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:
Black are the brooding clouds and troubled the deep waters, when the Sea of Thought, first heaving from a calm, gives up its Dead.
From The Chimes, a Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In, Charles Dickens, 1845
Sometimes it’s not the first chapter that has a memorable opening line. It could be a later chapter like this one that comes from the Third Quarter of a short novella in Dickens’ Christmas collection. Rather than four chapters, it has four quarters, like the quarters of an hour at which church bells chime. The tale is set on New Year’s Eve. And since, today, it is indeed New Year’s Eve, I’ve chosen it to end my year.
Here is the story’s true opening line, for your comparison:
There are not many people — and as it is desirable that a story-teller and a story-reader should establish a mutual understanding as soon as possible, I beg it to be noticed that I confine this observation neither to young people nor to little people, but extend it to all conditions of people: little and big, young and old: yet growing up, or already growing down again — there are not, I say, many people who would care to sleep in a church.
While I agree with Dickens that not many people would care to sleep in a church, particularly a church whose bells mark every quarter hour, I was especially struck by the Sea of Thought giving up its Dead.
At this point in the tale, a poor and aging messenger nicknamed Trotty Veck (for he trots) believed that chiming bells were speaking to him as he sat on the church porch waiting for messenger jobs. He was a pessimist, he could see no way up and out of a pauper’s life; he believed that poor people are naturally bad. Now he climbs the stairs of the belfry to see these bells that speak to him. But the bells have spirits in the form of goblins who reprimand him for his lack of faith in a poor man’s ability to improve. They want to teach him a lesson: if the poor are not oppressed, they can strive for better things, and, like time, they must advance.
The goblins are excellently illustrated on the opening pages of the novella.
The Chimes is another of Dickens’ tales about injustice and the impoverished of Victorian England. Grim as it is throughout, the story has a happy ending. The goblins may or may not have been real, but Trotty Veck learned his lesson:
“I know there is a Sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves.”
A Sea of Thought. A Sea of Time.
And now to conclude 2017, some lines from The Chimes describing the past and future of any year:
“The New Year! The New Year! Everywhere the New Year! The Old Year was already looked upon as dead; and its effects were selling cheap like some drowned mariner’s aboardship. Its patterns were Last Year’s and going at a sacrifice, before its breath was gone. Its treasures were mere dirt, beside the riches of its unborn successor!”
The sun burns hotly thro’ the gums
As down the road old Rogan comes —
The hatter from the lonely hut
Beside the track to Woollybutt.
He likes to spend his Christmas with us here.
First lines, A Bush Christmas, C. J. Dennis, 1931
Clearly, if you’re reading a poem entitled A Bush Christmas and the first line says ‘The sun burns hotly…’ you can be sure you’re not in northern Europe.
My Christmases have always been hot. Where I grew up in Queensland, the morning temperature in the kitchen would have been, say, 25 degrees celsius, but Mum would never hesitate to turn on the oven and roast the chicken, a luxury. (No turkeys for us.) After a couple of hours of cooking, it would have easily been 35 degrees in that room. I’d keep out of the way and splash around in my small canvas pool while the grown-ups of my family would sit chatting in the shade of the yard. Dad in his long sleeves and trousers, which he wore in all weathers, would be chain smoking on his bench. We’d all wait for Mum to finish roasting the vegetables or making gravy, and then she’d call us to the table. The sweat dripped from her face as she served the food.
“It ain’t a day for working hard,” says the father in A Bush Christmas, and of course, as he speaks, the mother is roasting and boiling and baking in the soaring temperature of the bush kitchen. She’s hot, but guess what the poetic father says…
“Your fault,” says Dad, “you know it is.
Plum puddin’! on a day like this,
And roasted turkeys! Spare me days,
I can’t get over women’s ways.
Traditions from the old country, the wintry Christmases of England, Scotland and Ireland, are dying hard in Australia, even now. For those from the old country who sought a better life in Canada or the northern parts of the USA, Christmas temperatures were just like home. But those who came to Australia kept up the traditions despite the upside down climate.
A few hours after our Queensland Christmas dinner was over, it was invariably followed by sharp cracking thunder, lightning flashes and a cooling torrential downpour.
But old Rogan of the poem is celebrating Christmas out in the bush, far from any city, where there might not have even been the relief that comes with a storm. Instead, Rogan passes the afternoon telling the kids “his yarns of Christmas tide ‘mid English barns”, “of whitened fields and winter snows, and yuletide logs and mistletoes”.
The children listen, mouths agape,
And see a land with no escape
For biting cold and snow and frost —
A land to all earth’s brightness lost,
A strange and freakish Christmas land to them…
Old Rogan was the lonely neighbour invited for “a bite of tucker and a beer”. They offered him company and a meal, and in return he offered them that valuable form of nourishment for children’s minds, a good yarn.
…The sun slants redly thro’ the gums
As quietly the evening comes,
And Rogan gets his old grey mare,
That matches well his own grey hair,
And rides away into the setting sun…
In the end, the father relaxes with a full belly, and his wife washes up.
“Ah, well,” says Dad. “I got to say
I never spent a lazier day.
This is how it was in my childhood. I’m glad to say some things have changed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hiding behind the hedge, the wolf was patiently watching the house.
Opening line, The Wolf, Marcel Aymé (my translation)
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.
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.
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.