46 Great Opening Lines: 15

There were 700 or 800 of them at least. Of medium height, but strong, agile, supple, framed to make prodigious bounds, they gambolled in the last rays of the sun, now setting over the mountains which formed serried ridges westward of the roadstead.

Opening lines of Gil Braltar by Jules Verne, 1889, translated by I.O. Evans, 1965

Can you guess what they are, these gambollers? Perhaps if you’ve been to Gibraltar you’ll know they are monkeys. The title of this fantastical tale, ‘Gil Braltar’, is also the name of the main character, an ugly Spaniard who resembles the macaque monkeys that possess the great Rock. To convince them to follow him as their leader, Gil dons a monkey skin, fur side out. He tries to recapture Gibraltar from the British, but fails, defeated by an Englishman, General MacKackmale, a pun on the French words macaque mâle.

When Verne’s science fiction/fantasies were first published in French, they were quickly followed by English translations. But not this one, which wasn’t translated until 1965. Hmmm. Clearly, Verne’s satire on the British claim to the Rock didn’t impress British publishers. But like many things that at first feel unpleasant, we find a few decades later that perhaps there are interesting elements, after all.

In my previous post I wrote about Dr Trifulgas. This and Gil Braltar were both written by Jules Verne in his house in Amiens, France, which I visited earlier this year. While the ground floor is elegant and nothing out of the ordinary for a 19th-century French house, a climb up the spiral staircase takes you to Verne’s writing world, where at the top of the stairs there is an improvised ship’s deck, a larger space filled with exhibits, and a compact study-cum-bedroom where Monsieur Verne wrote many of his famous stories. There’s even a list in English of stories written in this house – if you look closely at the photo below, you’ll see Dr Trifulgas (Frritt Flacc in French) and Gil Braltar.

It’s funny that I’ve read so many stories by Jules Verne recently; I once had no time at all for science fiction. After visiting his house and seeing the upstairs space filled with books and maps and puppets and posters, not forgetting the ship’s deck, I had a whole new appreciation for the work that goes into producing an imaginative piece of literature. As a translator, I had not thought long about it until then.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 14

Swish! It is the wind, let loose.
Swash! It is the rain, falling in torrents.

Opening lines, ‘Dr Trifulgas’, Jules Verne (1884), translator unknown

This story in French is called ‘Frritt-Flacc’, the sound of the hurricane and the torrential rain it brings. Dr Trifulgas is a rich old doctor who demands exorbitant fees from his patients, or else they get no service. In the end, his greed brings him down when he least expects it. It’s a short horror story, but not scary enough to stop me reading it. (I scare easily.)

The opening lines invited me to keep reading, contradicting the advice that a writer should never start with the weather.

And by coincidence, as I write this, torrential rain that has threatened all afternoon has finally begun to fall. I’m not making this up. Fortunately I don’t have to go out with my dog, his lantern, and Dr Trifulgas.

Illustration by G. Roux for Frritt Flacc, Jules Verne

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46 Great Opening Lines: 13

The men of the twenty-ninth century live in a perpetual fairyland, though they do not seem to realise it.

Opening line, In the Twenty-Ninth Century, by Michel and Jules Verne, 1889, translated by I.O. Evans, 1965

The full title of this short story which is mostly the work of Jules Verne’s son, Michel, is In the Twenty-Ninth Century. The day of an American journalist in the year 2889. The story was originally written in English by an uncredited translator working with Michel Verne, and was later improved by Jules and published in French. (Michel’s English was too poor to write a publishable story.) It appeared in a New York periodical, The Forum, in 1889, a thousand years before the events depicted.

I had an ‘Ah!’ moment when I recently read the story in a Jules Verne collection. Near the end, a scientist tries to hibernate for 100 years, for pure love of science, by exposing himself to a cold of 172 deg Centigrade and then being shut up in a tomb. On the appointed day for his resurrection, the coffin is opened and the body is still mummified. Nothing brings it back to life. It’s concluded that the method ‘still needs to be perfected’.

But I had already suspected that Verne had written something about the dead returning to life because of this postcard I bought at his house (now a Jules Verne museum) in Amiens earlier this year, which was definitely more interesting than any tomb. As you see, he’s bursting up out of his grave, alive again, though only in a sculpture that was added two years after his death in 1905.

Tomb of Jules Verne, Amiens, France

An amusing foresight in the story is the phonotelephotic apparatus used by the characters Francis and Edith Bennett, who like to have lunch while in two separate places, talking to each other on the screen while eating. A video phone, we might call it. It’s a part of the fairyland mentioned in the opening line, but it’s also a good prediction on the part of Jules’ son Michel.

And it’s elements like these in old science fiction that make the stories fun to read, picking out what has actually come to pass and what is yet to be ‘perfected’.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 12

I had never seen so many white coats in my little room.

Opening line of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated by Jeremy Leggatt

When Jean-Dominique Bauby wakes from a coma after a stroke, he’s surrounded by medical staff. He can’t move much of his body, just his head and one eye. By blinking it, he communicates with a speech therapist and dictates this book.

The diving bell represents his body confined and greatly restricted with Locked-in Syndrome. The butterfly is his mind taking flight, as it used to before the stroke when he was the chief editor of Elle, a French fashion magazine.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is amazing. Short and elegant, both the original and the translation. Highly recommended.

I thought about butterfly freedom this morning when I came across these two embracing beauties clinging to the fig branch in my garden. You see? Sometimes even a butterfly can be confined and restricted.

Orchard swallowtail butterflies, Papilio aegeus

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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.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 9

Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of a landowner in our district, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, so noted in his time (and even now still recollected among us) for his tragic and fishy death, which occurred just thirteen years ago and which I shall report in its proper context.

Opening line of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1880, translated by David McDuff (1993)

This famous book actually has two beginnings. The first is an epigraph from John 12:24, words which are also engraved on the front of Dostoyevsky’s tomb in St Petersburg.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, tomb, Tikhvin Cemetery, St Petersburg

The second is the opening line of Part One, Book One, as quoted above in a translation by David McDuff. When I first read this translated line, I thought it was Aleksey who’d had a tragic and fishy death. Comparing McDuff’s words with those of Constance Garnett who in 1912 published the earliest English translation of The Brothers Karamazov, I noticed not just the different spellings, Aleksey/Alexey, but I also learned a lesson about ambiguity. The same sentence in Garnett’s translation makes it immediately clear that the father, Fyodor, had died:

Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.

In the McDuff lines, Aleksey is first placed in his family context and the rest of the sentence therefore must be telling us why he was ‘noted in his time … for his tragic and fishy death’. On the other hand, the Garnett lines speak clearly of Fyodor, the father, as ‘a landowner … still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death’. No confusion.

Little lessons like this one are invaluable for translators. The risk of ambiguity is reduced with each pair of fresh eyes reading the words. Of course, The Brothers Karamazov is 971 pages long, so if the translator couldn’t find many friends to proofread so long a manuscript, we would understand.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 8

A ridiculous rumour is going round the neighbourhood about new restrictions. In order better to anticipate shortages and to guarantee improved productivity in the working portion of the population, the authorities are going to put unproductive consumers to death; unproductive meaning: older people, retirees, those with private income, the unemployed and other superfluous mouths.

Opening lines of “Tickets on Time” by Marcel Aymé (translated by Sophie Lewis)

Another story by Marcel Aymé. In this one, “La Carte” in French, the reader must accept the assumption of time-rationing. It’s like food rationing in wartime, and indeed the story is set during the occupation of France in the early 1940s. But now the consumer is forced to ration his time, having the right to only a certain number of days per month, and will be temporarily put to death according to his entitlement. Aymé makes mischievous fun of his own profession as a writer: his main character, Jules Flegmon, is horrified that writers have been lumped together with painters, sculptors and musicians as consumers decreed to be unproductive for the State and returning less than their upkeep.

Aymé’s fictitious character died for 15 days each month. But the real writer Marcel Aymé lived every day of his life until he died in 1967. He lived in Montmartre and has a Place named after him (see header photo of the Place Marcel Aymé), and he’s buried in Montmartre where his character Jules Flegmon lived, died and lived until the decree was abolished.

Grave of Marcel Aymé – Saint-Vincent Cemetery, Montmartre, Paris

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46 Great Opening Lines: 7

In Montmartre there lived a poor fellow named Martin who existed only every second day.

From Dead Time by Marcel Aymé, 1936, translated by me!

This is the opening line of another short story by Marcel Aymé, Le Temps mort in French, Dead Time in English. The main character, Martin, who is alive one day and dead the next, falls in love with a woman who at first doesn’t have a problem with his absences, but eventually finds them expedient.

I’ve translated a bit more than the first line, and when I get to the end I’ll send it out into the world to see if someone would like to publish it.

I’m writing this in an airport lounge, waiting for a flight that doesn’t leave for two hours. A satisfying way to fill dead time.

My previous post about Great Opening Lines was in praise of Marcel Aymé’s The Man Who Walked Through Walls, another of his excellent fantastical stories for children and adults. All of them highly recommended. Here he is at his desk:

Marcel Aymé, 1929. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

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46 Great Opening Lines: 6

In Montmartre, on the third floor of 75b Rue d’Orchampt, there lived an excellent gentleman called Dutilleul, who possessed the singular gift of passing through walls without any trouble at all.

From The Man Who Walked Through Walls, 1941, Marcel Aymé, translated by Sophie Lewis

In my previous post about a great opening line I introduced the French author, Marcel Aymé, and his short story, The Wolf, written for children albeit with a pretty scary moral. Aymé also wrote fantasy for adults, and is possibly most famous for his tale about a man who walked through walls. There are several English translations around, but this one (above) is the best I could lay my hands on.

Man in the Wall, tribute to Marcel Aymé, photo courtesy of www.briansolis.com

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46 Great Opening Lines: 5

Hiding behind the hedge, the wolf was patiently watching the house.

Opening line, The Wolf, Marcel Aymé (my translation)

Cover of ‘Les Contes bleus du chat perché’, including ‘Le Loup’ (The Wolf), Marcel Aymé, courtesy of Gallimard, publisher

The Wolf is a children’s story written by Marcel Aymé in 1932. Aymé is more famous for his science fiction/fantasy stories, particularly about characters who have a supernatural ability, like walking through walls, or existing only every second day. This story is about a wolf who convinces two small blonde girls (wolves prefer blondes) to let him into the house while their parents are out. The ending is a happy one, for the girls.

The translation is mine. One day it might be published.

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