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Monday, December 26, 2011

 

First sentences: The Trial by Franz Kafka

Someone must have been spreading slander about Josef K., for one morning he was arrested, though he had done nothing wrong.

This discussion needs to be prefaced with two caveats. First, while I have read some shorter Kafka works and admire him greatly, I have not read The Trial, and so am less able to comment on how the first sentence reflects on the work as a whole. Second, this is a first sentence in translation: the original book was written in German, a language I don't speak, and hence commenting on the sounds of the sentence would be inappropriate here.

So, considering the first sentence as it stands, what to say about it?

Listening to Kafka's voice is listening to a voice at once intimate and alienating. He whispers that 'someone' must have been doing something as if we were in the middle of a conversation already, familiar with the situation - or else as unfamiliar with it, as alienated from it, as he is. I used to volunteer on a counselling hotline, and the more severely mentally ill callers often had this quality, a blur between what they knew and what knowledge could be reasonably expected of a listener, a tendency to confide without explaining. Elegantly, Kafka begins by confusing and dislocating us. Perhaps he is slightly mad, or perhaps we are, but as long as we are in his world, then the whole world is going to have this crazed continuum. We don't begin at the beginning, or know where we will end: we don't know what's going on. We will have to join K. in a journey of disorientation.

And in this disorientating world, threat is everywhere. Slander is enough to get one arrested, for instance: this implies a brutal authority at the head of things - if not a reliable one. 'Wrong' is an unclear factor: we are informed K. has done 'nothing wrong' in a phrase that's almost child-like in its simplicity - not 'nothing illegal' or 'nothing criminal', but nothing wrong, as if it were a question of morality, of existence, rather than of law and order. If you have to ask yourself if you've done anything wrong, you have to review everything you've ever done, and come to that, you need a clear fix on what counts as wrong in the first place. It's an impossible conundrum - but one that brings you to disaster if you can't solve it.

But how is one to solve it? To know what you have or haven't done wrong, you need some kind of sense of self. Josef K. doesn't even have a full name: he's referred to by an initial. There's something institutional about it, a reduction of people to primitive components, and also something universalising: without a name to distinguish him from us, K. becomes a point of observation rather than a man. What has he done? We don't know. We only know what we have done - and the mystery of being arrested for no good reason is a frightening situation the reader can immediately imagine themselves into. With no identity to protect himself or separate him from us, K. is less a character and more an open door into fear. What happens to a character the author doesn't even trouble to name is clearly not the point of the story.

'Kafkaesque' is a byword for endless confusion. First sentences are generally the beginning of something, but Kafka does not offer us any such reassuring sense of structure. While complying with a basic writing dictum - you should begin your story with an interesting event - he simultaneously erodes the sand beneath our feet. Something interesting is happening, but we don't know why, and we barely know to whom. Meaning slips through our fingers and we are swept into the void.

Friday, December 23, 2011

 

First sentences: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

TW: I assume most people know this, but Lolita is a story of child abuse.


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

In a sense, quoting only the first sentence is incomplete because the whole first paragraph is a prose poem in itself:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

The whole paragraph is an explosion of sound based around the Ls and T's of Lolita's name, a narcotic, obsessive chant that begins to hypnotise us into Humbert Humbert's desperate rhythms. This is the story of a child rapist who entraps and abuses an orphaned girl, a man of loathsome character whose attitude towards almost any person he meets is either predatory lust or vicious contempt, depending on whether or not they serve his sexual appetites. But the style, the style! 'You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,' as Humbert warns us at the outset, and it's the gorgeous pyrotechnics that hold us to the page despite the horrors that unfold. Humbert Humbert picks up his baton, taps out a rhythm to the tune of his victim's name, and begins to croon us into complicity - or at least, into staying with him rather than putting down the book and turning away in disgust.

And yet. There's an interesting point to be had even in the first sentence: he's calling her Lolita. The title of the book, its base note, 'repeat till the page is full, printer.' But that's not actually her name. The lush paedophilia of the word - the sensuous 'Lola', evocative of such figures as the courtesan Lola Montez while reduced with the diminutive '-ita' - is the first of many concealing tricks that Humbert pulls upon us.

In the second paragraph he shows his hand: 'She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.' Lolita is the name of a sexual fantasy imposed on the real girl, not the name of the girl herself. The girl herself signs her letters 'Dolly'. Humbert eventually comes to admit to himself that 'I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile cliches, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate - dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions' - but we hardly need Humbert to tell us this. Dolly's 'juvenile cliches' are heard in her speech, but never in long enough sequences that we can get much content out of them. We know how she speaks, but we hear very little of what she says. Her speech is all snapshot, a fetishised part of her outer appearance rather than a conveyor of thought and feeling. In terms of how he describes her, it is only a question of whether she does or doesn't do what he wants.

Dolly's personality, in short, is only visible to us in glimpses. Despite her status as the eponymous character, we actually know very little about her. She asks for clothes and treats; she plays at grown-ups by flirting with Humbert until he rapes her and then finds herself trapped; she displays in later stages a hard-headed practicality unsurprising in such a prisoner; what she is in herself is held from us by a narrator that only cares for his lusts and observes nothing of her inner self.

It's interesting how misled people can be by this. To call a girl 'a Lolita' is to call her sexually precocious (and also to render oneself a suspect observer of girls, because seriously? You really just said that?) Covers for the book vary a great deal, but you'll see plenty of images among those that suggest an erotic novel rather than a horror story. Humbert is nothing if not a forceful narrator.

And in the first sentence, linguistic beauties aside, is one of his strongest tricks: he conflates light and lust. 'Light of my life' is emotional and spiritual; 'fire of my loins' is physical and sexual. A romantic partner can be both, of course, but note the order in which they come. 'Light of my life' is first, with 'fire of my loins' second. As a description of true love, this would be a list: you are the light of my life and the fire of my loins. As a description of Humbert's obsession, the life of a man whose interest (at least as far as the story he chooses to tell us goes) revolves entirely around his fixation on children, it is not a list but a causal sequence: you are the light of my life because you are the fire of my loins. Sexual gratification is one of the few things Humbert values, declaring that to be a paedophile is to be 'an artist and a madman', conflating again the sexual with the spiritual.

Images of light are associated with desire - 'radiant', for instance, is a word used more than once - and it begins here. Consider, for instance, the assonant vowels: light of my life, fire of my loins. Light, life, fire: we slide down along a cascade of Is into the sexual. 'Light of my life' and 'fire of my loins' are, of course, sayings rather than original phrases, an unusually familiar and thus persuasive use of language (cliches can take on the status of truisms in our subconscious mind), and by placing them side by side and rocking us with their rhythms, Humbert makes it hard for us to resist the sense that they are natural partners. But the assonance stops at the end of the sentence: 'loins' catches us, stops us, opens our eyes. Humbert is never explicit in his vocabulary - he is fairly clear what he does, but hides behind many metaphors - and 'loins' is about as frank as he gets.

But by the time we reach that frank word, the soft Ls and dreamlike Is and sighing Fs have already begun to seduce us. Lolita is before us and Dolly is lost. This will not be a book about Dolly Haze, but a book about Lolita - and Lolita exists only within Humbert's mind. The brutal eclipsing of her selfhood takes place in the first sentence, velveted in poetry, and we will never get her back.

Except. Except that this is not, in fact, the first sentence of the book. The actual first sentence is this:

'Lolita or The Confessions of a White Widowed Male,' such were the two titles under which the writer of the present note received the strange pages it preambulates.

Lolita is prefaced by a fictional 'note' from a psychiatrist supposedly entrusted with editing the work, a writer who swings from formal awkwardnesses like 'preambulates' to a kind of Humbert-influenced eloquence in phrases like 'panting maniac' and 'a desperate honesty that throbs through his confession'. This editor gives us several facts, including the briskly terrible news that Dolly never makes it to adulthood: '"Mrs Richard F. Schiller" [her married name, though we only learn this near the end] died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl...' we are dryly informed: girlhood itself is unsustainable under Humbert's curse. The editor acknowledges Humbert to be 'horrible' - yet seems somewhat seduced himself. His next adjective, for instance, is 'abject', a word for a victim rather than a victimiser, and in reflecting on Humbert's style, he remarks, 'But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita which makes us entranced with the book even while abhorring its author!' Clinical objectivity is not his: he believes in Lolita - even to the point of choosing her name as the title of the book, the title that foregrounds, and thus implies the cause of the crime to be, the victim rather than the criminal.

Poor Dolly. Hidden even from the supposedly objective editor of the work, she is annihilated before the book ever begins. Seldom has so great a soul-murder been so beautifully clad.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

 

Sourcery and Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Julie Paradox put in a request for Sourcery, and then went for Pyramids instead. I thought it might be fun to do both together.

So, here's Sourcery:

There was a man and he had eight sons.

And here's Pyramids:

Nothing but stars, scattered across the blackness as though the Creator had smashed the windscreen of his car and hadn't bothered to sweep up the pieces.

Interestingly different, yet fundamentally similar sentences.

Sourcery's first sentence is bold in its simplicity. Not even stopping for a 'once upon a time', it goes straight into a direct, monosyllabic statement: 'There was a man.' We hear nothing of his name, place, character or life: his mere existence is the substance of a story. This is fairy-tale logic - especially when the sentence adds the number of sons - but fairy-tale stripped of its traditional 'once upon a time' flourish. Pared-down fairy-tale, in other words; down-to-earth fairy-tale; fairy-tale stripped down to common humanity. Pratchett often makes a theme of the ordinary man (and, less often, the ordinary woman), and this stylistic bluntness prepares the way: we are to see the mundane humanity in the context of the mythical.

There is no such bluntness in the opening of Pyramids. In terms of style, Pratchett is more or less showing off here with his bathetic bump from the epic drama of 'nothing but stars' to the sudden hop from the divine to the ridiculous - or at least to the quotidian. In positing a Creator with a windscreen, Pratchett asserts his characteristic style in which he helps himself to analogies that would be foreign to his characters, while also cocking a snook at reverence: a Creator who can't be bothered is a clear declaration that we are in a comic universe. The sentence is elaborately, almost heavy-handedly comedic, the kind of sentence a publisher very much hopes will grab the attention of a casual bookshop browser; it's also a sentence that quickly lays out the stall. We are reading a book aimed at a modern reader that will touch upon metaphysics with a gadfly lightness.

What can we see in common with these sentences? Well, one of the major commonalities is that they turn and look the reader in the eye. 'There was a man' is the writer informing rather than evoking; windscreens and Creators assure us that we'll be looking at the universe through, as it were, our own, human-eye-level windscreen. In both cases, the overriding tone is conspiratorial.

At the same time, their scope is broad: the audience may be our ordinary selves, and the universe may centre on equally ordinary people, but myths and divinity are not beyond our reach. In fact, far from being beyond our reach, they are being brought down to our level. We can accept that the existence of a mythical man is important without needing a 'Once upon a time' to ease us into it; we can laugh at a wild night sky with a careless Creator. Pratchett at once appeals to and flatters his audience's intelligence. The universe is a joke, and we will be in on it.

Terry Pratchett is an author who begins with bold sweeps, often starting in the heavens or ranging over a whole city or country before narrowing in on his central characters. Beginning with a sentence that grabs the readers' attention with its eccentricity is often a successful strategy, commercially as much as artistically (Iain Banks is a notable example), and a common feature is that the style tends to settle down once the story begins. There is a limit to how much you can tell readers about the actual events of the plot when you're in the realm of the mythic - or at least, there's a limit if you're going to make your story about ordinary people and tell it in a chatty, colloquial tone as Pratchett does.

As a result, Pratchett's opening sentences are often, in terms of storytelling, skippable. While they vary in content, they tend to have a single declaration: You are reading a Terry Pratchett novel. Humour, irreverence, metaphysics and myth are going to be featured, and we'll get to the plot in a minute. I said in my discussion of Jane Eyre that some books begin with a handshake, and Pratchett takes this a step further: in effect, his first sentences are secret handshakes. Open secrets, secrets that the reader can work out by getting the joke - as I said, one of Pratchett's main charms is that he makes the reader feel clever - but coded handshakes nonetheless. You shake the sentence's hand, and then you get admitted into the clubhouse.

I would note an interesting fact here: Pratchett is a writer who tends to elicit strong positive or negative reactions, and the negative reactors often plough down in the first few pages. The first couple of times I tried his books, this is how I reacted; I found the beginnings repetitive and mannered, and it was only when I persevered into the plot that I started enjoying it - and subsequently developed some appreciation of his openings. Other readers, I think, delight in the sense of 'Welcome back!' that his sentences create, the way they invite a sense of membership. Pratchett is an author unusually able to establish a sense of friendship with his readers - not necessarily in terms of how he behaves in person (though I get the impression he's a pretty friendly chap), but by establishing a style and inviting his readers in.

Monday, December 19, 2011

 

First sentences: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Requested by kisekileia.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Except, actually, no. That's what's usually quoted as the first sentence, but it's really an extract. The real first sentence is this:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

There is no authority noisier than Dickens, especially when he's slapping down a rival authority.

Why is this sentence so often misquoted? The limits of memory are one reason, but the extract is not just the first sentence condensed. It carries an entirely different connotation - and one that's more palatable to readers seeking a story. The first two phrases imply epic sweep and forthcoming drama. Take the rest of the sentence, though, and it becomes something else.

Dickens is, if nothing else, a writer willing and eager to declare himself the voice of an age. The evils he inveighs against are what one would expect of a strong, domineering personality: a mixture of genuine contemporary injustices, out-of-date issues, and personal gripes (people who make plays out of authors' novels without permission, for example). Similarly, even most of his fans will agree that, perhaps because of his productivity, perhaps for other reasons, he is a writer of varying quality, swinging from the cynical to the maudlin, the brilliantly witty to the clunkily humourless, the highs to the lows. There is something in this opening sentence that evokes Dickens as much as it evokes the French Revolution: the sweep is so wide that it takes in variations in quality and tone as much as variations in circumstances.

The position Dickens has taken up here is one that perfectly suits his natural voice. The era of which he is going to speak, he tells us more or less explicitly, is so similar to the era in which he writes that he is free to make points about contemporary bugbears without worrying too much about historical accuracy. Universal humanity is his theme, and it doesn't vary from era to era. Dickens is about to give his opinions free rein, and they will range far and wide.

It is, above all, a confident opening line, to the point of audacity. Few writers have the boldness to make so sweeping an assumption before they begin. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens is telling us, we are in the hands of a writer who will touch upon whatever subjects he feels like and take whatever perspective he chooses. It's extremely ambitious, but it also frees the reader to be, if not unambitious, then to put in as much thought and feeling as they choose. Dickens is not a writer who encourages reader ambiguity: his characters can be complex, but there is seldom more than one correct opinion about them. By telling us that he will unite history and present, though, Dickens also tells us that we can bring our own preconceptions to a supposedly historical novel. We will not be asked to imagine ourselves into the mindset of a culture different from our own: reading A Tale of Two Cities, we need only be ourselves.

And this, I think, is the secret of the sentence's appeal. It combines a grandiose sweep with a lack of demands upon the reader, a compelling mix indeed. And this too, I suspect, may be one reason why it's so often misremembered. In a sense, it invites us to refashion it in our own minds: it's a sentence all about seeing whatever one wishes to see. It's been said that science fiction is a genre that writes of the present while claiming to write of the future, and in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens is explicitly going in the other direction. Writing of ourselves while supposedly writing of others is a traditional way to capture the popular imagination - and the popular imagination in all genres tends to enjoy the epic. The condensed version is, in a sense, merely completing the work Dickens has begun by seeing what one wishes to see. It may not be a repurposing that Dickens would have wished, but it is one that the sentence allows for nonetheless.

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