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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.

I loved this book as a child; I'm a little afraid of re-reading it now, not only because of the risk of disappointment, but also because I remember how raw, almost unbearable, its emotions were. But I often remember Cowslip's warren, as one of the handiest allegories I ever encountered, apt to very many ways of living.
I remember being both devastated by the book and very angry at the author -- who I felt was pulling the literary equivalent of the "putting children into jeopardy" technique used by horror film makers. I was so aware that Adams was poking and prodding and pushing me into my emotional responses that I resented him.
@mmy - that's interesting. Have you read The Plague Dogs? Based on the two together, I didn't quite get the sense that Adams was prodding me - more like someone standing at Speakers' Corner yelling at the top of his voice. He came across as misanthropic and cranky rather than manipulative - someone overwhelmed by his own reactions.
No, I haven't (read The Plague Dogs -- do you think it would be worthwhile for me to do so?
Well ... I wouldn't call it a good book. I don't think I could call it one of the Great Bad Books either. The closest I can describe it is to say that it's a very good terrible book.

Let me give you an example of the contrasts you'd be dealing with. The story involves two dogs who escape from an experimental centre. Its name is Animal Research (Scientific and Experimental), which is abbreviated to A.R.S.E. This is apparently Adams's idea of making a thematic point.

On the other hand, there are moments when he writes for the sake of writing. Snitter, the dog whose brain has been experimented on, is prone to remarks like "There's a mouse - a mouse that sings - I'm bitten to the brains and it never stops raining - not in this eye anyway," and complains at one point that his feet are "as cold as a gate-latch", which is just about the most perfect simile I've ever read.

Adams is not really a storyteller; he's more a writer of masques than of plots. Watership Down, being episodic, works well in that regard, and The Plague Dogs manages the same thing to less effect. He's also a much better writer of animals than people, and he's a better writer of the strange than the sane; his animal characters tend to be vivid while his human characters, in The Plague Dogs anyway, vary from the two-dimensional to the utterly amateurish.

So I wouldn't recommend it if you wanted a book to read in the ordinary way. It is, however, an extremely interesting work, the work of a man whose talent as a writer was vastly in excess of his judgement, sensitivity or taste, and it's notable for its flashes of linguistic brilliance more than for any point it was deliberately trying to make.

Put it this way: I wouldn't make a general recommendation of the 'Hey, this is a good book' variety. But I'd recommend it to you personally, because I know you enjoy considering books as phenomenons as well as enjoying them as stories.

Have you ever seen David Lynch's Dune? It's kind of the literary equivalent of that. Worth seeing for the talent of the creator peeping through the rubble that is the finished product.
I'm loving this series. If you're taking requests the quote from it in the post reminded me that Rebecca had one of my favorite opening lines.
I am indeed taking requests; the more the merrier, as it gives me ideas. Rebecca it is. :-)
Speaking of requests, how about A Tale of Two Cities?
I'm unconvinced that "Watership Down" must itself give a sinking feeling.

I haven't read the book or seen the film. I am of course, as a child of the seventies, aware of the song "Bright Eyes" and thus have some idea of Tragedy, but that's all.

When I hear the title I am reminded of The Downs; which (possibly inaccurately as my impression is exclusively from literature) makes me think of a free, open, grassy and breezy space. In short, decidedly optimistic. So much so that I'm always slightly taken aback when I encounter people discussing the actual book ;-)

Request: Sourcery by Terry Pratchett

- julie paradox
Well, Obviously I didn't mean Sourcery. How can anyone Possibly have thought I meant Sourcery, just because I put Sourcery? Sheesh.

I meant, of course, Pyramids.
Watership Down is a hill in Hampshire - familiar local countryside for the author and his daughters for whom the stories were written. Cosy green and pleasant middle England. This isn't a name to threaten with, it's not a name of foreboding or terror: this is a place where you'd expect to find hobbits or totoros and - unless you're familiar with _real_ country life - not a place you'd expect to find the kind of horror that takes place in the book.
I'm a little surprised nobody has mentioned the _last_ line of watership down, of which the last phrase is something like "where the first primroses were starting to bloom."

Watership Down was my favorite book growing up, and it's still one of my favorites now. Shardik, on the other hand is possibly my least favorite book. It's like hundreds of pages of going from bad to worse, and just when you think it can't get any worse, it gets worse. I bought a used copy a few years back, and started it again, but it seemed as dismal as I remembered. Am I missing anything worthwhile here?

- YetAnotherKevin
Also, is that Adam's own translation of those lines from Agammemnon, or is this translation available somewhere? It seems more powerful than the other translations I've seen.

- YetAnotherKevin
This isn't a name to threaten with

The fact that it's a real place doesn't mean it wasn't picked for its sound. There are many, many places in Hampshire where you could realistically find rabbit warrens; Adams chose that particular place name.

Besides that, authorial intentions can be hard to prove either way. The echoes of the name remain whatever Adams's motivation.
yes, but what are the echoes of the name? As I said above, to me it seems wildly optimistic and I don't know why it should seem so immediately and (apparently) obviously dark to you.

- julie paradox
I suspected that he might have been signaling with the title and the quotes that this was a war story and not a childrens book about bunnies. It was indeed a war bromance, similar to Leon Uris second world war bromance "Battle Cry". To me, the similarities were striking.
@julie paradox - 'ship down', hence 'sinking feeling'.
Ah. I genuinely hadn't ever noticed that. Now I Feel Stupid.

I see your point now, but I still hear it as positive.

(I like the thought that the primroses were back at the end. It reminds me, in a very strained way, of Guards! Guards!: at the beginning of the book Vimes is musing on how the city is a woman, and at the end he thinks that the woman is a city. It's a beautiful demonstration of his love story.)

julie paradox
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