Sunday, February 07, 2010

First Lines





Where do you begin a story?  The answer must be anywhere.  It's rather like drawing a circle - you can start it at any point on the circumference, and come to think of it, you can put the point of your compass anywhere in the plane of Pi.  What has put first lines into my mind now?  Well there I was lying in bed late this morning listening to Miriam O'Callaghan interviewing the actor Niall Buggy and the great novelist Edna O'Brien.  I have read some of her work, and indeed it is very good.  I love both her spoken and written words.  She speaks as beautifully and as measured as she writes.  I am always enthralled by her prounciation, enunciation and powers of communication.  In short, I am spell-bound by this lady's literacy.  Anyway, at one stage in the interview she quotes the first several lines of one of her novels and they were brilliant.  When she was composing them, she obviously took her time and honed them many times over, as all good novelists and writers do.

There was something Shakespearean in Edna O'Brien's words this morning that moved me, like dipping into Hamlet or Macbeth or Lear or Othello.  In short, I was inspired, and first lines began rolling around in my head.  By their nature first lines have the art and ability to hook the reader immediately and lead them into deeper treasures.  The ultimate in first lines, to my mind, are, of course, those of Charles Dickens' great novel A Tale of Two Cities:
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.
How we wish we could have written those lines.  I remember also that brilliant simple opening line of Moby Dick by : "Call me Ishmael."  Just three words, and these well chosen words bring the rerader into an almost intimate conversation, which has already begun before the very novel opens, with our partner telling us we can call him by his first name, and that name is of Biblical proportions, a fact which invite us into a deep and mysterious book about man's struggle with the sea, and especially with the great white whale, Moby Dick.

Or again, I recall the following lines from Becket's novel Murphy: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new."  I remember at the time thinking to myself: "What a depressingly true line, and yet the very act of shining is a hopeful action, indeed a life giving action (and by implication hopeful) while "having no alternative" brings to mind the inevitability of the human predicament - we have no alternative but to live, unless, of course,we choose to end our lives.  And so this is a marvellously balanced line: not totally hopeful, and not totally despairing, yet very depressingly obvious.  It also, of course, has biblical resonances, viz., "there is nothing new under the sun" from the book Qoheleth or The Preacher or Ecclesiastes, call this book as you will, and we recall "vanities of vanities" and references to "vain", "futile", "empty", "meaningless", "temporary", "transitory" and "fleeting" nature of human life.

Anyway, I took the following novels down randomly from ny shelves, and here are the results of this search for first lines:
  • "I still remember the bday my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time."  The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, p. 1
  •  "Two postcards of the holiday town in the south-wet of England.", The Past, Neil Jordan, p. 3.
  • "On the morning of the first murder Miss Muriel Biel, Inspector of Nurse Treaining Schools to the General Nursing Council stirred into wakefulness soo after six o'clock and into a sluggish early morning awareness that it was Monday the 12th of January, and the day of the John Carpendar Hospital inspection." Shroud for a Nightingale, P.D. James, p. 1
  •  "Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton." Fiesta by Ernest Hemingway, p. 7.
  • "Well, Piotr? Still nothing in sight? asked a gentleman on the 20th of May, 1859 as he came out on the porch of the stage-coach inn on the road to ---" Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev, p. 1
  • "Woodland straddling two counties and several townlands, a drowsy corpus of green, broken only where the odd pine has struck up on its own, spindly, freakish, the stray twigs on either side branched, cruciform wise."  In The Forest, Edna O'Brien, p. 1.
  • "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins."  Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov, Penguin Classics, p. 9.
  • "We were at home in Godalming, though some call it Godlyman, and I can't tell which is right." The woman who gave birth to rabbits.  Emma O'Donoghue, p. 1.
  •  "They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide." The Sea, John Banville, Picador, p. 3.
  • "Philo took the knocker in her hand and lifted it up." Big Fat Love, Peter Sheridan, p. 1.
  • "Under certain circumstances there are few thgere are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."  The Portrait of a Lady, Penguin Books, p. 5.
  • "Hot, thought the Parisians." Suite Francaise, Irene Némirovsky, p. 1
  • "Master was a little crazy; he had spent too may yerars reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair." Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Harper Perennial, p. 3.
  • My name is Kathy H. I'm 31 years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years." Never Letr Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber and Faber, p. 3.
The above, as you will see, are purely random and are a selecxtiopn of first lines from novels as they stand to attention on my bookshelves.  I hasten to add that I have only read very few of the above and that the most of them await my having time to dive into their embrace.  However, you will get my point.  All of these first lines dra\w the reader in.  They are potent and pregnant with the story to which they will give birth.  I have also found an interesting site on the web which deals with first lines: First Lines

That's it, for today, my friends, Happy Reading!

All That Guff 2



2. The Daily Guff:

Then, there is all that old daily guff.  I am reminded of the words from T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock (1917) which run: "There will be time, there will be time //To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet."  Because, such a hiding behind masks is the cause of much of the old guff which we both talk and hear.  When we look at the sun directly we are blinded.  In like manner, the ancients used say that "we cannot look upon the face of God and live."  No wonder, such a believe came about given that God was often compared to the Sun, even was the Sun in many cultures.  In like manner, I believe, that we probably would not survive by being our true selves all the time, that we would burn ourselves out.  Perhaps, living behind masks is far easier.  Perhaps?  However, it is worthwhile to question this hiding behind masks and our lack of authenticity.

And so we like to be consumed with everydayness, to hide behind our roles: I'm Dr Smith, or Bishop Quinn, or Professor Ryan or Principal O'Dwyer etc.  We even like dressing up for the parts we play in the drama of everyday life.  In this drama of everyday life we can give vent to all our old guff.  So many of us know the solutions to life's problems.  X or Y or Z or even I, yes I, in all my knowledge and education, yes, I know the solution to this or that problem in the job or profession to which I belong.  Likewise, we all know the solutions to life's woes.

However, problems emerge in all jobs and professions when people who are working together in the same job often have conflicts because X sees the situation this way and Y another.  Then conflicts are taken way out of proportion when one colleague or boss tries to control another, tries to impose their views on their subordinates or colleagues, and in so doing give vent to a lot of old guff.  The tragedy is that a lot of people start to believe their own guff, their own self-constructed view of the universe, their own self-constructed truth or reality and then try to inflict it on others.

Here, and most timely indeed, too, I am reminded of Irvin D. Yalom's quoting the following sentiments from Heidegger many times in his most recent book: Staring at the sun: overcoming the terror of death (Jossey Bass, 2009, see p. 261) that when we are consumed with everydayness, we turn away from deeper concerns and from incisive self-examination.  This is a truism through and through.  How many people do we know who are workaholics and there sheer addiction to work is in itself an avoidance of facing the real inner self.  The real inner self is often a sun that is very painful indeed to look at directly.  Unfortunately the real inner self can never be ignored indefinitely.  It will thrust its self upon our awareness through one means or another, through our sicknesses and illnesses, through the loss of friends and colleagues, through the break up of our relationships, through the sheer jagged edges of existence.  At base, Yalom would argue that this turning away from incisive self-examination is the denial of death, the very refusal to acknowledge its inevitability.  All the preoccupation with or obsession with our jobs is really a mask of our very terror of death.

And so, mere guff will not calm our souls or dim the blinding light ahead.  Guff is no effective sun glasses against the sun of self-knowledge - if you forgive the rather childlike metaphor here.  What's called upon is an authenticity, an integrity and a sheer honesty that throws off the mask, lets down the guard, and becomes real and true.  Of course, this is a very hard thing to do, and it is, in reality, our very life's task.  In pursuit of this task guff gives way to an authentic language which not alone speaks words, but also carries the truth of the speaker in their uttered sounds.