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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.

About "Howard" and "Roark" as names: I'm not sure Rand would have distinguished between them. More likely, she would have considered them both to be Anglo names. the US is full of Jewish boys born in the late '40s and '50s who were saddled with Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-French, or Celtic names their parents considered to be both American and high-status.* Barry is probably the most common, but there are a lot of Howards, Normans, Seymours, Neils, Dennises, etc. My impression is that in naming her character she was just going for that effect.

*Because anything from the British Isles was understood that way by the newer immigrants. I don't think anyone really grasped the distinction between, say, English and Irish names at the time. The important thing was that they sounded Anglo-American and not explicitly Christian.
Thought: "Howard Roark" is full of "deep" vowels. (Back vowels, technically, I think? Someone correct me on that.) Gives the impression of someone large, important.
But it is a really awkward name to say, isn't it? An awkward name for for a man who'll, if I have it correctly, make himself awkward for any number of people.

So of course, after reading your first sentences, I started reading first sentences. And, the shelf of 19th-century classic novels being closest to hand, I started with those: Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Austen, Eliot, etc.

Almost all of the initial sentences include a place name and a personal name, not necessarily the name of the main character or the main location, but it seems to be important that the story begins on some definite ground.

And then there's Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day."

If you care to, I'd be interested to know what you make of that one.
It is amazing how differently a sentence is understood on the basis of the choice a single word. MmySpouse edited a dissertation once for someone who was fluent in at least 4 languages -- but English was not the first nor the one she was most comfortable with.

The thing she had enormous problems with was "a" versue "the" and the incredible impact that difference could make on how a member of the audience reacted to the sentence.
Thought: "Howard Roark" is full of "deep" vowels. (Back vowels, technically, I think? Someone correct me on that.) Gives the impression of someone large, important.

In an accent that sounds its Rs, it's also a rather snarling-sounding name, I'd say. You can say it through clenched teeth.

A lot of Rand's names are rather peculiar; picturing them as Anglicised Jewish names tends to make more sense. 'John Galt' sounds a lot more plausible if you imagine he began as Jacob Goldstein, for instance. Rand was, among other things, a sometime Hollywood screenwriter, and the old Hollywood practice of Anglicising names seems to have stuck with her.


Jane Eyre sentence comin up...
I was at school with someone called Howard Rainbow, which I think is a much better pairing ;-)

- julie paradox
You've never heard of Howard Hughes?
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