Wednesday, January 4, 2017


                                   The virtue of maps, they show what can be done with limited
                                        space,  they foresee that everything can happen therein.

                                                                                               José Saramago

It is largely through maps (mostly visual representations of our perceptions, our beliefs, our dreams, our fears) that we as human beings have learned to orient ourselves within the otherwise bewildering phenomena of Time (that is, Death) and Space. From ancient cosmological, religious, and nautical maps to globes, atlases, tarot cards, horoscopes, memory palaces, astrological charts, and Michelin road maps to astronomical, topographical, geological, historical, medical, political, biological, climatological, mathematical, grammatical, and neurological maps, to algorithms, political polling, spread sheets, mind maps, flow charts, the Human Genome Project, and our increasing reliance on Global Positioning Systems to find our way there and back, cartography (in the broadest sense of the term) has helped us to define and enforce our realities with a brilliance and tenacity that is telling.

And what about the book as map? Is literature too a kind of essential human mapping? What is certain is that when an author begins to write a novel or short story one of her fundamental concerns is the matter of orientation. She must think: Who is my narrator, my protagonist, and what does she want? What is the psychic distance (to use John Gardner’s term) I wish to establish between my reader and my principal character(s), that is, the immediate degree of sympathy/empathy one feels for her? Are we watching her from a distance or actually trundling about in her skin? Then there are the matters of subject, time frame, and setting? An author must determine her style, her tone (her particular attitude toward her subject), the mood of the story, her diction. Finally, significantly, what in the story is at issue, at stake?

While important in all forms of writing, such basic stocktaking is all the more significant when what is to follow is unusually demanding or unconventional in language, style or form. For the sake of her reader, the author herself must get her sea-legs before the voyage can rightly begin.

Good writing is a kind of witchcraft; before we know it we have fallen under its  spell. Indeed what distinguishes the best, most effective openings is the fact that we scarcely notice them at all, so deftly have they been wrought that the imagery, characters, and setting seem less the product of the particular words before us on the page than the fruits of our of own soft-humming brains.

First, there is the more conventional type of orientation—by which I do not mean predictable, prosaic, dull. Here is the inimitable Dickens from his novel, Nicholas Nickleby:

There once lived in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby, a worthy gentleman, who taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason: thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.  

Here now is Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua from his novel, Five Seasons:

Molkho’s wife died at 4 a.m., and Mokho did his best to mark the moment forever, because he wished to be able to remember it. And indeed, thinking back on it weeks and even months later, he was convinced that he had managed to refine the instant of her passing (her passing? He wasn’t sure the word was right) into something clear and vivid containing not only thought and feeling but also sound and light, such as the maroon glow of the small electric cheater, the greenish radiance of the numbers on the digital clock, the yellow shaft of light from the bathroom that cast large shadows in the hallway, and perhaps, too, the color of the sky, a pinkish ivory set off by the deep obscurity around it.

Note how much is initiated, established, achieved–and how quickly, concisely. Next, consider this opening from Vietnamese author Duong Thu Huong’s novel, Beyond Illusions:

     How could I have loved him like that?
She stared at him in the green glow of dawn. Still sleeping soundly, he was both strange and familiar to her, like a waxen effigy. That face. The curve of the nose, those earlobes. He was the same man, the same flesh, that had once been  a beacon inside her. Now he no longer radiated life, love.
     The man rolled over, his beard grazing her cheek. Repulsed, she sat up.
     Odd, how his beard had thinned.

Simple, yet amazing. We feel an instant sympathy for this narrator—and without even knowing her name. We see the light as it creeps into the room, hear the traffic outside, smell her husband’s rammish breath. Look now at Heinrich Boll’s opening to his novel, The Clown, a story about a struggling entertainer trying to find meaning in his life as a German after the war:

It was dark by the time I reached Bonn, and I forced myself not to succumb to the series of mechanical actions which had taken hold of me in five years if travelling back and forth: down the station steps, up the station steps, put down my suitcase, take my ticket out of my coat pocket, pick up my suitcase, hand in my ticket, cross over to the newsstand, buy the evening papers, go outside, and signal for a taxi. Almost every day for five years I had left for somewhere and arrived somewhere; in the morning I had gone up station steps and down again, in the afternoon down the steps and up again, signaled for a taxi, felt in my pockets for money to pay for my ticket, bought evening papers at kiosks, and savored in a corner of my mind the studied casualness of these mechanical actions.

Here then is Elizabeth Hardwick in her singular novel, Sleepless Nights, carefully arranging her props for the performance to come:

It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and gray squares and diamonds. How nice it is—this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home. The niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle—that is what I see. More beautiful is the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street.

This, as further illustration of the more conventional opening, is the first paragraph of V.S Pritchett’s comic novel, Mr. Beluncle:

Twenty-five minutes from the centre of London the trees lose their towniness, the playing fields, tennis courts and parks are as fresh as lettuce, and the train appears to be squirting through thousands of little gardens. Here was Boystone before its churches and its High street were burned out and before its roofs were stripped off a quarter of a mile at a time. It had its little eighteenth-century face—the parish church, the alms-house, the hotel, the Hall—squeezed by the rolls and folds of pink suburban fat. People came out of the train and said the air was better—Mr Beluncle always did—it was an old town with a dormitory encampment, and a fizz and fuss of small private vegetation.

Here Pritchett not only establishes the conventional suburban setting for his story with but a few deft strokes, but does so comically, satirically, so that we have a bead on this Mr. Beluncle (and his world) well before we actually meet him. Finally, note here the highly conventional way that the Japanese novelist Kobe Abe begins his highly unconventional novel, The Box Man—first with the title itself, then with this blunt (if all the more peculiar) statement of the story’s central facts:

     This is the record of a box man.  
     I am beginning this account in a box. A cardboard box that reaches just to my hips when I put it on over my head.
     That is to say, at this juncture the box man is me. A box man, in his box, is recording the chronicle of a box man.

Yet not all great fiction begins with such apparent clarity, such obvious direction and purpose. There is also another form of orientation—a largely modernist convention—I will call deliberate disorientation. It is a type of orientation that no reader can fail to miss, for it often stops one in one’s tracks. Armed with one’s ropes and crampons, one goggles at the page as though gazing up at Mount Everest itself. Rest assured: such writers want you to climb the mountain—only by different, less conventional means. This is what makes modernist novels so remarkable, the fact they actually teach you to read them, establishing at once (often by challenging your very confidence as a reader) the terms by which they demand to be known.

Arguably no novelist was more determined to teach (or re-teach) his readers to read (that is, to read better—more deeply, more responsively) than the crass and courtly ‘Sunny Jim’. See here how he opens his last novel, Finnegan’s Wake:

     riverrrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
     Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wieldorfight his penisolate war; nor had topsawyers’ rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s Gorgios while they went doubling their mumper all the time: not avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venisoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old Isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.  

It hardly seems a beginning at all (nor should it, in this case). Just two brief paragraphs and one finds oneself reeling! Fast on Joyce’s heels is Brazilian author Clarice Lispector with the opening of her novel, Near to the Wild Heart (the title itself taken from Joyce’s own Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man):

Her father’s typewriter went clack-clack…clack-clack-clack…The clock awoke in dustless tin-dlen. The silence dragged out zzzzzz. What did the wardrobe say? Clothes-clothes-clothes. No, no. amidst the lock, the typewriter and the silence there was an ear listening, large pink, and dead…

Strange, jarring—one clutches at straws. Here now is Vladimir Nabokov from the opening of his novel, Lolita:

     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.
     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.
     Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
     Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

Note how little (how much) he gives us, how little (how much) we know! Here, at last, is Shirley Jackson’s seemingly conventional, if in fact deftly disorienting first paragraph from her well-known short story, “The Lottery,” a contemporary tale—so one gradually discovers—about a ritual stoning in an average American town:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 2nd, but in this village, where they were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so that it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

Each of these openings—the conventional and unconventional alike—gives the reader as much as he needs (at least as much as the author thinks he needs) to whet his appetite (and expectations), to get his bearings in the particular tale to come. Yet the matter of orientation in great fiction does not end there, but applies equally to individual chapters, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and words, yes, even—perhaps especially—to words, to one’s particular choice of words.

Of course the importance of orientation far exceeds the technical concerns of the individual writer. In these increasingly irrational, increasingly fanatical times, a blind and blundering age of fake news, Twitter wars, and celebrity gospels, of ideologues, megalomaniacs, and would-be messiahs, there is also the fact of literature itself, of reading widely and deeply and well. I can think of no finer compass that that.

Peter Adam Nash

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