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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

more on novel openings

Yesterday I visited my mother for our weekly lunch--two days early, since she has a doctor's appointment on Thursday. As usual, we talked about books and writing, and looked at some novel openings.

A few themes are starting to emerge from these researches. Less-than-excellent openings tend to have flaws (in my opinion) that fall into certain categories. Of course, what constitutes a flaw might vary according to who is doing the reading. I have determined that my supreme value in fiction-writing (and narrative nonfiction-writing) is story: the flow of events which the work depicts or describes. I believe that all other aspects of writing--description, tone, characterization--are subordinate to story, and should be structured so as to help the story along.

Of course this is only a general rule; there is plenty of room for exceptions.)

Yesterday Mom and I agreed that we mainly liked the opening of Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence. But the opening sentence and paragraph themselves are actually rather bland and uninteresting:

Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen sat one morning in the window-bay of their father's house in Beldover, working and talking. Ursula was stitching a piece of brightly-coloured embroidery, and Gudrun was drawing upon a board which she held on her knee. They were mostly silent, talking as their thoughts strayed through their minds.


As I observed to Mom yesterday, this is written almost like a screenplay: a quick bit of scene-setting, which in this case if feels like the writer wants to get out of the way so he can dive into what interests him. The setting does not suggest any special tension or interest in the scene.

Contrast the opening of Kim by Rudyard Kipling:

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher--the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that "fire-breathing dragon," hold the Punjab; for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot.


This opener is, admittedly, chewy reading: too many foreign terms for my taste, all at once. (Zam-Zammah is apparently Persian, meaning something like "conqueror of all".) The prose itself is unrhythmic and reads a bit like a police or military report; the narrator's reference to the cannon as "her" suggests his military background. But right in the first sentence there is tension, since "he" (who will turn out to be Kim) is sitting astride the gun--an unusual posture--"in defiance of municipal orders". And Kim's "holding" of the gun implies that he "holds" the entire Punjab--he has made himself a conqueror. All in the first two sentences.

By comparison, two sisters sitting "working and talking" is flaccid. But Lawrence moves quickly on to a dialogue between the sisters, about their attitudes to marriage, which shows them to have conflicting views. Gudrun can't believe that Ursula is not interested in marriage, and presses her to admit that she is, at heart. It's an interesting conflict that characterizes the two girls distinctly right away. This admittedly gentle conflict has the feeling of story: it's action under tension that feels like it's going somewhere.

Of yesterday's crop, though, I would probably award the palm to A Buyer's Market, book 2 in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time series:

The last time I saw any examples of Mr. Deacon's work was at a sale, held obscurely in the neighbourhood of Euston Road, many years after his death. The canvases were none of them familiar, but they recalled especially, with all kind of other things, dinner at the Walpole-Wilsons', reviving with a jerk that phase of early life. They made me think of long-forgotten conflicts and compromises between the imagination and the will, reason and feeling, power and sensuality; together with many more specifically personal sensations, experienced in the past, of pleasure and of pain. Outside, the spring weather was cool and sunny: Mr. Deacon's favourite season of the year. Within doors, propped against three sides of a washstand, the oil-paintings seemed, for some reason, appropriate to those surroundings, dusty, though not displeasing; even suggesting, in their way, the kind of home Mr. Deacon favoured for himself and his belongings: the sitting-room over the shop, for example, informal, not too permanent, more than a trifle decayed. His haunts, I remembered, had bordered on these northern confines of London.


The narrator strolls into his story; no lurid shockers, no desperate attention-grabbers here. The narrator is treating us as adults, capable of mature perception and reflection, able to appreciate the subtleties of memory and association, and the way objects and sensations can awaken powerful feelings from the past. The intelligence and perceptiveness of the narrator inclines us to extend him credit, and trust that his discussion of the unknown artist Mr. Deacon is leading somewhere significant. If you have something important to say, you don't need to rush.

There's much more to be said about these things--but I have to get on with my day!


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