Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

Bloody hear me! Tantrums and novels’ striking openings

 

“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my teenage gay lover when Ali announced the archbishop had come to see me.”

 

So snorts the opening sentence to Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers – almost. Instead of “teenage gay lover” St Anthony uses the word catamite. The sentence has gone down in novel history as a notoriously arresting opening. Indeed, a few words later Burgess, as the narrating character, Kenneth Toomey, confesses that it is a deliberate “arresting opening”. The sentence is splendidly offensive. And for those without religious interest, it is perhaps delightful to, oof, read how offensive it must be for others. We love finger pointing.

 

The only word I was not happy with in the original is Burgess’s “catamite”. The author was risking that the general reader may not know that taboo word. This would dampen the desirable, first-sentence bang. However, we have the gem, catamite, waved about like soiled underwear, used in the same sentence as archbishop. And this venerable cleric is clearly at least acquainted with an octogenarian who likes to sport with catamites in bed. Ye Gods.

 

We all want to be heard, to receive attention. This much is clear from the moment we are slapped wailing from our mothers’ wombs. Almost from the minute we can use our lungs, we are bawling to be noticed. Toddlers howl. They stamp their feet, braying, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Teenagers bitch and throw tantrums. We adults – only sometimes — become more sophisticated. I get the sulks. Or I give my missus The Silent Treatment, ignoring her, usually hovering nearby with folded arms to ensure she knows she is being utterly ignored. What’s your skill set?

 

In music, probably the best-known arresting overture is Beethoven’s Fifth. It does sound a bit like a tantrum, especially since the composer had gone deaf and in sheer frustration banged away on the keys. Or so the tale goes.

 

What does this apparently puerile behaviour say about the art of writing? With its need to strike a chord from the first? (Sure, the commercial value is apparent. Opening paragraphs should be spellbinding, saying, “Please hear me! Buy this ruddy book I spent years writing and re-writing! Never mind the gazillion publisher’s rejection slips!”)

 

Puerile or not, tantrums get to the core of what we are – a screeching bloody rapture mirrored in the staccato, upreached pleading of trees stripped in winter. We can only see these trees as pleading if there is something in us that is pleading. The inner mirrors the outer. We connect more deeply with trees, or anything else, in these metaphoric ways. If, say, those willows are bowed in meditation, inking green hymns in the water; that is because there is something in us that is bowed in meditation and reverence, or fretfully craving that state. We need our nappy-soiling hullabaloo, our braying and attention-seeking, our shillelagh, to find the silence that lays us bare. Or hopefully discover it.

 

Ah, silence. We sometimes shut up when enthralled. Notice how the dinner table grows quiet when the guests enjoy a superb meal; all the senses are absorbed in the savouring. Or when we are deep in a book or gardening. Listening with eyes closed to the rhapsody in music or in the sea.

 

Any writer worth his salt knows his first sentence and paragraph must be choreographed with care. The result will resonate throughout the entire book. I am sure many favourite riveting openings of novels and other books are coming to readers’ minds. There is the “clock striking thirteen” in 1984. Or that sustained trumpet call of a sentence commencing A Tale of Two Cities.

 

What are your favourite openings? A personal favourite is the commencing chords of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, which effortlessly imprinted itself on my memory decades ago: “The sea is high again today with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes … ”

 

Then there’s Frank McCourt’s autobiography, Angela’s Ashes, which expels its first breath with: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

 

Many readers of this blog have written a manuscript of some kind, or have at least scribbled a few pages. What are the stunning openings you have written? There should be an air of mystery to them, a huh? moment which grabs the reader’s attention. In closing, here’s a few of mine (mine! mine! You can’t steal them … ):

 

“The day after I died I sat at my kitchen table and enjoyed a favourite breakfast: a chocolate croissant with a double espresso.”

 

“I relished listening to your story about your mother-in-law getting in the sack with your boss even before he fired you. But tell me, how do you intend to tell your wife what really happened?”

 

“Could Richard hear me breathing? I tried not to gasp as I lay half submerged in the freezing dam water, only a few feet away from him.”

 

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    • Lin

      Great article. We’ve just been dealing with opening sentences and paragraphs so this is very appropriate. :-)

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      A catamite is more like a prostitute or mistress than a lover or soul mate. You don’t think a teenage boy sleeps with an 80 year old man for love do you?

      Using the word lover would be misleading as to the relationship.

    • GrahamJ

      My personal favourite…

      “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.”

      Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

    • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

      Wonderful article!

    • http://tomlearmont.com Tom Rymour

      One day just before the rains, at the beginning of his grief, he drove east along Empire Road in the battered Datsun. On the passenger seat sat a cake carton, containing a polythene bag filled with his wife’s ashes. His only other company was an impromptu erection.

      Radium Tales, Tom Learmont

    • diane sellick

      One of the most striking opening sentences that caught my imagination many, many years ago is Camus’, “Mother died yesterday, or was it the day before?”

    • http://thoughtleader.co.za/rodmackenzie Rod MacKenzie

      GrahamJ, Oh dear, I had actually meant the beginning to A Tale of Two Cities, not Great Expectations, I confused them. My bad.

    • https://www.facebook.com/TalesFromTheShamansRecord?fref=ts Peter Merrington

      This is fun. Here are three openings by me, Peter Merrington. The last one is the earliest, and the tamest. I suspect that Mackenzie and Burgess are right – authors quickly learn to collar the reader.

      Pierre d’Antonyme spent most of the second day of the Franschhoek Arts, Literature and Gastronomic Festival in the lavatory. ‘Pa! Ze life of a critic!’
      (‘Death of a Critic’ in Bloody Satisfied, collection of SA crime short stories edited by Joanne Hichens, Two Dogs, 2013)

      WHY THAT BASTARD CHILD IT HANGS AROUND MY DOOR! KICK IT AWAY SHAWCAKE, THERE’S A KIND DOG.
      (The Zombie and the Moon, more tales from the shaman’s record’ – Jacana, 2011)

      FAR BEYOND THE FURTHEST END of the Tsitsikamma, the land runs down to the sea in wide stretches of fynbos and reed.
      (‘Zebra Crossings, tales from the shaman’s record’ – Jacana, 2008)

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      “Last night I dreamed I went to Mandelay again”

      “Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier.

    • A Taylor

      “It is well known that a man in possession of a fortune is in need of a wife.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, sets the tone of the whole book.

    • https://www.facebook.com/TalesFromTheShamansRecord?fref=ts Peter Merrington

      Yes! That’s a classic one, Lyndall!

    • Judith

      Wonderful article and wonderful comments! Brought up many memories

    • Mark Kerruish

      I like Raymond E. Feist beginnings. His books (and chapters, for that matter) begin with extraordinarily simple opening sentences such as “The storm broke” framed as a paragraph on its own. They seldom include dialogue or people and set a mood for the entire chapter or book.

    • Rod MacKenzie

      My dear, dear Dave Harris, “wonderful article” you cry? I am most surprised. All the writers referred to in my blog are white men. Surely you could have at least accused me of being a white supremacist, held back by the iron chains of ideological illusion, my every sentence imposing on the oprressed the subtexts of an unexamined mind that still clings to apartheid. Something like that. I am so disappointed, Dear Dave.

    • http://thoughtleader.co.za/rodmackenzie Rod MacKenzie

      My dear, dear Dave Harris, “wonderful article” you cry? I am most surprised. All the writers referred to in my blog are white men. Surely you could have at least accused me of being a white supremacist, held back by the iron chains of ideological illusion, my every sentence imposing on the oprressed the subtexts of an unexamined mind that still clings to apartheid. Something like that. I am so disappointed, Dear Dave.

    • Mariana de Leuca

      “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.

      The Go-Between
      L P Hartley

    • Caroline

      Hi

      I wrote ‘(name of novel) tells a simple story of three black girls and their father, the dominant figure in their lives and how their simple rural beginnings open up in ways that amaze and amuse. It tells of their trials and their defining moments when they each find their place, and break free to become the phenomenal women they are. Each to dance to her own rhythm, a rhythm only they are attuned to, rhythms foreign to their father.’

      This is the opening to my novel which i started writting many moons ago, and just simply lack the discipline to finish it. Eish…..

    • Susan de Villiers

      catamite implies contempt in a way that “teenage gay lover” does not. The joy of the sentence is that the contempt infects the archbishop as well. Burgess always chose his words carefully.

      “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Anna Karenina)

      “Call me Ishmael.” (Moby Dick by Herman Melville)

    • Barbara Scholz

      Hi again Rod, just reading this blog of yours. Interesting. I just happened to hear my favorite author, Barbara Kingsolver, on a TV program a few days ago. She said that in good novels, and hers, of course, the author makes a promise to the reader in the first sentence or possibly paragraph and that at the finish of the book you can look back and see if the author has integrity and has truly answered the question. I have luckily just gotten a copy of her latest book today! I am excited to read it, but haven’t finished her last one which I have been gradually restarting over for over two years. I have gotten about three quarters through it. I love her writing so much that I cannot bear to finish it. I think this is not normal, sorta like keeping your best christmas candies for months or years before eating them.. Maybe it will get old, spoiled, or lose its flavour, but, it hasn’t happened yet. Also with this author/person, I always feel that I am reading the book I would have written if I was able to write about what’s important myself. She has even written an essay on this very subject! Anyway keep up the good work with your writing it sounds very interesting.