, for all I knew of St Patrick was that he did good deeds and was therefore, I assumed, liked. Yet we can all see the word ‘contempt’ glaring at us from within the original Latin phrase:

Ego Patricius peccator rusticissimus et minimus omnium fidelium et contemptibilissimus apud plurimos…

The other three translations I found did not have the same impact.

On www.confessio.ie, the English for contemptibilissimus apud plurimos is rendered ‘I am looked down upon by many.’ Simple and straightforward.

On www.whatsaiththescripture.com, it is ‘most contemptible to many’. Close to contemptibilissimus, but lacks the loathing of ‘despised’.

On bbc.co.uk/religion, it is ‘for many people I am the most contemptible’. Similar to the previous example but twice the words.

And of course there’s now Google: ‘in many contemptibilissimus’. Not very helpful.

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I never had a thing for St Patrick until, as a consequence of family history research last year, I met a first cousin once removed (i.e. my mother’s cousin), born on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, daughter of an Irish Catholic. Her middle name is Patricia in honour of the saint. She’s 91 today! My own name is Patricia, and I too am the daughter of a Catholic mother who chose that name. I’m now wondering…

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46 Great Opening Lines: 29

If an anaconda bites your hand – as, no doubt, one someday will – gulps your fist whole and holds fast, fight the keen urge to yank back. Really.

Opening line, Emergency Instructions: If an Anaconda Bites Your Hand, David Macey

This is the first line of a short short story, perhaps it’s called flash fiction, found in issue 84 of the journal Agni.

I definitely don’t have a thing for snakes, but in this three-paragraph story I saw something humorous, reminiscent of an illustration in Le Petit Prince of a boa constrictor swallowing an animal.

Image result for "little prince" boa constrictor
First illustration in ‘Le Petit Prince’, Antoine de Saint Exupéry

It also reminded me of a rock formation I once saw, with a long snakish snout, a semblance of teeth and a fierce eye.

Like anacondas, and boa constrictors, rock can be dangerous. You can be washed off it, fall from the top, disappear into its midst like Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock. But rock doesn’t search for prey, doesn’t coil about those too near, is never hungry. Its jaws won’t open, it won’t bite your hand. My husband is safe.

Eden NSW

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46 Great Opening Lines: 28

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Opening line, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949

From the last word of the first line, Orwell has us in his hands with not just one clock but all clocks striking thirteen.

I thought about Nineteen Eighty-Four when writing my last post about books discarded by libraries. One of the excuses given by library administrators is the digitisation of books, the physical copies of which can then be sold or given away or thrown into landfill. The trouble is that digitised writing can be altered permanently with quick and simple keystrokes, and if the only printed copy is dead and buried, there’s no way of knowing exactly what its author wrote.

Therein lies the connection with Nineteen Eighty-Four. One of its creepy elements was Winston’s job as a falsifier of records, altering newspapers and books and “every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance.” As soon as he had completed the corrections requested for an issue of the newspaper, that issue “would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead.”

Is it any different from a handwritten manuscript that hundreds of years ago was copied by monks many times over, and where, like Chinese whispers, the content could change slightly with every new version? Diligent scholars who spent their days copying books might also have slipped in an opinion, misquoted a speech, altered figures. If they did, we’ll never know, in the same way that we’ll never know whether digitised books are an exact copy if the originals are destroyed to make space for computers.

Still, much as I scream NO to book-dumping, I see the logic in digitisation if only there could always be at least one printed copy left somewhere in the world.


 George Orwell (born Eric Arthur
Blair), 1903-1950, photo courtesy Penguin Books India

Orwell’s opening line was recommended by a fellow blogger: http://www.anevolvingscientist.org/

Thanks!

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46 Great Opening Lines: 27

An old cemetery is one of the most pathetic and melancholy spectacles in this world, and the pathos of it is deepened when it has been allowed to drift into neglect and ruin, with broken fences, overturned tombstones, fallen railings, obliterated inscriptions, rank weeds, long grass and general desolation.

Opening line, ‘The Paddington Cemetery’ in Truth (Brisbane newspaper), 17th November 1907

In my last post I lamented the discarding of books by libraries of all ilks. Michael Wilding alerted us to the false promise of libraries to put unborrowed books in storage somewhere. What actually happens to many of them is quite different: they are dumped and used as landfill.

Another element of our civilisation has suffered the same fate. While searching for information about two of my ancestors, siblings Eliza and James Burley who were buried in Paddington Cemetery, I found this article about ‘Bygone Brisbane’ written when the town was all of 80 years old! It’s a sad story from the first. The writer’s adjectives are depressing: broken, overturned, fallen, obliterated …  Yet I had to keep reading: why had the graveyard been so neglected? Worse was to come. I discovered that a large number of headstones of Brisbane’s early settlers have been used as … landfill.

Paddington Cemetery opened in 1843 for the first settlers and closed in 1875, and over the following years became an untended, weed-infested, goat-harbouring eyesore. The local population sought a solution from the Council, who proposed a children’s playground, kindergarten and pool to be built over the graves!

Goat on grave, Paddington Cemetery, Brisbane, photo courtesy Flickr

But what could they do with the headstones? A Councillor offered a suggestion: “Break them up and use them for the footpaths; they make good road metal!”

The author of the Truth newspaper article where I found today’s great opening line compared the councillor to Troglodytes, “men who have the skulls and intellects of cave dwellers who sat in their dark dwelling places and gnawed the grilled bones of even their own parents, when having a special feast. To such men there is nothing sacred.”

Milton, looking across the former Paddington Cemetery, c1870, photo courtesy Qld Archives

The Burley children lie in the Paddington Cemetery, which itself now lies under a huge football stadium formerly known as Lang Park, these days Suncorp Stadium.

Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, photo Jack Tanner, Flickr

An historian, Darcy Maddock, recently let me know that many of the headstones from the Paddington Cemetery were supposed to have been used for road base (!) but in fact were removed to the newer Toowong Cemetery where they were not re-erected for posterity but rather “placed in a gully” where “someone has used a crowbar to break them up. They were covered over and trees planted over them in the hope no one would ever know.” Darcy and an archaeologist are working with the current Council on extricating the headstones from beneath a large long water pipe laid on top of them.

The gravestones of my ancestors are not, so far, among those lifted from the ditch.

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Entering the words “headstones landfill” or “books landfill” into Google turns up numerous stories from around the world: burying them in ditches is an old and common practice.

Cemetery administrators make promises to safely remove headstones to new sites, and librarians promise to retain unique copies of books and journals. Yet, sadly, a search too often reveals that the items have “disappeared”.

How briefly we’re allowed to remember people we’ve known and books we’ve read.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 26

Alicia Martin, ‘Biografias’, installation in Cordoba, Spain, Photo courtesy of Toni Castillo Quero, Creative Commons

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Over the past decade university ­libraries have been systematically removing books from their shelves.

Michael Wilding, ‘University Libraries should Preserve Printed Books’ in The Weekend Australian, 23rd August 2017

Last week’s opening line came from a short story by Michael Wilding. Now I’m drawing on him again, but today’s opening line is no fiction. It’s sadly the absolute truth about our libraries. He has written at least three pieces over the past seven years to alert the world to the emptying of its libraries.

Wilding is in some ways a man after my own heart. I’ve been told that my local university library will one day be purged of old French books (among other foreigners), so I’ve been borrowing what I can to prove they are wanted, to keep them out of the book cemetery.

In March 2014 Wilding wrote ‘Libraries Under Threat’ in Sydney Review of Books, and revealed what happened to some books from the University of Western Sydney:

… skip loads of books deemed duplicates, silver-fish infested and surplus to requirements were thrown out and used for landfill.

Hold onto that word ‘landfill’. I’ll be back.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 25

Advertised it looked an interesting job: Writer requires an intelligent typist.

Opening line, The Words She Types, Michael Wilding, 1975

A few years ago I was staying in an apartment with bookshelves full of books. With only three days to read, I selected The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories and flicked through it, reading first paragraphs. Michael Wilding’s story ‘The Words She Types’ captured my attention from the start, from the opening line.

And from the second line I was completely into it. As someone who has been typing for forty-odd years, I saw myself in this woman’s shoes:

It sounded more interesting than routine copy-typing; and the ‘intelligent’ held out the bait of some involvement.

She is accepted for the job of typing up the handwritten manuscript pages of a writer, but over time his pages contain fewer and fewer words and she is expected to fill in and expand, and even to interpret blank pages. She knows he will publish the story, but will he claim the words are his and hers, or his, or hers?

Michael Wilding, by the way, is a much published author. No doubt, all the words in his books are his.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 23

Two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.

First line of the story ‘Solomon’s Wise Judgement’, 1 Kings 3:16

The lowest of the low approach the highest of the high. It’s an extraordinary situation evoked by concise, simple language. I try to imagine two prostitutes approaching Queen Elizabeth and demanding a hearing, but I’ve immediately restricted the meaning to my own experience, and, voilà, the opening line has hooked me in. (A little research later reveals that ancient Eastern monarchs often sat in judgement at the city gates and anyone could appeal directly to them for a legal decision. But it’s too late, I’m already curious and reading on…)

This story from the second half of Chapter 3 of the first book of Kings in the Bible was frequently chosen as a subject by artists up until the 1700s, obviously drawn in by the first line!

The painting below is one of my favourites because of its Caravaggesque chiaroscuro and drama, and the emotion of each player evident on his or her face. The essence of the story: two prostitutes each have a baby boy, one accidentally smothers hers while she sleeps; she steals the other baby, claiming it’s hers. Now the women are before King Solomon, arguing over ownership of the boy. The king asks for a sword to be brought to divide the live baby in two so each woman can have half. The real mother, whose love is greater, tells him to give the other woman the baby rather than have it cut up. The child lives because of Solomon’s wisdom.

Solomon’s Judgement, José de Ribera, c1610, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, abounds with stories that are short and to the point, and therefore get straight into the main idea in the first sentence. It’s a good source for great opening lines.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 21

On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.

Opening line, Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Constance Garnett

Last night I could have written:

On an exceptionally hot evening early in January a middle-aged couple came out of the house in which they lodged in H. Street and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards C. bridge.

Yesterday evening and this evening are the endings of exceptionally hot days in Canberra. Today, 39 degrees.

Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra, dusk yesterday

Perhaps you didn’t imagine Dostoyevsky’s character walking towards a bridge like this one. Rather, since I don’t have any photos of Russian bridges, you might have seen him heading for a bridge resembling this old one in Cairo, where the evenings are undoubtedly hot:

English Bridge, Cairo, nightime, c1941

I confess I haven’t read Crime and Punishment though I have read other Dostoyevsky works. But when I compared the opening line translated into English by three different translators, I thought it was worth writing about. My favourite is Constance Garnett’s 33 words in a succinct sentence, quoted above. Compare it with the 46 words of Katz’s translation:

In the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, toward evening, a young man left his tiny room, which he sublet from some tenants who lived in Stolyarnyi Lane, stepped out onto the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, set off towards the Kokushkin Bridge. (Translated by Michael Katz)

Plenty of detail, but I was lost after ‘sublet’. In my humble opinion there are 13 words too many. That said, I can’t read Russian and therefore can’t really say if there are omissions or additions. Now look at this one by Oliver Ready:

In early July, in exceptional heat, towards evening, a young man left the garret he was renting in S–y Lane, stepped outside, and slowly, as if in two minds, set off towards K–n Bridge. (Translated by Oliver Ready)

The number of words is similar to Garnett’s, but what it loses (for me) is the immediacy in her first words, “On an exceptionally hot evening…”. The other two translators tell us first off what month it is, but that’s not as good a beginning for a great opening line.

Perhaps I’m presently susceptible to Garnett’s first words since it’s about 10 pm and the temperature in my house is still 30 degrees.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 20

At dawn in an outlying district of Warsaw, sunlight swarmed around the trunks of blooming linden trees and crept up the white walls of a 1930s stucco and glass villa where the zoo director and his wife slept in a bed crafted from white birch, a pale wood used in canoes, tongue depressors, and Windsor chairs.

Opening line, The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman, 2007

On a long-haul flight back to Australia, I watched the movie of The Zookeeper’s Wife twice. The first time I could barely hear the sound, the earphones were poor quality, so I took a second bite at it, imagining the storyline by the visuals. In the stopover airport I spotted the novel of the same name at the newsagent. On the opening page I read the line you’ve just read above, and was hooked by the setting described in that long sentence, being able to match it to my memory of film images. I got hold of the book once I was back home. It was unputdownable.

It’s a true story about a Polish zookeeper, but particularly about his wife, Antonina Zabinski, who hid about 300 Jews and resistance fighters from the Gestapo. The zoo’s animals had all been let loose or killed in the 1939 bombing of Warsaw, so she and her husband, Jan, allowed people to hide in animal cages, shelters and underground tunnels on their way to longer-term hiding places. Antonina and Jan and many of their illegal guests survived the war.

I recommend the film as well. The actress, Jessica Chastain, like the woman she plays, has an awesome affinity with animals that’s delightful to watch.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 19

In his thirty-fifth year, the dwarf of the Barnaboum Circus started to grow.

Opening line, ‘The Dwarf’, Marcel Aymé 1934 (my translation)

Sometimes an opening line of a story or book can distract a reader from everything else in that moment. He reads on, regardless of the noisy world around him. Nothing matters but the next line and the next.

A shrewd author can arouse this desire in the holder of his book. He can capture our attention by stating an impossibility as truth, and leave us begging to know the consequence. Marcel Aymé is not only a master of beginnings, but his first lines deliver what they promise: intriguing stories that answer a “what if…” question. So, what if a man who’d always been short suddenly grew to normal height?  He might, like Valentin in “The Dwarf”, discover the delights of seeing his favourite woman, a circus bareback rider, face to face.

Sixty years after it was first published, this was one of five Aymé stories selected for an art book produced by Bird & Bull Press, printed by letterpress from metal type, on mouldmade paper, without any digital aid, and illustrated with wood engravings by Gaylord Schanilec. I’m fortunate to live close to the National Library which holds one of 150 copies, and this week I spent an hour totally distracted from the holiday season by the tactile and visual pleasure of this special book. Here’s a taste of the illustrations: the dwarf is depicted at the circus, before he began to grow:

Wood engraving, Gaylord Schanilec, 1994

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