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: 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: 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: 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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46 Great Opening Lines: 4

At least two hundred poor beggars were counted sleeping out on the pavements of the main streets of Sydney the other night – grotesque bundles of rags lying under the verandahs of the old Fruit Markets and York-street shops, with their heads to the wall and their feet to the gutter.

‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’, Henry Lawson, 1896

The economic recession and strikes of the early 1890s forced a lot of Australia’s country people off the land and into urban areas, only to find there were no jobs there either. ‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’ is a short story that paints a clear picture of the poverty of poor beggars who had been sleeping in the park but were driven out by rain, onto the streets, under the verandahs.

The title refers to ‘dossing out’ in the city and ‘camping’ in the bush, two different ways of living with no money. In the bush, Lawson writes, you can light a fire, boil the billy, make tea, catch a sheep and fry a chop, wash your shirt, wash yourself, whistle and sing by the camp fire, breathe fresh air and make poetry.

George Washington Lambert, ‘Sheoak Sam’, 1898

In the city, when you doss out, there’s no possibility of lighting a fire to cook over. And a man is generally too hungry to make poetry.

The story ironically appeared in the collection While the Billy Boils.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 3

When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions.

1 Kings 10:1

‘The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon’, Edward Poynter, 1890, Art Gallery of New South Wales

I have this painting on my living room wall. When I first saw it in the Art Gallery of NSW I fell in love with it, already being enamoured of Orientalism with its hot, deep colours and ancient drama and mystery. This painting is massive; it’s exhibited in an equally impressive broad gold frame, but even unframed, the painting measures 2.3 x 3.5 metres. Perhaps it was the size of it that had me suspending disbelief and imagining myself as a spectator in King Solomon’s court. I bought the print from the gift shop, had it framed, and over the years have put it up and taken it down. I’ve developed an occasional discomfort with the bare-breasted queen, lower in the space than the king, and approaching only because he bids her. Right now it’s up.

However, reading the opening line of this biblical story leaves me more impressed with the Queen of Sheba. After all, she was there to test the king with ‘hard questions’. This is good, it got me in, it’s exactly the kind of opening line that makes us read on.

She is, in a few alternative English translations of just this one verse, portrayed as quite a powerful and mysterious queen. Some translators have her trying him with subtle questions, with difficult questions, with riddles, or with enigmas. I particularly like this one in the Wycliffe bible:

But also the queen of Sheba, when the fame of Solomon was heard, came in the name of the Lord to assay him in dark and doubtful questions.

Can you imagine what kind of question would be dark and doubtful? Edward Poynter was evidently taken in by this opening line, whichever version he read (probably the King James bible). From the first, he was drawn into the story and stimulated to paint it for us all. May you read a great opening line like this, and may it lead you to an even greater achievement.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 2

Who’ll show a child just as it is?

From the fourth Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke
– translated by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, an epigraph opening Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

This post is about a great opening line, but also about a great title.

When I was twenty, I watched a movie with Mum. An average Friday night movie, with cups of tea, relaxing together in the loungeroom I spent so much of my life in. The movie was Sophie’s Choice, with Meryl Streep in the role of Sophie, based on the novel by William Styron. When the story turned to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz and the gassing and systematic elimination of Jews, I turned to Mum and said “Did this really happen?”. Of course she said yes, but nothing more.

There had been plenty of talk in our household about wars. My father was a soldier in the second world war, his father was in the first. Various uncles and older relatives had also played their part. I had only heard them talk about fighting against the Germans, you know, gunfights and bombings on battlefields. Why had I never heard about concentration camps and the wilful destruction of Jews and various other unwanted people? Mum didn’t say much after this (she never talked about anything dark) and I was so horrified at my fellow humans that I asked no more questions.

The words Sophie’s Choice will always remind me of that night, that piece of knowledge I acquired. I’ve since read the book, a hard read, some of which I skipped. The climax is in this exchange between a Nazi doctor and Sophie, his victim, a mother of two:

…the doctor said, ‘You may keep one of your children.’

Bitte?’ said Sophie.

‘You may keep one of your children,’ he repeated, ‘the other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?’

‘You mean, I have to choose?’

‘You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege – a choice.’

Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. ‘I can’t choose! I can’t choose!’

This week I was casually browsing The Canberra Times when I came across the entertainment guide, with this on the cover:

Cover, The Canberra Times entertainment guide, 18th September 2017

The article inside about a woman named Sophie Monk is written by the journalist Michael Lallo. The opening line is not one of the great ones that will make my collection, but is worth quoting here:

When Sophie Monk did her first bikini shoot, for a men’s magazine, she cried in the bathroom.

And what choice did this particular Sophie have to make? Lallo writes:

She began to question previous choices. ‘Why not?’ she thought, when Playboy made its umpteenth approach.

Michael Lallo has taken Styron’s title and made it his own, rather than making up his own. It might be forgivable if the topic of his story had some relevance to the original. I guess he used it because it had already made a big impact, and I suppose it got my attention. If Lallo wanted me to reflect on life, then it worked. I reflected immediately on literary appropriation and Nazis torturing and gassing people.

This is a writing lesson for me. Be careful not to inappropriately use analogies.

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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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