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Monday, November 28, 2011


First sentences: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Requested by mmy. Any requests for other first sentences, please post in the comments.

Note: it seems to be rather difficult to mention Margaret Atwood on the Internet without someone popping up to complain that she said something rude about science fiction, which tends to devolve into a discussion of her as a person instead of as a writer. Please don't do that in the comments; I'm tired of it, and it's not relevant here.

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
Typical of Atwood, her first sentence begins at once lucidly simple and loaded with implications. It's a sentence that aches with time.

It's not that common to begin a book talking about a non-specific 'we'. Exactly who is being invoked here remains a little unclear, leaving the place the sleepers occupy more visible than the sleepers themselves. Already evident is that these sleepers have been dispossessed somehow, uprooted - not only because they're camping out in these uncomfortable-sounding circumstances, but because the very place they occupy has been dispossessed of its original function. The use of tense makes it clear that this stripping of function is final, a kind of death: 'used to be the gymnasium' has a certain vitality to it, a sense of positive transition, but 'once [had] been' is the end of something. These sleepers occupy the corpse of a gymnasium, its reclaimed shell. Suspense is laid on with a light but compelling touch: what has happened to this place to change it so much? What new purpose has it been bent to?

'Gymnasium', too, is an interesting word. The first thing to notice about it is that it's institutional: 'we' are numerous enough that an ordinary bedroom would not accommodate 'us'; 'we', too, are living in what is evidently an old school or college, a place where physical exercise would be part of the imposed routine. 'Gym' might imply a room with weights and workout machines, but a gymnasium is a place you're herded to play ball and perform gymnastics with your fellow-students. The gymnasium may have been demoted to a communal bedroom, but its occupants have been likewise demoted to the status of schoolchildren. The tone, with its ability to reach into the past and sophisticated use of tense, is that of an adult, not a child: immediately we are led to wonder what an adult is doing, mass-camped in a place for children.

There's also an other echo, which might be coincidental, but with Atwood, a writer accustomed to play with synonyms and multiple definitions (this is the novel where an entire paragraph is devoted to the multiple means of the word 'chair', for instance), one should never assume. Etymologically, a gymnasium is an ancient Greek place, to exercise naked and also to discuss intellectual pursuits and attend lectures. Open physicality, education, freedom of thought: all of these are over in the world of The Handmaid's Tale. All that resembles ancient Greece is a rigidly-enforced patriarchy and a willingness to enslave. The dead gymnasium takes with it all the positives of a Classical history.

The narrator, though, lands us in the middle of all these implications with no explanation. She does not pause to tell us who 'we' are; nor does she bother to describe the room's antecedents beyond 'the gymnasium' - not 'a gymnasium', but the definite article, as if we can be trusted to do without explanations. This story, whispered in secret, full of evasions and anonymity, begins with a vagueness that broadens out into the universal. If we are not told which gymnasium, it can only be because it doesn't matter - which means that what will happen here is of an importance not specific to the place.

Any literate dystopia will be aware of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and The Handmaid's Tale has something of the directness of Orwell's famous: 'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.' The contrast can be seen immediately: where Winston Smith is a character with little memory of anything else, so acclimatised to the newly militarised world that he thinks in twenty-four-hour time (ominously striking the unlucky hour; the bell tolls for doomed Winston in the first sentence). Offred, on the other hand, is a victim for whom memories of our world are recent, or at least recent enough that she can confidently say what things used to be. Her relationship with our world is thus personal - or at least, shading in and out of the personal and the general as she shifts from the open 'I' to the shadowy 'we'.

In beginning so, the narrator is showing her first act of trust, a trust that will carry us through the story. Graham Greene said of Great Expectations that it seemed to be the narrative of a mind 'talking to itself with no one there to listen', and The Handmaid's Tale makes this explicit, even saying despairingly at one point that it narrates itself to some listening 'dear You', knowing that 'you' can't hear her. This bleak paradox gives the tone an exceptional sense of intimacy, the feel of a story whispered through a keyhole. It's an intimacy granted more by the author than the narrator, though, and herein lies another paradox: to the nameless narrator, we are not the intended audience. To the character, we are not confidante but eavesdropper. Atwood, though, the poised and elegant stylist, does know her audience, and even adds a 'Historical Notes' final chapter to place a little distance between us and the raw secrecy of Offred's voice.

This delicate balance between the whisper of the narrator and the arched eyebrow of the author brings us to the final point of the book: this is less a work of science fiction in the marketing sense than it is a work of satire. Atwood invests Offred with a passionate lyricism while preserving a certain ironic distance from her. As such, Offred is both an intimate narrator and a reduced one, just one speck in a whole society. Even in her first sentence, nameless Offred is part of a 'we', at the mercy of others - even her creator. It's the tension between the vividness of human experience and the cool wit of social commentary that creates so compelling a dystopia. If not even your author will grant you a solo spotlight, and not even you can speak of your experience in the first person singular, you are lost indeed.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


First sentences: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
A famous first sentence indeed; a famous first chapter, in which symbolism dominates over plot. Feminine nature overwhelms the corpse of the great Manderley estate, our dreaming narrator passes through, and anything that we learn of the events of the plot - a plot finished, by this first chapter, before it begins - can only be gathered in signs and hints.

The circularity of the narrative is the beginning of its ambiguity, its fraught relationship with Rebecca, our narrator's shadow, rival and other self. An interesting point to reflect upon is this: the events of the plot (which I shall proceed to spoil), are actually pretty sordid. A wealthy man marries a woman because of family pressure and finds he hates and despises her; they live together for the sake of appearances; he murders her and hides her body; a year later he marries a penniless, submissive and naive girl half his age without telling her anything, brings her home, lapses into moody defensiveness at her natural curiosity about the situation she's gotten herself into and refuses to listen when she complains that she doesn't feel capable of handling the role she's been given (note, for instance, that Maxim reflects at one point that he should have bought her 'a lot of clothes in London' but never actually does, presumably preferring her shabbiness to a Rebecca-like chic, with no consideration of how awkward this makes it for her, trying to be a good Lady of the Manor in clothes that immediately brand her an outsider during many visits which Maxim does not attend); finally the truth comes out, and he draws his new wife into a criminal conspiracy. Gothic heroes - and this is, among other things, a Gothic novel - are often men of doubtful character and shadowy past, but du Maurier plays an interesting trick on us: we see him through the eyes of his besotted second wife, and only symbolic hints in the narrative suggest that there may be any rebellion against Maxim de Winter's cold (note the surname) aristocracy.

To manage this delicate balance, we need a vivid sense of emotional resonance, and particularly of ambivalence. Maxim is both lover and murderer; Manderley is both paradise and prison. And it's interesting to note that it's Manderley, not Maxim, that occupies the narrator's dreams.

I forget (and will credit if reminded) who described Rebecca as a romance between a woman and a house, but Manderley is a vital presence in the book. The narrator loves Manderley before she ever loves Maxim, buying an expensive postcard of it as a child and describing it in passionate detail throughout, immersed in the vivid azaleas and elegant rooms that communicate for more than Maxim does. Manderley is, in fact, based on a real house, Menabilly in Cornwall, which du Maurier herself leased and lived in for more than twenty years, and the fictional house - floral heaven, cultural haven, working establishment and social centre - embodies tremendous contradictions. Living in Manderley is lovely when alone, but its servants intimidate the narrator and the job it brings as hostess to the county society is utterly beyond her. Being married to Maxim is fine on honeymoon and tolerable, if tense and dull, in middle-aged exile, but going to Manderley complicates it tremendously. It's to preserve Manderley that Maxim stays married to Rebecca; it's to prevent it from going to an illegitimate heir that he kills her. Disputed Manderley is the angel and demon of the story.

And one of the disputed issues is this: whose home is it? The neighbours of the region consider themselves entitled to demand a ball held there; visitors can pay for admission and get a tour of the public areas. The servants live and work there, moving through the rooms with far more authority than the narrator. Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, wages a constant psychological war against the narrator with Manderley as the prize. It's notable, for instance, that she refers to Rebecca as 'the real Mrs de Winter' even though she has little respect for Maxim as a husband: 'Mrs de Winter', to her, is the lady of Manderley rather than the wife of Mr de Winter. As it occupies our narrator's dreams, it takes on the air of a spiritual home - but a spiritual home from which she is debarred. The expectations of other claimants undermine her while she is there, and the final conflagration exiles her and her husband, leaving it Rebecca's ghostly domain.

Our heroine, in fact, lives in chronic exile: paid companion to a woman who drags her through cities she dislikes, seated in Manderley but unable to settle there, and finally away from England, studying her homeland through outdated newspapers. Only in dreams can she move freely - but even in dreams, she is an observer rather than a homecomer. She went to Manderley: one can go anywhere. The neutral verb makes her dream an act of travel rather than homecoming. She went again; however much she might wish otherwise, she was only ever visiting.

The sentence itself is dream-like in its cadence. Iambic hexameter, in fact, with an internal half-rhyme on 'went' and 'again' (with an optional extra rhyme on 'dreamt' if one pronounces it with a short E, something the spelling encourages us to do):

Last night I dreamt I went
To Manderley again.
The book lulls us like the sound of the ambiguous, threatening, concealing and revealing sea that murmurs in Manderley's background. Even the sound of the name: Manderley, Manderley, Manderley, like a heartbeat, echoes through the narrative. It's notable that 'Manderley' flows more softly than 'Menabilly' (while preserving, as Sally Beauman points out in her fine introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition, the masculine first syllable). The only remarkable word in an otherwise simple sentence, Manderley is beguiling and seductive.

An interesting side note to this issue of tone: the narrator's soft voice contrasts sharply with Rebecca's on the few occasions we hear it clearly. Rebecca is a relentless abbreviator: Maxim become 'Max', slippers become 'slips', Mrs Danvers becomes 'Danny'; even hallowed Manderley becomes 'Manders'. Irreverent and casual, Rebecca is as universally detached as is the narrator, but where the narrator's constant state is longing homelessness, Rebecca's is assertive carelessness. The narrator stands outside and wishes; Rebecca enters, takes what she wants and repurposes it to her own will.

Dreams, too, are important. So much of the story takes place in the narrator's imagination, from her initial fantasises and hopes in Monte Carlo to her increasingly desperate obsession with Rebecca in Manderley, combined with her miserable imaginings of how 'dull' people must be calling her behind her back - it's such images, for instance, that propel her down the stairs to the nightmarish ball after the disaster engineered by Mrs Danvers - our awkward girl, inarticulate and shy with others, ranges freely within the confines of her own mind. When she describes conversations, it's interesting to note that phrases like 'of course' and 'inevitable' frequently predominate, usually unhappily: her expectations of people's behaviour are bleak, and usually fulfilled. The reason for this is that she lives in a world dominated by convention, and convention dominates her. Eloquent in her own mind, she can perceive the roles everyone is supposed to play, but is unable to either navigate or step outside the roles imposed upon her, only able to comment to herself with a miserable, repetitive I-told-you-so. When people are so distressingly predictable, the ability to dream, however sadly, remains an escape - an escape not just from physical limitations, but from social expectations. Reality is an introvert's nightmare; in a dream alone can one act unobserved.

Rebecca is a book in which human expectation, convention and interaction clash sharply with inner selfhood. Rebecca, glimpsed through descriptions, rebels; the narrator, speaking only to us, burns with shame at her inability to conform and flees into her mind, into her silent dialogue with us. Unreliable she may well be - the idea that she's married to a wife-murderer never seems to trouble her - but her intimate, passionate, wracked voice is so persuasive that it can be easy to forget to question her. Rebecca may have been a mistress of deception, but our narrator is no mean performer either. She just has a different natural audience. Rebecca works on seducing the other characters; her successor works on seducing us. We begin inside her very dreams; from there, the web begins to weave around us, and we need Rebecca-like powers of escape to resist.

Monday, November 21, 2011


First sentences: Watership Down by Richard Adams

The primroses were over.
Now, this is a first sentence that is not, exactly, a first sentence. Directly above it on the page is the following quotation:

CHORUS: Why do you cry out thus, unless at some vision of horror?
CASSANDRA: The house reeks of death and dripping blood.
CHORUS: How so? 'Tis but the odour of the altar sacrifice.
CASSANDRA: The stench is like a breath from the tomb.

Aeschyus, Agamemnon

Added to this, we have the title to contend with: Watership Down, a name that, conjoined with Cassandra, cannot but give the reader - pun intended - a sinking feeling. Doom is in the air before we ever get to the first sentence, and with such a setting, those primroses never stand a chance. They're over before the book begins, and they - or at least what they stand for - ain't coming back for a good while yet.

Primroses, for those unfamiliar with the landscape Watership Down occupies, refers to primula vulgaris, also known as the English primrose - a flower that blooms in various soils, but is a distinctively English, evocative choice. The primrose is a flower of spring, of promise, but also of domesticity, because while they grow wild, they're also a popular and traditional choice for cottage gardens. This is the flower of which Maxim de Winter speaks in Rebecca, saying that 'though a creature of the wilds it had a leaning towards civilization, and preened and smiled in a jam-jar in some cottage window without resentment.' Dainty, warmly yellow, edible even to humans, easily cultivated, the primrose is a flower of innocence and safety, of home. We know that home will be destroyed before ever Fiver sees visions: Cassandra drops a fairly big hint, but those pretty yellow flowers are, like floral canaries, a sign of trouble when they ail.

For how heavily does Adams announce their loss! The primroses were over. It's at once a countryman's phrase, familiar with the seasons and matter-of-factly authoritative, and a symbolic phrase, as final as the fall of a coffin-lid. In another context it might merely evoke the countryman, but Adams is a writer whose style varies from the vivid to the frenzied, symbols teeming through his prose and sometimes getting the better of him entirely. The Plague Dogs, for example, is a book that appears to have lost its grip altogether, reeling from schoolboyish vulgarity to extraordinary lyricism, falling in and out of poetry like a drunkard stumbling into ditches, breathless and bizarre. Watership Down is a more controlled work, but there's always an undertow of passion in Adams that can turn suddenly into a rip tide. If Adams tells us the primroses are over, we had better listen to the symbolism. The heavy-handed quotation at the beginning more or less orders us to do so.

Adams is a writer alive to the sounds of language too - as witness the rabbit language he invents for Watership Down, not to mention his fondness for inserting poems when the mood takes him - and the syllable 'prim' is worth noting. This may be a book about rabbits, but it's not a book about bunnies, and Adams is at quick pains to establish the difference. Discussion of droppings is part of ordinary rabbit conversation, for instance; survival, as Adams wishes to paint it, is an earthy business. Likewise, females are assessed based on whether they're 'any good' as breeders, and Adams excludes does from the initial exodus and leads us with an all-male cast for much of the story, for no zoological reason that can reasonably be explained, but is presumably a matter of personal preference. Women, on the whole, get short shrift in Adams, and whether he associates femininity and primness, it's certainly the case that conventional manners are sent out of the room at the very beginning. The linguistic echoes are almost blustering, or else almost naive in their earnestness. Sometimes, with Adams, it's hard to tell.

Watership Down, in short, is a book that wishes you to have no doubts about the morality or drama of the situation. Subtlety is not Adams's forte; didactic symbolic force is. As his most famous book begins, he's not willing to trust the first sentence to set out the stall: a doom-laden title and grandly classical scream of dismay frame it to make absolutely sure that we don't misunderstand what he's about and how important it is. The primroses are over, he tells us, and if you don't appreciate that, you understand nothing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


First sentences: Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Heads up: I will be quoting sections from the book, and it is horribly racist. People described as if they were animals; slavery, torture and lynching apology. Not nice. 

Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

So begins Gone With The Wind, that dizzying whirlwind of romance, false history, social Darwinism, compelling character drama and stomach-turning racism that has, since its publication, captivated readers far, far nicer than the book would have them be.

Gone With The Wind is, to say the least, a problematic book. It's an intense combination of the personal and the political, with the political buried under many layers of assumptions that foreground the personal. Scarlett O'Hara is a liberating figure for many (white) women: her refusal to accept the limits of femininity combined with her Machiavellian willingness to play its advantages, her author's steady conviction that a woman doesn't have to be a nice person to make an impressive or interesting hero, are deeply unusual in a patriarchal society, especially for a book published in the 1930s. Head of a family, building success and security in difficult times, Scarlett is, for many, a feminist icon (although it must be said that she does nothing to advance the interests of any woman beyond herself, so is hardly a member of the sisterhood).

Scarlett is, though, a slave-owner, heroine of a profoundly racist book that classes black people as 'creatures of small intelligence ... like monkeys or small children'. She is also, though the book doesn't use the word, a libertarian: taxes are presented as the oppressive action of a malicious and forcefully-imposed government, money is an absolute necessity, and, at least according to the charismatic Rhett Butler, 'only the smart deserve to survive'. The argument made on Balloon Juice that the Confederacy's slavery policy was fundamentally about stealing the labour of others, and that this theft didn't end with slavery but merely mutated into new forms that are still being endorsed by right-wingers today seems applicable here: Gone With The Wind, whatever is it is, is a book of the far right, and its racial politics are about as reasonable as those of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

And yet. White women in their thousands, or perhaps their millions, and sometimes women of color as well, find themselves drawn in. The luxurious dresses and grandiose passions are part of it, but at the centre of it is Scarlett herself, aggressive yet feminine, love-hungry yet callous, all id, speaking - if the voices of the silenced slaves don't rise in your consciousness - for suppressed femaleness, the unacceptable honesty of female humanity.

So, on its own terms: what do we meet when we first see her?

Running through Gone With The Wind is a persistent theme: that men cannot be relied upon to see women's inner selves. Women are socialised from birth to present a giddy, guileless front, and the book is fraught with ambivalence about the ideal woman that Scarlett can only ever mimic, never be. Mitchell described the virtuous Melanie as her heroine while simultaneously pouring writerly passion into willful Scarlett, idealising the emotional protection that a Southern mother-figure provides while wrestling with the impossibility of taking on such a role that faces a Southern daughter. (Melanie is a mother before she ever has children; Scarlett remains a daughter no matter how many children she has; the book seems to embody the double standards we tend to have as regards the relative rights to be selfish of ourselves and our parents.) But on the outside, at least, women are required to present a socially acceptable front, and men, surrounded by actresses all their lives, almost always take the front for truth.

Scarlett's predatory ambivalence, compelled to charm men but unable to respect the men she can charm, finds an emotional centre in her relationships with Ashley and Rhett, the only two men she cannot successfully manipulate: it is her relationships with these two that will drive the plot. The fact that men 'seldom' see her accurately, introduced in the first sentence, is crucial to this emotional narrative: Gone With The Wind is very much about the exceptions to the rules.

'Men', of course, is a generic noun: it categorises and it excludes, and what it excludes is telling. Scarlett is, as we will shortly see, the product of a very limited world, unacquainted with any men beyond the Southern gentlemen she captivates - except, of course, male slaves, who are implicitly shut out from the class of 'men'. What black men think of Scarlett's attractiveness is not our concern; at a later point some former slaves of her father, dragooned into the army, encounter her in the road and 'capered with delight at the meeting and with pride at displaying before their comrades what a pretty Young Miss they had,' but being 'good boys', this is more the delight of dogs showing off an owner than an act of human assessment: the possibility that they might find her sexually desirable cannot be countenanced as long as the boys remain good. Black men who meet with Mitchell's approval are not caught by Scarlett's charm, and black men who see her as a sexual possibility are 'insolent' potential rapists, actuated less by interest in that particular woman than in an upstart desire for white women in general.

White men, on the other hand, are animals of a nobler breed. The Tarletons are, within the same chapter, compared to animals too, but where black characters are likened to elephants and apes, the Tarletons are likened to their hounds and horses - European, domesticated, luxury creatures, whose behaviour is everybody's responsibility but their own: 'as mettlesome as the horses they rode, mettlesome and dangerous, but withal, sweet-tempered to those who knew how to handle them.' (So if they kill you, it's your fault for handling them wrong.) Men, in this most female of books, are of a kind: 'They are men, aren't they?' demands one Southern lady, exasperated at Scarlett's surprise that all her friends are Klansmen. Southern society in Gone With The Wind is a mixture of nature and nurture: conformity is expected and social pressure strongly exerted, but the results are simultaneously described in essentialist terms. Who you are, with a few exceptions, rules what you do.

'Men', in other words, is a term loaded with expectations, contradictions and exclusions, meaning a great deal more than 'male members of the genus homo sapiens.' 'Men' are a caste and a kind, with temperaments and politics and destinies all but inherent in their nature. With her sweeping dismissal of all non-Southern-gentlemen-men in the very first sentence - the only men worth mentioning are the ones on whom Scarlett's charm can be safely practiced - Mitchell immediately locates us in her world.

Her tone, too, quickly assures us that she is talking to an equal. We may or may not actually be Southern aristocracy, but the narrative voice includes us in that closed circle. 'The Tarleton twins' are invoked with a casual gesture - not 'Brent and Stuart Tarleton', but 'the Tarleton twins', as if we know the Tarleton family already and can be trusted to know which twins are being referred to. The first sentence immediately inducts us as members of the white aristocracy.

And yet, we are white aristocrats gifted with a degree of perspective not attributed to most 'men' - and we are probably female aristocrats too, given the briefness with which Mitchell dismisses the other gender. Mitchell begins by telling us something that's almost a secret: we get to see Scarlett through her eyes, and her eyes, we are implicitly told, are sharper than most of her characters'. Gone With The Wind strikes a beguiling tone between the analytic and the conspiratorial so flattering to the reader that it is probably the best explanation for why the glaring racism so often doesn't glare. Mitchell takes us into her confidence, and what she offers is an insider's view: we get to enjoy all the luxury and exclusivity of Southern gentry while also pluming ourselves on being smart enough to see through it. An audience lulled with a sense of its own cleverness is far easier to slip things past.

This is the charm of telling us that Scarlett was not beautiful, but ... The balance between 'not' and 'but' implies a willingness to consider things complicated. That is a voice one is generally tempted to trust. In a novel where Black and White are so brutally differentiated, the style strongly conveys the sense that the author believes matters are not black and white. Like a soft-voiced Southern matriarch, Mitchell's tone implies gentle reason even when it bays for blood.

So much for the narrative voice. What of the girl it shows us?

As with any novel that foregrounds a character's name in the first sentence, the name is important. Originally, Scarlett was to be called 'Pansy' until an editor pointed out that the name had associations with homophobic slang.* 'Scarlett' was intended to evoke the heroine's Irish ancestors who fought against British rule, a name that neatly places the Southern aristocracy in the same victim position as the dispossessed Irish, and, of course, also carries with it the overtones of colour, of passion, blood, drama. O'Hara, at once mellifluous and earthily Irish amidst the more aristocratic-sounding names like 'Tarleton' and 'Wilkes', echoes the 'ar' of 'Scarlett', linking both inseparably in a world where marriage will soon, technically, shear her of the latter. Marriage does not change Scarlett, and the internal rhyming of her name keeps her, linguistically as well as psychologically, a perpetually single woman.

Significant, of course, is that we first see her in an act of deception - not a lie, but a performance that dupes the very eyes of her onlookers. Scarlett goes through life presenting a false front to everyone, even herself, and in our first glimpse of her we see a girl so skilled in deceit - so naturalised in it - that she is able to mislead people not just about her inner self, but about her outer self as well: her very face is concealed within a role.

But we, who see through this role, are immediately encouraged to support her despite her lack of beauty: to admire her hybrid vigour over the delicacy of other Southern ladies (though only an intermixture of different white bloodstrains, of course), to appreciate the intelligence that goes into her charm more than the genuine feather-headedness of her rivals, to side with a heroine who is faulty. As Rhett remarks, 'You've got murder to your credit, and husband-stealing, attempted fornication, lying and sharp dealing and any amount of chicanery that won't bear close inspection. Admirable things, all of them. They show you to be a person of energy and determination and a good money risk. It's entertaining, helping people who help themselves.' And it's entertaining to read about them too, to the point where we're encouraged to overlook that fact that on Scarlett's 'credit' list is also slave-owning, support of torture (she shrugs off her father having a slave beaten for failing to rub down his horse), complicity with domestic terrorism (she opposes the Ku Klux Klan on the grounds that it might lose her money, but has no moral qualms about protecting her friends when they participate in it, only financial ones), and within her own race, emotional abuse and neglect of her children (consider her treatment of her poor little son). Mitchell is smart enough to be open about some of these - she acknowledges that Scarlett's a bad mother, puts it in the context that she becomes a mother very young at a time when she has to refugee, and later shows her frustration at finding that her son seems afraid of her. The slave-owning and terrorism, though, is couched in other explanations: protecting white women from rape, a kind of police force born of 'tragic necessity'. Scarlett's faults as a wife, mother and friend are presented as understandable; her racism, on the other hand, is presented as justified.

This is not, perhaps, what Mitchell set out to do, but in its first sentence, Gone With The Wind contains a warning: For External Use Only. Scarlett O'Hara is not beautiful. She is, for all her empowerment, an awful person ... but so vividly is she written, so passionately are her struggles evoked, that somehow, the reader can end up overlooking it. The white reader, at any rate, and it's hard to imagine that Mitchell considered any other kind.

Gone With The Wind is not a nice book, but readers** seldom realise it when caught by its charm.

*Interestingly, Mitchell was called 'Peggy' by most people, and was married to a man called Red Upshaw. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Mitchell did not look unlike Vivien Leigh either.

**For Margaret Mitchell's definition of the term, anyway. One sometimes wonders whether she considered that black people could read at all.

Monday, November 14, 2011


First sentences: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Some books begin with a flourish, others with a handshake. Jane Eyre occupies the former category: the opening sentence, rather than being a standalone moment, is the beginning of a discursive paragraph deftly bringing in landscape, weather and social frictions, all major themes throughout the book. But the first sentence, flexible and authoritative, quickly establishes the voice of the narrator.

Immediately clear is that we are hearing a voice with a precise sense of time. 'That day' is specific - no generic 'once upon a time' here - and is also the voice of a memory. 'That day' is significant enough to the narrative voice that we don't need a date, hinting with subtle suspense that events will follow that make it notable: by the end of the day, we are implicitly promised, something interesting will have happened. The voice is confident in its assumption that it needn't be more detailed than 'that day' - not even 'that Saturday', but just a simple 'day', implying that if 'that day' is important to her, we can be trusted to see it as important enough to read about without further justification. An immediate intimacy of tone is established.

At the same time, Jane makes no concessions to the reader. Equivocation and doubt are absent from her voice. There was no possibility of taking a walk: not 'it would be difficult' or 'we'd prefer not to', but a direct assertion that it wouldn't be possible at all. The subsequent story will be deeply concerned with what can and can't be done, both in terms of social constrains and moral imperatives, and Jane's voice is confident in its ability to pronounce on which is which.

It's significant that one can, in fact, take a walk under almost any conditions - it may be inconvenient or uncomfortable, but it's possible - but Jane presents the human decision as an absolute. 'Taking a walk that day' neatly implies that walks are a regular part of the routine; going for a walk' might suggest a spontaneous decision, but one takes a walk like one takes medicine, and that taking it is a matter of possibility versus impossibility rather than choice is the first hint at the authoritarian, inflexible routines that dominate Jane's childhood. Where Jane is and what she does are not, from her perspective, a matter of choice. The first few pages see her hiding with a book and escaping into her own imagination, a hint at the reliance on inward resources that will carry her through the rest of the plot, and the first sentence is full of will. Somebody is making absolute decisions here, and at the moment it isn't Jane - but it is Jane who describes human will in these implacable terms. Weaving in and out of social power is Jane's game, and in the first sentence, she is already an engaged observer of it.

A mark of fine literature is the ability to contain multiple implications in a single sentence. As we meet Jane Eyre, time is sharply contained in an enclosed moment and human judgement elevated to natural law. The stage is set for the delicate balance between naturalistic 'memoir' and intense melodrama to follow.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


First sentences: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

What with one thing and another, my blogging time is currently rather limited. With this in mind, I've decided that I'm going to do some analyses - but of really, really short things. To wit, first sentences of famous novels.

Anyone who has a particular favourite, feel free to make a request. Today, we begin with Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead:

Howard Roark laughed.
Stark as the architecture it exalts, The Fountainhead's first sentence is a declarative, aggressively simple statement. We are told the hero's name and a single verb. Three words stand alone on the page; Rand ends not only her first sentence, but her first paragraph there.

The effect is that of freeze-frame. We hear a name, poised in the action of laughing: the isolation of the words makes it clear that to see him laughing is, by itself, enough to understand him - or at least, to understand something important about him. His laugh exists for its own sake; exactly what he's laughing at is a question for later, and until Rand chooses to tell us, we are not invited to share the joke. This is not so much laughter as response as it is laughter as self-assertion: laughing is active rather than reactive, and the character does it alone with no entry point for the audience to join him.

As the book quickly goes on to establish, Roark's laugh is a laugh of superiority rather than joy: he has been kicked out of architecture school for refusing to do a design exercise, and doesn't care; as Rand adds later, with her distinctive tone of joyless rejoicing, he laughs 'because he wanted to laugh'. Self-assertion is at the centre of Rand's morality, and Roark's laugh begins it.

The sense of assertion rather than response depends on an interesting choice - one which Rand repeats at the beginning of Atlas Shrugged with 'Who is John Galt?': the hero's name is introduced in a double drum-beat, first and surname together. 'Howard laughed' is intimate and merry, but 'Howard Roark laughed' is formal. We might laugh with Howard, but with Howard Roark, we are standing outside: the included surname makes it clear that we do not already know him, and must wait for the author to tell us what she chooses. We do not begin as his friends, but as his spectators.

In such a set-up, the choice of name is important. It's worth remembering here that Ayn Rand was not a native English speaker - nor, in fact, was she originally called Ayn Rand. Her original name was the more mellifluous Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum, a name that flows with far more linguistic consistency than the harshly fanciful 'Ayn' juxtaposed against the growl of 'Rand'. A writer who changes their name (and, indeed, who supported her leading disciple and sometime lover in changing his name from the equally Jewish 'Nathan Blumenthal' to the WASPier assonance of 'Nathaniel Branden') well understands the power that names have.

Like 'Ayn Rand', 'Howard Roark' is a rather placeless name, odd-sounding in its ethnic inconsistency, Old English-Norse 'Howard' sitting a little surprisingly against the Irish 'Roark'. 'Howard Rigby' or 'Patrick Roark' are names that, like 'Alisa Rosenbaum', smooth over the ear with no snags, but smoothness is never Rand's aim. Beneficiary of America's willingness to integrate foreigners she may have been, but for her, the melting pot was remarkable only for its lumps. Whether this was the linguistic ineptness of a writer wrestling with a language not her own or the conscious choice of a woman ethnically aware enough to de-Jewify her own handle, the contrast between 'Howard' and 'Roark' is an important part of a novel about refusing to blend in.

To this English reader, at least, 'Howard' is a bit of a curious choice for so Titanic a hero. Echoes are important; would a native English writer have chosen a name that rhymes with 'coward'? That has so few heroic predecessors either in life or in fiction? Rand is a writer who redefines many important words, including 'selfish' and 'happy', to suit her own philosophical ends; The Fountainhead begins by demanding we see heroism in a name not usually used for that purpose.*

Its impact on the page is likewise important. The Fountainhead is a book full of stark lines: the heroes' bodies and faces, the buildings they create, the heroic landscapes they occupy are relentlessly described as angular. Softness is repellent, sharpness noble. 'Howard Roark' is a name full of spikes: the towering H and pointed W, the straight-backed D and R leading to the bristling K, all make as few concessions to the curves of English lettering as can WASPishly be achieved. Roark's name slashes across the page as his buildings slash across the sky.

Adding it all together - the formal, spiky, odd-sounding name, the unexplained laugh in its isolated paragraph - and we are looking at a sharply Modernist sentence.

The shortest verse in the Bible consists of two words: 'Jesus wept'. Rand had as little use for weeping as she had for Jesus. Scorn for compassion, if not outright panic at the thought of it, is at the centre of her 'sense of life'. Whether or not she thought of the Bible verse in writing the sentence, the echo will remain for many readers. In its demand that we accept the stranger-hero in his splendid isolation, that we admire his laugh instead of sharing it, Rand throws her gauntlet in the teeth of God by requiring that, instead, we put our faith in her.

*Which is not to say, of course, that real people called Howard are any less likely to be heroic than anyone else. There are probably many splendid Howards out there.


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