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Friday, April 27, 2012


First sentences: Stalky and Co. by Rudyard Kipling

'And then,' it was a boy's voice, curiously level and even, 'De Vitre said we were beastly funks not to help, and I said there were too many chaps in it to suit us.'

In her introduction to Frost in May, Elizabeth Bowen remarks that 'Stalky and Co. fits into no classification: one might call it an early gangster tale in a school setting.' Set at a lower-prestige English public school designed to feed boys into the Army, following the Machiavellian antics of 'Stalky', M'Turk and Beetle (the latter a semi-autobiographical portrait of Kipling), Stalky and Co. is a harsh, witty gallop through the backstreets of Empire. Morality and conditions are Spartan: getting away with things and avenging slights are the only priorities, and the cunning - the 'stalkiness', hence Stalky's nickname - is explicitly linked in the final chapters to Britain's success in ruling other nations. We are not reading Tom Brown's School Days - Stalky and chums openly mock such pious works - and Britain's imperial dominance is not a question of, in Kipling's more triumphalist phrase, 'the white man's burden': instead, it's the dominance secured by men trained as wayward, cynical schoolboys, with the ruthless ego and eye to others' weakness that can be used to divide and rule.

For anyone who considers children innocent, then, or for anyone who considers imperialism a bad thing, Stalky and Co. is a dark book. The narrative tone, though, is less a lament than a wry shrug: this is how it is, you need to be strong enough to survive it.

So we begin with that 'curiously level and even' boy's voice - that 'curiously' an unusual piece of editorialising in the narrative, which seldom makes any kind of comment on what kind of boys these are. It's an adjective both admiring and unnerved - we must take care not to underestimate what this voice is saying, for whatever else it is, the narrative suggests it's authoritative.

And what it says is, for a schoolboy, notable. It's striking, for instance, that it completely rejects the stereotypical schoolboy code that makes cowardice (the meaning of 'funk', in this context) the worst of accusations. Someone has called this boy a coward, and he simply doesn't care: he has rejected the plan out of a cool-headed assessment of its chances, and if the planners think that's cowardice that's their mistake; he certainly isn't about to follow an unlikely plan just because someone dared him. In a single phrase, the traditional code of pluck and honour is cast aside, and we know we are in transgressive territory.

As well as being confident, the boy's assessment is, as Bowen describes, gangsterish ... or else, perhaps, military, for pace Bowen, I'd incline to categorise Stalky and Co. less as a gangster tale and more as a series of adventure yarns that happen to take place in the English countryside. To begin with, he judges the numbers - 'too many chaps' - with a professional air: to know at a glance how many people one needs to pursue a scheme suggests considerable experience. More than that, there's a definite note of us-and-them in his voice. The 'we' evidently includes his listeners, and he has rejected a plan without consulting them - must have, since he's now telling them that he's done it - in the confident expectation that they won't object, but at the same time he's taking the trouble to relay the conversation in detail, which suggests he has some respect for them as well. What we're hearing is a consultation between a tight-knit group, boys who know each other well enough to speak for each other and to talk to each other. Likewise, De Vitre, whoever that may be, has called the whole group 'beastly funks' when only the speaker seems to have been present at the conversation: their status as a unit is acknowledged from the outside. This is the closeness of boys away from home and family, the cliquishness of a school, turned outwards to a state of low-key guerilla war against everyone else.

As to us, the readers, we can only judge any of this because of what we hear, and what we hear, we hear from the position of eavesdroppers, coming in in mid-conversation with no explanation of who the speaker is, who De Vitre is, what the scheme is, or what the schoolboy cant means (though the latter would of course have been more familiar to Kipling's contemporaries). In effect, we're dropped in the deep end like new pupils at this school, to sink or swim as we can manage.

The tone of the boy, in other words, is like the tone of the whole story: unapologetic. Nothing will be cushioned for us. To keep up, we must follow Stalky's example and make a quick assessment of the situation: either we can handle the sudden introduction of plot and complexity of plotting, or we can't, and if we can't, that's our problem.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


First sentences: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son's death because she had decided to have the Mother's Day dinner at six in the evening instead of at noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it. 

Gazing backwards and forwards at the same time, yet so headlong in its rhythm that we are pulled into an intense present moment just to keep up with it, The Little Friend begins.

What will follow will be a story both beguiling and evasive, leading us down apparently obvious paths that take us nowhere and forcing us back to where we began. Like a conventional thriller, The Little Friend begins with a dramatic event: the murder of a child. Unexplained as this murder is, the reader cannot be blamed for hoping there will be some revelation in the narrative. The first sentence, though, is enough to warn us - or else to shrug at us on a rereading, whispering, 'Well, I told you so' - that this is not really what the book is about.

Because, you see, the son's death, dramatically announced, is actually not the main subject of the sentence. Contained in a mere three words - 'her son's death' - it is dwarfed by the run-on explanation of the minutiae of family rituals. In a breathless rush, barely broken up by commas, we hear all the details: not just a dinner, but a Mother's Day dinner; the only commas supplied are to frame the aside of 'after church', a detail entirely concerned with the normal routine, the Cleves' relationship to the broader community, rather than the death of the boy.

It's almost as if we hear Charlotte herself lamenting, with the unspooling accumulation of detail of spoken rather than written English - especially when the writer is so poised a stylist as Tartt. And the effect is splitting: the lengthy recitation of Cleve customs dwarfing the death of the son tells us, in a cool, understated way, where Tartt's focus is going to lie. She is not studying Robin's death, but Cleve family life. His death will harrow it, but customs and habits and personalities will survive him, and that's what we're going to be looking at. In effect, it's a quiet hint that we will have no explanation for Robin's death because it's not the subject, even of the sentence that announces it.

The Little Friend is a book that approaches its subject slowly, and it's only deep into it that it becomes clear. Notably, for instance, the main protagonist of the story, the child Harriet, is absent from this sentence, from her mother's thoughts and feelings, almost absent from the whole first chapter. The following pages will wind through various members of the Cleve clan before finally settling on Harriet, and many more chapters before we'll see through the eyes of Danny Ratliff, the second protagonist. The thematic centre of the story is most clearly expressed through Harriet's kindly old great-aunt's sad remark, 'It's awful being a child ... at the mercy of other people.'  And deeply true though this is of Harriet's life, in fact it's not just childhood that puts you at people's mercy: adult Danny is just as much at the mercy of his own family, and his capacity to act against it will prove as fruitless as Harriet's search for Robin's killer.

But even more than that, we have this first sentence: a mother blaming herself for her son's death because she has made a tiny deviation from family ritual. Nobody else is blaming her, but the pressure of custom, of shared expectations, bears down on her with a crushing burden of guilt. Tartt is a great chronicler of the horrors of small frictions and everyday aggressions, and here in the first sentence, we see this horror in its purest, most pervasive form. The story that follows will mostly be about the Cleve family, about the nature of the Cleve family, but it will be about family in a broader sense ... and what we see hinted here in this first sentence is that, intentionally or not, explicitly or not, living together puts all of us at the mercy of other people. Robin falls first and hardest, but nobody will come out unscathed.


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