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Friday, January 20, 2012

 

First sentences: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys.

So we see our first glimpse of Huxley's dystopian future, through a voice that simultaneously mimics and rises above the indoctrinated habits of its characters.

Most obvious is the mimicry: thirty-four storeys merits an 'only'? The image is at once visual and conceptual, pulling us with delicate uncertainty between the two. Is it called 'squat' because the narrative voice, or at least the characters it invokes, judges entirely on its lack of floors - that is, does the building look like a contemporary skyscraper? (Brave New World was first published in 1932; New York had been able to boast of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings for a couple of decades, making them a feature of life well placed to occupy speculative fiction: new enough to be notable, old enough to be familiar to everyone.) Or is it thirty-four storeys high and still squat judged by contemporary proportions? The former invokes a city of mountainous needles reaching into the sky; the latter a city with buildings of gargantuan size - and in both cases, a rather sterile and ugly place where the buildings are grey and unattractive. Either is an environment calculated to daunt even the most forward-looking reader: overbearingly urban, utterly out of human scale ... and yet populated by people who can be expected to shrug off this mammoth edifice as nothing much.

We are, in other words, in a world that is both hostile and filled with citizens who see no hostility therein. The essence of Brave New World is to present a world soullessly mechanised, filled with inhabitants who are ruthlessly institutionalised: brain-damage to foetuses who might otherwise be bored at the menial jobs they are destined for, communal raising and hypnotic sex education designed to break down the possibility of intimacy or passion, consumerism and shallowness the ultimate virtues ... all streamlined along with a program of conditioning to make this a world of blissful contentment for its victims. The inhabitants of this new world do not ask - do not even question - what has been done to them. But the state does not even do this in secret; it happily acknowledges it and boasts of its success. So complete is the indoctrination that almost nobody thinks twice about the implications of the system; they're told straight out that they've been engineered for contented submission from their test-tube conceptions, and they don't think anything much of it. This cheerful horror is at the centre of the novel, and this first sentence begins to establish the central tone: we see through eyes that do not perceive the magnitude of what is before them. They can see what's there, but they don't think it's anything remarkable.

At the same time, the narrative voice has a certain distance from this viewpoint - has to, if it's going to notice and point out the features of the world that will be important to readers. It's notable that the sentence is impersonal: no pronouns, no names, no character to see things for us. Like the consumerist society it introduces, it's entirely preoccupied with the material. This narrative voice is detached, impersonal, not even bothering to qualify 'A squat grey building...' with 'They approached a squat grey building' or 'There was a squat grey building.' The building is presented to us deadpan, almost shorthand. Like the inhabitants of this world, we are thrown in with a fait accompli: the narrative voice will point things out to us, but will not describe, explain, or analyse. Dispute will come, but from fallible humans: for the narrative voice - it's hardly human enough to call a narrator - there is nothing to be said. The world now is how it is; it won't change, it doesn't trouble to hide its mechanisms, and its magnitude is such that it renders the narrative almost speechless. Only the title, with its ironic nod to Shakespeare, offers a quiet cry of fury: the rest is silence.

At the same time, this is not a chastened narrative voice: no narration that clips its clauses with the brisk authority of this first sentence can be. Rather, it moves in and out of mimicry with a confidence we can already see in this opening: 'A squat grey building' is crisply authoritative and definitely written rather than spoken in tone; the mimicking 'only' takes place after the voice has established its willingness to invoke and dispense with phrases with smart dispatch.

The effect is of a narrative voice that may be deadpan, but is also highly flexible: it can shift in and out of the characters' perceptions as it sees fit. In effect, 'squat' and 'only' have invisible quotation marks around them: this is not a deceived voice. (The fact that it thinks to call our attention to the building's dimensions at all indicates that it knows what we'll find surprising here.) I have said that the voice doesn't analyse, but this isn't exactly true: later on, characters will analyse the functioning of society and the narrative voice will, rather than correcting or usurping their analyses, expand upon them. The Controller takes us on a tour in the opening chapter, explaining how this society works, and the narrative voice will repeat and enlarge upon his themes; Helmholtz Watson remarks that he's been experimenting with celibacy in the hopes of improving his poetry and the narrative remarks that introspection can lead to asceticism just as, in the case of Bernard Marx, sexual frustration leads to introspection ... but in all cases, the narrative voice isn't analysing the characters from outside. Instead, it is merely riffing upon themes that they introduce, putting things more clearly than they can put things themselves. The narrative voice doesn't so much analyse the characters as follow their lead: whatever abstract idea they suggest, it will rephrase at greater length by way of furthering our understanding, with no suggestion at all that it might agree or disagree with the idea itself. The characters are not companions to us; they are elements of a scientific experiment, and the narrative voice reports their findings without editorial bias. It happens at greater length throughout the book, but with the simple 'squat' and 'only', it begins here.

A character who says something obviously out of kilter with modern perceptions is a fairly common device, and often a comic one. On that level, the method of Huxley's first sentence is pretty straightforward. What makes it more than a hoary old trick is the fact that the narrative voice is simultaneously out of kilter ... and omniscient. For all the polemic fervour of the novel, its speaking voice slides in and out of irony without comment, seeing all and adding nothing. By its very refusal to criticise, the narrative forces us to be what the happy citizens of this brave new world are not: critical observers.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

 

Among the many, many reasons I'm angry about the Stop Online Piracy Act

...is this one:

I depend on copyright for my livelihood. To pay my bills, I need there to be some copyright laws that protect my ability to earn money by working at the thing I can do.

So thanks a whole bloody bunch, SOPA, for turning copyright into such an instrument of oppression that a lot of people are going to hate me for this.

Artists need copyright to survive. We do not need copyright corrupted and misused to the point where we're at risk of a backlash.

We need reasonable copyright laws. Reasonable ones, not this imperialist crap.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

 

First sentences: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Requested by storiteller

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

First disclosure: I admire Marquez, but when it comes to magic realism I tend to prefer female authors, so I've only read a limited amount of his work and have not read the whole of One Hundred Years of Solitude. My knowledge of the book is based upon: having read some extracts, attended a lecture when I was an undergraduate, looked up the plot on Wikipedia, read Of Love And Other Demons, and having a general impression of what's considered classically magic realist. I'm therefore approaching the first sentence in a state of relatively literate ignorance; I may get some things wrong.

Okay, first sentence time.

Marquez is, of course, a pioneer of the famous magic realist style, that intermixture of grim politics and dreamlike unreality, intense passion and logical flippancy, history and fantasy, humanity and abstraction, that casts such a strange and compelling shadow over literature. For setting out the stall, this first sentence is a feat of hologrammatic perfection: the tiny fragment containing a complete image of the whole.

The sentence is obviously translated from the Spanish, which is a language I don't speak, so I cannot comment too much on the rhythms Marquez chose to employ - which, I think, is a shame, because I bet he does something interesting with them. Even in translation, the sentence is an extraordinary piece of conceptual rhythm. Time wheels in a slow, almost drunken circle. We begin 'many years later' - raising the immediate question, later than what? The time he saw ice, or some other moment? Where in time are we? The answer, as the years continue to revolve, seems to be nowhere and everywhere at once: life is passing before our eyes, taking in a man's whole experience, beginning at the end or perhaps in the middle, and moving back to childhood - but childhood on the cusp of some other state of being, for it is a childhood moment of change.

In other words, we cannot pin down where we are, not just because we don't know what moment in this sliding scale of time we occupy but because every specific instance of time we are given is a moment of transition. Facing the firing squad is a moment of transition from life to death - or if you're luckier, from helplessness to salvation, we don't yet know which, and Marquez is in no hurry to put us out of our uncertainty. Childhood is a trip to discover ice - not even the moment of discovery itself, but being taken to discover it, the journey verbally eclipsing the arrival.

Time, in short, is endlessly fluid. There is no 'now'; there is only 'later' and 'before' and movement to and fro: we see everything at once. Even the first eyes we see through are caught in an act of memory rather than observation. And this is an important piece of preparation: before Marquez gets to his more surreal and outlandish claims, he has cut us loose from our moorings. In the real world we may not know much of what's going on, but we at least know what's past and present. To enter Marquez's book through this first sentence is to have that familiarity wrested away from us. We approach the outlandish incidents too disoriented to put up much of a fight against their unreality.

And the outlandishness begins in the first sentence, presented with a deadpan nod. The fact that it's a discovery of ice - not, you would think, something you'd normally need to take a trip to 'discover' (you might need to journey to see ice, given the right home town, but discover is a word that makes clear ice is a new concept as well as a new sensual experience) - throws both mundane ice and abstract discovery into question. Soon the book will move to the bewildering assertion that in Aurelio Buendia's childhood 'the world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them one had to point' (rather a wry enactment of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis; reality can be zany in this world, but it's a profoundly erudite zaniness), but the implication is clear in the first sentence before it's made so explicit. A child making a new discovery isn't just making a new discovery for himself: it's really, genuinely new. I called the handling of time drunken, but it's equally accurate to call it childlike: the straight-faced gaze of a child whose mind hasn't yet sorted fact from fantasy and regards each as equally bizarre. In this time-hazed, numinous world, even ordinary things take on a mystical quality: you never know what's going to tilt next.

Intermixed with this matter-of-fact tone is a promise of high drama (a firing squad!) which Marquez is distractibly, teasingly vague about keeping. In most books, you would think that a firing squad would be the main point of a story; here, the narrative shifts quickly away from this, as if an execution were a mere aside to the central story. And the central story is of a family moving through history. Note, for instance, that we get Colonel Aureliano Buendia's full name: there will be other Buendias, even other Aurelianos: we may be lost in time, but we need the dry precision of a family tree to keep us clear on who's being discussed here. The family will not be an isolated unit, though: here in the first sentence, we are deeply political - or else why do we need to know the Colonel's rank, and the fact that he faces a firing squad? There are other Buendias in store for us, but we already know that this one, at least, will have his fate determined by forces beyond his control - not magical ones, or not just magical ones, but human forces.

Despite the drama of the situation, then, Marquez is playing a different game. Rather than starting us with an incident as such, he starts us with the terms we will have to accept if we are going to follow him down this winding path. Time exists only as a continuum; human and cosmic powers are equally at play, or at prey, upon our characters; family is central (so central that it distracts our narrator from talking about an execution squad) and must be watched carefully if we're going to keep up. Marquez is not telling us a conventional story. Instead, his main gambit is to unseat our readership, to force us into a new state of mind - which we will have to occupy if we are going to survive his free-handed spinning of the wheel. Issues of life and death take second place to this vital, eccentric view on the world. Only by surrendering to dream logic will we make it through One Hundred Years Of Solitude alive.

Monday, January 16, 2012

 

First sentences: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Requested by Jessica R.

Mrs Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops, and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde's Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs Rachel Lynde's door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs Rachel was sitting at her door, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.

A first sentence that's also a first paragraph, in fact. Anne may talk breathlessly and at great length, but the narrative can match her word for word - if with a little more regard for the decencies of structure and sequence.

When I was a little girl I adored Anne of Green Gables, identified passionately with its heroine, soared on its flights of fancy and, if memory serves, was so heartbroken at the death of Matthew Cuthbert that I couldn't sleep and eventually crept into my parents' bed for a weep. I reread it again as an adult and was surprised; recently I listened to it on audiobook and confirmed my adult impression. Montgomery may sympathise with Anne, but this is no panegyric to the imagination. Or if it is, it's also a panegyric to the realities of small-town life - but a wry panegyric. As much as a bildungsroman, this is a comedy of manners. Nature is loved, but so are people, and it will remain a background to them.

This is what we see at the beginning: we start with where 'Mrs Rachel Lynde' - introduced as if we were visiting her parlour, with that characteristic Avonlea habit of referring to individuals by both first and last name when speaking of them in the third person - is observing Avonlea, and we are observing her. Avonlea itself (a fictional place, though described with such familiarity that someone's even put together a map of it) is mentioned as if we already knew where it was, knew it so well that 'the old Cuthbert place' and 'Lynde's Hollow' were familiar landmarks. And it's worth noting that those landmarks are named for the people they frame. Anne dances in scattering her fanciful titles left and right, bestowing a Violet Vale here and a White Way of Delight there, but Montgomery's titles are like Marilla Cuthbert's tailoring: 'good, sensible, serviceable ... without any frills or furbelows about them.' The scene is set. This is a small community, small enough that the names of the occupants are the easiest way to identify places, focused on neighbourliness rather than anything more artistic. A home, with all the comforts and limitations that a small community can be expected to provide.

At the same time, Montgomery is far from blind to the beauties of nature. This is something that struck me listening to the audiobook: for all her love of fancy, she's not the most lyrical of stylists. While she shares some of Anne's animism regarding the stream, and can rock to the rhythms of 'dark secrets of pool and cascade', much of her description - and this will continue throughout the book - is more in the order of a nature walk than a poem. 'Alders and ladies' teardrops' are gestured towards with pleased familiarity, but if we don't know what an alder tree or a ladies' teardrop plant looks like we will, as Anne would say, just have to imagine it. Montgomery doesn't so much describe the wildlife as just point it out, listing what we can see. But for what we lose in descriptive beauties, we gain in a sense of belonging: inducted into Avonlea as we are, we are expected to be able to picture the plants based on their names alone, as if it were our own highway we walked.

Even the anthropomorphised nature is subject to Avonlea's customs. The stream, more than Anne herself, is subject to convention: no wild dryad brook this, but a brook sufficiently aware of Mrs Rachel Lynde's censorious gaze that it meekly mends it manners as it flows past her door. The joke is on Mrs Lynde, of course, but it also grants her power. Intricacy and passion are subdued by her. She is not, in fact, the central character, nor even a member of the central, titular household; instead, she stands in for Avonlea itself, with all its faults of provinciality and saving graces of kindliness, and its sharp interest - frankly shared by us, its newest citizens - in a good story. And a woman or a place that can subdue a stream merely by observing it is a potent force - not of oppression, but of socialisation. The story will tame Anne's wildness (rather to the cost of our entertainment, by the end), and we can anticipate this taming right from the outset. Secret streams are not extinguished, but they must learn to conduct themselves in public, and so they do.

Anne of Green Gables, in other words, begins in a balance between nature and nurture, wilderness and convention, that is resolved by dry humour. Avonlea is introduced to us as an open invitation: come in and welcome home, stranger, and don't forget to wipe your feet. Lucy Maud Montgomery is, as a narrator, present in all her characters, particularly the female ones - in Anne's love of beauty and life, in Rachel's keen eye for an interesting event, in Marilla's amused tolerance - but for the reader, she is to us what Marilla Cuthbert is to Anne: a shrewd, humorous provider of a home. No wonder we as children feel ourselves to be Anne; Montgomery more or less casts us so.

Friday, January 13, 2012

 

First sentences: I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

Requested by KCF

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

So we meet Cassandra Mortmain, frank, sharp and adorable narrator of I Capture The Castle, already engaged in two of her three main activities: diligently working her prose style while improvising around the cramped poverty of her situation.

I Capture The Castle is written in the form of a diary, and Dodie Smith adheres to this commitment with an integrity that becomes alchemy. Some writers may use a diary as a conceit while paying little attention to what it means, but Cassandra's diary is a physical thing. She has to find places to write it; it has finite pages and she can't afford more (and in fact she moves from book to book as the story progresses and people give her new diaries); life and its demands press on her even as she writes. The very act of addressing the reader captures Cassandra in motion: her writing isn't just a description of her life but an active part of it. To read the book is to meet the living girl.

What kind of girl is she? The first sentence tells us several things. 'I write this', she says, using the educated 'write' rather than the more colloquial 'I am writing': there's class here somewhere, a feel for the literary use of language. Class, but no luxury, or else she'd surely be writing somewhere more comfortable - and no pretensions either: she's not above sitting in the kitchen sink, and she's not above telling us that she's doing it either. Youth and physical health are implied too: it's a spry young thing who'll settle down into a sink for a long writing session. Cassandra is cultured, but she's utterly fresh; what in old-fashioned books might be called 'unspoiled'.

Her culture comes across all the stronger for this background: this is no hothouse flower whose education is merely imposed on her for the sake of convention. Cassandra and convention are clearly strangers. Instead, we are presented with a fine flower growing in rough soil, working hard on culturing herself. She may have to sit in the sink to get enough light to write by, but that doesn't hinder her writing style or her honesty. Cassandra's writing and intelligence are part of her, and difficulties will not undermine them. The image is comical, almost slapstick, but her direct, practical rendering of it makes us laugh with her, not at her. It's a rare girl who can retain her dignity sitting in a sink, but Cassandra's is actually enhanced by it.

Writing and growing in rough soil: these are two of Cassandra's talents. Her third talent, loving people, will begin to emerge fairly quickly as she favours us with her undeceived but kindly portraits of those around her, but we begin centred on Cassandra, on her relationship with herself - or rather, her relationship with her own ability to make something out of her circumstances. The book will have a rather melancholy ending, in fact, but we leave it warmed nonetheless, and it's Cassandra's energy, her vibrant sensitivity and survivor courage, that warms us. That begins here. Other people may let her down, but she will always have herself, and we know this from the first sentence.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

 

First sentences: The Collector by John Fowles

Note: Carolynn requested The Magus, but I just couldn't stomach it, so I thought I'd do another John Fowles book instead. Hope this'll do, Carolynn.

When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe.

First thing to say: I admire John Fowles's talent, but I find him very hard to like. He's good at writing nasty voices, but reading an excerpt from his journal suggests there may be a reason for that. Consider this remark (one of many) about Samantha Eggar, who starred in the film adaptation of The Collector:

I took Sam out this evening, to hear Segovia and to try to get to the bottom of the mystery of her nothingness. I felt like Seneca locked up with Poppaea... or something. A pretty corrupt Seneca, as I have done my best to get her the sack these last days; and like everyone else have indulged wholeheartedly in the favourite sport on the Columbia lot - making fun of her behind her back.

It may be worth knowing that her performance in this film won her a Golden Globe, a Cannes Film Festival Best Actress award and an Oscar nomination.

So yeah. Pretty nasty piece of work. But The Collector is written from the point of view of two narrators, one of whom is supposed to be a nasty piece of work. (Though also a personification of the kind of uneducated person who attracted Fowles's snobbery, while the other narrator is a beautiful young girl in love with an older male artist-mentor, who adores his uncompromising spirit and judges herself harshly for finding him physically unattractive - all of which might explain why Fowles took such offence that Eggar wasn't his dream girl. I can sympathise with artistic ruthlessness, but I do not think it entitles you to sexual tribute.) Fred Clegg's voice is precisely and skilfully drawn in its nastiness.

So, to take the sentence on its own terms and set aside my dislike for John Fowles.

Fowles pulls off an interesting trick here, and one that's difficult for an author to accomplish: establishing an inarticulate narrator who nevertheless grabs our attention. Bad writing is usually dull, but Clegg's voice is vivid and suspenseful. How is it done?

The first sentence makes it clear that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator; some authors build up the unreliability slowly, but Fowles starts as he means to go on. Clegg speaks of 'she' rather than telling us his victim's name, or even as plain an introduction as 'the girl'. He knows who 'she' refers to, and speaks to us as if we shared his assumption. At once, we are put in the position of his confidantes: he assumes we are complicit and sympathetic, and thus reveals all the malignity he might hide from a stranger.

Also clear is that we are dealing with a stalker (a word not current in 1963 when The Collector was published, of course). Clegg sees Miranda from across the street, making note of the times when this is possible - not when she's at school, otherwise almost every day: he's looking out for her and feels her absence. Despite the obvious distance between them, he's already speaking of her as if they were intimate: the 'almost every day' is immediately qualified with 'sometimes', but to Clegg, the sightings are a mentally integrated into a routine, a relationship, so the fact that he doesn't actually see her almost every day is relegated to an afterthought added for the sake of strict accuracy rather than because it's important to his thinking. The fact that he adds it for accuracy has a further effect: it begins to imply the detail-mindedness, precision and obsessive disposition that allow the kidnap to proceed successfully. He notes details; he just doesn't let them influence him against his desires.

The sense of being confided in by someone who expects us to accept his word even when he himself acknowledges that he's rather careless about reality turns us quickly against Clegg. His voice isn't just obsessive: it's presumptuous. We judge him for assuming we're on his side, even as we take advantage of his trust to find out what he's going to do next. And these two reactions combine together: we are quickly frightened for Miranda. A man who sees every detail that might work to his advantage but notices nothing of other people's right to differ from him is the greatest of threats.

Set up as an opposite to art and culture, Clegg has an elaborately 'uneducated' voice. 'Almost every day sometimes', for instance: something anyone might say in the middle of hasty speech, but an educated speaker would edit from their writing. (We might actually expect a class-aware man like Clegg to correct his writing more carefully than his speech, which gives us the sense that in reading his words, we're somewhere between the two.) Or 'When she was home from her boarding-school': it's a phrase more full of detail-noting than attention to rhythmic elegance or pleasing concision. 'When she was home from school' would provide the same location in time, and if we're talking about seeing her daily it would be implicitly clear that she lives at school, but Clegg notes that it's a boarding school, telling us two things. The first is further information about his stalkerish obsession: he doesn't know this girl, but he does know what kind of school she goes to and where she is when she's away from him. He's researching her. The second, emphasised by that slightly resentful 'her', is that boarding schools, in England at least, are generally a marker of middle- or upper-class status. Calling it 'her boarding-school' emphasises that boarding school (and note that, contrary to standard usage, he hyphenates it as if unfamiliar with the phrase) is of Miranda's world, not Clegg's. Similarly, her house is opposite the 'Town Hall Annexe' (with that eccentrically capitalised A, treating his local parlance as if it were common knowledge): she lives centrally while he merely works there, showing a disparity in wealth. She may be intensely observed by Clegg, but she is fundamentally foreign to him. Circumstances put him in physical but not social or personal proximity to Miranda, and he is very aware of the difference. He's just not aware that this doesn't give him the right to stalk her.

What we get, in short, is the voice of a predator that considers itself the underdog. What it communicates is almost the exact opposite of what it attempts to express. The reader is drawn into a the swift, emotional anticipation of a thriller while also enjoying the intellectual pleasure of discerning an unreliable narrator, with a further option of congratulating ourselves on our moral superiority for favouring Miranda over Clegg. It may not be nice, but it's certainly bewitching.

Monday, January 09, 2012

 

First sentences: Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit

The house was three miles from the station, but, before the dusty hired hack had rattled along for five minutes, the children began to put their heads out of the carriage window and say, "Aren't we nearly there?"

Now there is the first sentence of someone who's travelled with children.

One of the most influential and charming of children's authors, Edith Nesbit is a standard-bearer for the friendly, non-instructive authorial tone. No concern to be 'improving' here; Nesbit's address is direct, chatty, friendly, almost maternal. The sentence bowls along merrily, subclause rattling upon subclause, breathlessly informative.

Immediately clear is one of Nesbit's most striking features: the cheerful ordinariness of things. These are not aristocratic children but middle-class ones, and not wealthy: they travel by railway and by hired coach, and not even a particularly clean one at that. These are not implausibly selfless or mature children: journeys are a matter of lively impatience. Normal surroundings are filled with physical energy - and Nesbit observes this with amused tolerance. The sentence notes that the children are being a little silly in their questioning - even a child new to counting can calculate the numbers 'three' and 'five' and work out that three miles and five minutes do not add up to a 'Yes, we're nearly there' - but the sentence is full of motion and humour. The carriage rattles and is dusty, an object in use, no more perfect than the children. The children put their heads out of the window, enthusiastically participating in their environment in a naturalistic, well-observed gesture. All is normal. The modern reader may find the carriage quaint, but the energy of the scene is a pair of open arms to children: these characters are no more saintly than you, but Nesbit cares for them. You are all right.

Nesbit is a writer of incident, small moments, small mistakes leading to entertaining disasters. As we meet her children, they are already in the middle of a mild mistake, already excited at the relatively undramatic (by storybook standards, though not by real-life ones) experience of moving to a new house, already doing what they will do throughout. Her imagination is, once it gets to work, vivid and witty, but her plots revolve around the hair-clutching disasters that arise from the interaction of these ordinary, faulty children and the ancient magics they trip over in their ordinary, faulty way. The drama arises not from the magic itself, but from what happens after the magic - how to deal with being beautiful as the day when the cook doesn't recognise you and won't let you in the house, how to deal with being hungry when your magic wings have flown you into being thoroughly lost, how to cope with everyone wanting to kidnap your baby brother after a moment's irritated wishing to be free of his company. Magic upends the world, but it's wordly reality that creates all the character interaction, and we start as we mean to go on: excitable, jostling, eager.

There's a fundamental kindness in Nesbit's writing, an ability to address without patronising, that's a lot subtler than it looks. Surroundings and children interact, and silly behaviour is noted but not condemned - indeed, treated as normal and natural under the circumstances. After all, if we're coming from the station then we must just be off a train, and with three miles of rattling dust to go through, impatience is something that even an adult might feel. Behaviour might not always be sensible, but the feelings that provoke it have reasons for existing, and those reasons are not unreasonable. Nesbit does not necessarily excuse, but she forgives, because she understands, and encourages us to understand too. For all her lightness of wit, the little cramps and rubs of life are treated with respectful seriousness.

Children, in short, are treated as human beings. Nesbit does not forget that they are children, and shows them in tumbling motion with their child-ness fully on display, but neither does she forget that children are people and people, whatever their age, usually have a reason for doing what they do. Life is real and important to these characters, just as it is for us.

With Edith Nesbit babysitting us, we can all relax.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

 

First sentences: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Requested by Helen Louise.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife.

So famous a first sentence that it's actually hard to approach from an analytical perspective. It sits in the centre of literature like a diamond, sparkling and edged and difficult to dismantle.

Jane Austen is a narrator famous for her comedies of manners and social satire, but popularly adored for her romances. In her most famous opening, she manages to pull off a complicated trick by establishing both her arch tone and her promising plot. Considered in detail, this sentence is a masterpiece of having it both ways.

'Universally acknowledged', for instance. The narrative voice claims with confident didacticism that it can speak for everyone, that the universal is within its purview. At the same time, obviously the truth is not universally acknowledged - or else the clever narrator and we, the clever readers, would not be able to laugh at the joke. Immediately we are flattered with a sense of superior understanding; society is a joke, and we are in on it. So far, so sarcastic - but at the same time, when one considers the plot, it's not as straightforward as all that.

We get the advantage of seeing through this conventional 'truth', but in fact, it's not what 'universally acknowledged' implies, which is to say, a piece of received wisdom. Instead, believing a rich man must want to marry is a piece of wishful thinking. Wealthy men are essential to the comfort of wealthless women, and to 'acknowledge' that a wealthy man must be eager to provide that comfort is to be sufficiently afraid of poverty that one convinces oneself that salvation will arrive somehow. By making fun of this fear as if it were a mere foolish proverb, Austen gives her first hint that in this novel, too, the fear will be assuaged. The threat of poverty hangs over the heroines, but fearing it is laughable. We are not really threatened.

For whatever the dangers that Austen hints at for her heroines, we always know they will not come to pass. Poverty is a wind howling at the door, but we are safe inside. The plot will bear this out: a single man in possession of a large fortune might not be in want of a wife, but in fact both Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy are quite keen to marry - and indeed, are both perfectly willing to set aside financial considerations to do so. Even the comfortably-off Mr Collins wants a wife; wealthy men in Pride and Prejudice are getting married right and left. The Jane Austen museum in Bath sells copies of her books, but it also sells tote bags imprinted 'I [heart] Mr Darcy'.* Irritating people are a threat in Austen books, but poverty will never truly bite. Marriage actually will save the day.

Consider, for instance, the order of the sentence, and its linguistic roots. Marked out by those nineteenth-century commas, it breaks down almost mathematically into its components: universal acknowledgement, single man with fortune, want of a wife. Society, man, marriage. This is the progression the plot will follow: we meet Elizabeth and Jane's setting, then their future husbands, then their happy endings.

Rhythmically, the sentence lands on its last word with a satirical but reassuring clang, the multi-syllabic, Latinate 'universally' and 'possession' shifting to the monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon 'want of a wife.' Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue, discussing those two registers in English, quotes Simeon Potter's comment: 'We feel more at ease getting a hearty welcome than after being granted a cordial reception.' English is a language with Latin-Norman flesh and Anglo-Saxon bones. Austen was writing at a time when a debate about the relative merits of Latinate versus plain English had been passionately pursued for some time, and this sentence is highly aware of the distinctions. For satire of manners, we have ornate Latin. For blunt fun-poking, we have Anglo-Saxon ... but at the same time, it is Anglo-Saxon that conveys the truth. It is not true to say that it is universally acknowledged, but it is true, in this story, that the single men with large fortunes will want wives. Universal acknowledgement is a fussy fiction - both of the characters, such as Mrs Bennet, and of Jane Austen in her arch moments - but wanting a wife is real.

This, I suspect, is the essential appeal of Jane Austen's most famous novel. We get the best of both worlds: to see through the financial machinations of mothers but to marry a rich man anyway, to laugh at wishful thinking but to get our wishes granted, to scorn convention with merry, biting cynicism, but to succeed within its terms better than the people we are laughing at. Pride and Prejudice is an underdog fantasy, a tale of being a double winner - both as an undeceived outsider and as a triumphant insider. The class and gender conventions are avenged as we, with Elizabeth, both mock and resist them and still succeed by their rules. Austen is an angry writer, sometimes a furious one, sometimes even a hateful one - but my goodness, does she promise us the world.

*True fact; I went there on my honeymoon. Financial considerations, I suspect; a gift shop has to sell something, and if someone's visiting the museum at all it's a pretty good bet they already own copies of the books.

Monday, January 02, 2012

 

First sentences: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Requested by mmy.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Okay, I'm going to focus on the first sentence, but I thought I'd feature the whole first paragraph because it's beautiful and I love it. I could read it all day. Shirley Jackson was a true artist of language.

So, we begin, following the title, with a broad and haunting generalisation. Film adaptations have tended to abbreviate the title of The Haunting of Hill House to a simple The Haunting (and the 1963 film adaptation is, while diverging from the book in some ways, an extremely good and highly recommended movie), but the book's full name - rhythmical and alliterative, yet neutral as the heading of a case-note - identifies immediately that it's the house, not a 'live organism', that we are being directed towards. In the first three words, the nature of what is and isn't a 'live organism' is dizzyingly in question.

Jackson is a master of the dizzying. Consider, for instance, the word order in her first sentence. While the sentence is grammatically correct, it's also syntactically unusual: 'continue for long to exist sanely' rather than the commoner 'continue to exist sanely for long', and that subtly misplaced 'for long' is balanced by the assonant echo of 'by some'. The echo is not just one of sound, the different Os and the murmuring 'ng' and 'm' of 'long' and 'some', but of linguistic category: 'for' and 'by' are both prepositions. The two main clauses are each pinned up in the centre with a matching subclause: a garland of a sentence.

'For long' and 'by some' echo each other still further by their operation on the clauses they occupy: both are qualifiers - but reflective rather than uncertain qualifiers. No sentence that begins with as strong a declaration as 'No live organism can continue...' is in doubt of its facts; instead, the qualifiers - one of time, one of minds - give a sense of overview, subtlety and authority. Our narrative viewpoint hovers above Hill House, above time and people, even above species, seeing all and naming frailties with soft-voiced precision.

And frailty is the universal condition being named here. Larks and katydids: insignificant, yes, but also cute and charming, or so you'd think. Once again, the rhythm cradles us, from a single stress on 'larks' to the fading cadence of 'katydids', and the animals themselves are usually regarded with fondness. Here, though, they're threatened with insanity. Threat pulses through the sentences: 'no live organism' raises the fear of mortality, 'sanely' the fear of madness, even 'absolute reality' has a doom-laded ring, as if reality itself is too much for us. All lead, as inexorably as a Greek tragedy to that final word, a monosyllabic finale that falls with all the heavier weight for its contrast with the complex subclauses preceding it: dream.

Not a dream in the sense of 'living your dream'. Not a dream in the sense of romance. Dream, as the alternative to madness, as an existential necessity - an escape into unreality. Reality has no shelters for us here. We can go briefly mad in our dreams, or permanently mad in our wakefulness.

In terms of address to reader, the sentence more or less commands us to suspend our disbelief: we may be in the world of dreams, but we will find ourselves there whether we accept unreality or whether we resist it. The effect is to give the whole novel a peculiar kind of authority: whether or not it is actually real is rendered almost a moot point. We will be participating in a kind of temporary madness; we have no choice in the matter. There's nowhere else to go.

Jackson is an intense observer of small social frictions, and a lot of the subsequent plot will revolve around them: the gallantries and tensions of the experimenting housemates, the cautious harmony of strangers thrown together, the power struggles generated by the appalling Mrs Montague. By beginning with the house - really, by beginning with the universe - Jackson mounts all these small interactions over a void. They assume an almost Godot-like sense of time-filling: the characters are living their larky lives, but reality - whatever that may be - is going to get them somehow.

There's probably a lot more to say about this sentence. Jackson was nothing if not subtle, and small, unnerving echoes whisper back and forth along her pages. But if nothing else, we begin with existence, with a statement of authoritative helplessness. It's a rare trick, but Jackson has created a first sentence that - elegantly, deliberately - dwarfs the whole rest of the book.

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