essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
The way you start anything – writing a book, making a journey, beginning a relationship, asking a prayer – determines how you finish it. To start well, you have to be ready. This really increases your chance of success. Even though many have overcome odds to reach their journey’s end: these usually discover unexpected things about themselves and what they are trying to do. In traditional Chinese culture, and in ancient Rome for example, it was essential, before starting anything, to consult the omens. Essentially this meant you had to ensure that you and the universe were in harmony before proceeding. A bit like clearing the chakra points by meditation to ensure the flow of energy through the body which is part of every Yoga exercise. Maximise the potential!
These thoughts came into my head while reading a favourite book lately. Why did it make such an impact on me? Why did it stir me after so many years still? I realised eventually that it was the opening words of the book which cast this spell. They were an ‘Open, Sesame!’ to the robbers’ cave where precious stones glittered in the twilight. And it was true in the same way with other books I cherish. I decided to look at these opening passages and try to see what the magic was.
“…I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking around the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out into that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards”.
This is a simple adventure tale that conjures up the menacingly exotic to gain its effect. The mysterious seafarer intrigues, puzzles and frightens the hero of the tale and we (or I at least) cannot help but be drawn in and frightened too. Because the story is set in the past, and we don’t have sailors before the mast any more, and pirates have changed their costume, there’s a mythic air about this figure that looms up suddenly at the old inn on the cliffs near the Bristol road, like something from an old nightmare. As events unfold we hear of a man with one leg, and about a hoard of gold, and like Bilbo Baggins, we must go on. Every child has experienced the fear and excitement, evoked well by this passage, and none of us ever really forgets.
“ ‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter. Lata avoided the maternal imperative by looking around the great lamp-lit garden of Prem Nivas. The wedding guests were gathered on the lawn. ‘Hmm,’ she said. This annoyed her mother further. ‘I know what your hmms mean, young lady, and I can tell you I will not stand for hmms in this matter. I do know what is best. I am doing it all for you. Do you think it is easy for me, trying to arrange things for all four of my children without His help?’ Her nose began to redden at the thought of her husband, who would, she felt certain, be partaking of their present joy from somewhere benevolently above”.
A Victorian three volume style novel of 1500 pages, full of exotic cultural matters and complicated family relationships and, as they say, a cast of thousands. And here we are in six or seven lines immediately in the heart of it. Like the first passage, this is highly pictorial writing, a painting of a certain type of persons in a specific time and place. Yet there is no detail given in the lines I quote. We recognise, not the place or the people, but the situation, and the relationship. We (or I at least) like these people, and have even a certain affection for them, and want to know more. It is only later we come to realise we have the whole plot of an enormous book, given in just a few sentences. This is an amazingly skilled achievement.
“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me”.
My vote for the most unusual character in fiction, and it’s greatest master of the parenthesis. This was shocking in its day and remains so today, and this crabwise progression, not only sidewise but backwards, conceals enormous skill of construction, and has enormous charm. This passage is so brilliantly malaprop it grabs and holds the attention as the sad sorry story of conception, alarm clocks and the midwife staggers unsteadily on, heightened by bizarre punctuation, eccentric spelling and very curious learning. Here we have a cast of eccentrics, and possibly one of the best portraits of a good man ever penned, all done by manipulating English grammar as never before, nor since until James Joyce came along.
“She opened her eyes and for a few moments, several seconds, a silent eternity, there was nothing changed in her, or in the kitchen around her; besides, it was no longer a kitchen, it was a mixture of shadows and pale gleams of light, without any consistency or significance, Limbo perhaps? Was there a specific moment when the sleeping woman’s eyelids parted? … Somewhere outside—it was just in the Rue Léopold—a strange life was flowing by, dark because night had fallen, noisy and hurried because it was five o’clock in the afternoon, wet and slimy because it had been raining for several days; and the pale globes of the arc lamps were flickering in front of the dummies in the dress shops, and the trams were passing by, extracting blue sparks, as sudden as flashes of lightning, from the ends of their trollies. Élise, her eyes open now, was still far away, nowhere in particular; only those fantastic lights from outside came through the window and passed through the lace curtains with the white flowers whose arabesques they projected on to the walls and on to the objects in the room”.
It’s the accumulation of details that make this memorable. A woman has just awoken. The exactitude is extraordinary; the viewpoint, the inconsequential items that flow across consciousness, the spark of the trolly cables and the pattern of the lace curtain thrown on the moonlit wall: it is hard not to be this woman, Élise, the narrator’s mother who is about to give him birth, alarmed because her husband Désiré is not at home, and panicking at what might go wrong. We are not reading a description, but watching a scene photographed onto an extraordinary imagination. It is this choice of detail, not just everything but only the vivid and memorable, which make for compulsive reading as the story of a life is told.
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars. The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair”.
An unmistakably sardonic tone, almost insolent. An almost violently independent man confronted with the wealthy and their problems, determined to find the truth no matter how uncomfortable it turns out to be. This is just one of the ways the writer has taken the crime story and transformed it. The details are described with exactitude, interiors with the eye of an interior decorator, people with a mordant wit that sees their excesses, situations that come from police reports. Yet the man at the heart of it is a knight in shining armour, as this introduction to him makes clear, even if he rarely finds many naked girls to rescue. A knight who gets up again no matter how many times he’s knocked down. A hero for the 20th century.
It seemed to me a common element in all these starts that the author has written with vividness and impact, enough to create almost instantly a character or situation I could engage with. There are books that start slow and in which you get deeply involved, but not these ones. To have this impact I think the author has been in a situation that mirrors his (or her) protagonists. Not of course identical in any way, but emotionally similar, and probably a childhood experience. And they have recaptured that state by trusting their imagination, at a level where it is likely you and I can share with them. Only then have they begun to write. And it turns out one of England’s greatest writers agrees with me.
” ‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘may I speak frankly?’ ‘Certainly, sir.’ ‘What I have to say may wound you.’ ‘Not at all, sir.’ ‘Well, then—‘. No—wait. Hold the line a minute. I’ve gone off the rails. I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you. Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about. And in opening my report of the complex case of Gussie Fink–Nottle, Madeline Bassett, my Cousin Angela, my Aunt Dahlia, my Uncle Thomas, young Tuppy Glossop and the cook, Anatole, with the above spot of dialogue, I see that I have made the second of these two floaters”.
The great thing with having a congenital idiot as narrator is you can get your message across while making a perfect mess of it, as Bertie does here. His story starts too soon, as he realises, but then gets too detailed and becomes obscure, and yet the author makes everything perfectly clear: Bertie doesn’t have a clue. That puts us in a comfortable position, because we do. Just how clueless you can be becomes a competition in this book between Bertie and Fink-Nottle, though of course there’s Madeline, who’s pretty clueless as well. Rarely has the art which conceals art been practised with such unobtrusive competence. Because the fact is Bertie has nothing to say. The way he says it though is an act of genius.
“I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe; and so my companions always called me”.
Here is the plain style par excellence, a no nonsense, straightforward account which contains no difficult concepts nor elaborate vocabulary, one which you can trust. Here is a truthful man. The writing could be described as journalism, and it is written by a very great journalist indeed, but as it continues we realise it is something else, one of the most profound myths about our existence as human beings. Yet everything in the story is so real. Nothing is complicated, details are of clothes, transport, provisions and little else but a conventional piety. When we describe disasters we too often use platitudes. Not this writer. This is a book made from everyday matter. It seems true in the telling, but becomes true in another sense, as the fearful piety of a Dissenter turns romance into myth: William Tyndale’s bible was never too far away.
“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney–pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full–grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot–hold at street–corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest. Fog everywhere … Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds”.
This is the energetic style, swirling the reader on in sub clauses about the weather till they find much to their surprise the fog that they are reading about is a different kind altogether, man made, but just as inhospitable. There’s something exhilarating about this toboggan ride of language that sweeps you (I mean me of course) along in its eddy. For all its looseness of expression this is a very compact construction of an opening theme, in which what we see, familiar streets in unpleasant weather, becomes a symbol of wrongness, an inhuman quicksand of unkindness and meaningless ritual. Yet despite ourselves we walk along with the author, seeing not just the weather, but the mad and fantastic shapes it makes of familiar objects and people, both a vivid fantasy and an outraged protest at the same time.
“Though I haven’t ever been on the screen I was brought up in pictures. Rudolph Valentino came to my fifth birthday party — or so I was told. I put this down only to indicate that even before the age of reason I was in a position to watch the wheels go round. I was going to write my memoirs once, “The Producer’s Daughter,” but at eighteen you never quite get around to anything like that. It’s just as well — it would have been as flat as an old column of Lolly Parsons’. My father was in the picture business as another man might be in cotton or steel, and I took it tranquilly. At the worst I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house. I knew what you were supposed to think about it but I was obstinately unhorrified. This is easy to say, but harder to make people understand. You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand”.
A writer haunted by specific American myths: of the wealthy; myths about the myth making of Hollywood stars; myths about the good life where everybody could make it to the top if they worked hard enough; and myths of the sometimes unscrupulous ways they did so. So this is an examination of the gap between the myth (in the sense of false image) and the reality. A play on the two meanings of ‘myth’. For those of us (me at least) still bedazzled with the potent effect of films, this is fascinating territory to explore. Valentino, that symbol of virility, at a child’s birthday party; the much feared Louella Parsons whose old columns have gone flat; the business of movies as similar to cotton or steel; the stories that make Hollywood a haunted house. One of the great cliff hangers of American literature.
“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring–cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring–cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage–drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow”.
A heartfelt wish for escape from an unhappy marriage and an uncongenial job, phrased in terms a five year old boy could understand, produced here one of the most poetical stories ever written. Surely anyone who has ever felt trapped can relate to this account. One can do one’s duty conscientiously, but there are larger forces in the world to be neglected at one’s peril. So Mole goes on his big adventure, and meets the Rat, and Toad, and Badger and the other immortal characters of the tale. In making his story one that would appeal to a child, the writer has tapped into a universal force within us all, and it’s hard not to share the Mole’s delight in Spring, or his excitement at the sight of the great river and the Rat’s boat. Perhaps, deep down, we’re all children.
When I was younger I had a fascination for traditional Chinese and Japanese culture. One of the things that impressed me was the figure of the calligrapher, whose scroll had pride of place in a household. This was someone who had spent a lifetime cultivating their awareness, so that every movement was an expression of it. And on occasion they could sit down and write a poem, an inscription, and it was perfect, every character a perfect expression of the words written. Spontaneously. No thought, only action, complete awareness of ink and brush and paper. This is the obverse of the art the martial artist cultivated, such exact observance of the opponent that they would let the inexpert fighter lose, turning their faults against them.
To make a good start I think we have to finish a lot of things first. Afterwards then comes the rewriting or revision or adjustment. And that reminds me of a Woody Allen story. The ideas for his films come to him in dreams, he said. And they make a perfect film. But when he writes the idea down it’s not as good; when he has actors read it it needs revisions; when producers look at it they suggest alterations. And as he directs he is confronted with the ruin of his dream. So he goes back to bed and dreams again. Of course it’s not true about Allen’s films. But it’s probably true about the revision process of any kind.
What my examples show I think is that starting well will enable us to survive our revision process, whatever it might be, and realise our dream. To your own self be true, as Polonius put it.
• The Big Sleep. Raymond Chandler (Hamish Hamilton 1939)
• Bleak House. Charles Dickens (Easton Press 1972)
• Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy Gentleman. Laurence Sterne (Macdonald 1975)
• The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner. Daniel Defoe 1719
• Love of the Last Tycoon. F. Scott Fitzgerald (Easton Press 1991)
• Pedigree. Georges Simenon, translated by Robert Baldick (Hamish Hamilton 1962)
• Right Ho, Jeeves. PG Wodehouse (Herbert Jenkins 1922)
• A Suitable Boy. Vikram Seth (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1993)
• Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson (Folio Society 1994 illustrated by NC Wyeth)
• The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame (Easton Press 1991)
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.