Tuesday 1 June 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

The opening page of a book is the equivalent of being given a ticket to work on a strange land. Similar to the first notes of a song we've never heard before, there's a sense of anticipation and excitement. I lap up those introductory lines like a man drinks water after he has travelled through the desert. And as in music, where you go back to the same track if you like it, I return to that first page long after I've finished reading the book. One of my favourite openings in literature is that of the main character in 'Invisible Man', the famous novel written by Ralph Ellison:

'I am an invisible man. 
No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms.
I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids
- and I might even be said to possess a mind. 
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination - indeed, everything and anything except me.'

Read one of those lines again. '...it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass'. When I open the first page of a book I feel as if I was standing in the middle of a room crowded with words, where each and every one of them is looking at me, trying to catch my attention. To me, Ellison's text rings out like the bell they used to use in ships in gone-by days to call for lunch. Literary hunger. Satiated by the author. His opening is concise, brief and to the point. Do not confuse him with Poe. No, that would be a gross mistake. Here, look at me, I'm writing about the experience of being black in the US. Of being invisible.

But there's also a universal aspect to that excerpt. Even if you didn't know who Ralph Ellison was, even if you were not familiar with his political, social and critical essays, you would probably feel included in his main character's invisibility. Because that's the common denominator of many minority groups: their imperceptibility. And that opening page goes to great length to sum up briefly the effects of it.

Ellison's novel was a way of conveying the sense of disappointment of a black man who feels cheated by a society whose raison d'être is the pursuit of the 'American dream'. In contrast, in "My Son's Story", Nadine Gordimer swaps the roles of the cheat and the cheated from the first line:

'How did I find out?

I was deceiving him.

November. I was on study leave – for two weeks before the exams pupils in the senior classes were allowed to stay home to prepare themselves. I would I was going to work with a friend at a friend’s house, and then I’d slip off to a cinema. Cinemas had been open to us only a year or so; it was a double freedom I took: to bunk study and to sit in the maroon nylon velvet seat of a cinema in a suburb where whites live. My father was not well off but my parents wanted my sister and me to have a youth less stunted by the limits of an empty pocket than their precocious position, at the time, warranted. So I was in the foyer waiting to get into a five o’clock performance at one of the cinemas in a new complex and my father and a woman came out of the earlier performance in another.'

There was my father; the moment we saw one another it was I who had discovered him, not he me.

If Ellison's narrative reminds me of a lunch bell ringing out, Gordimer's calls to mind a fishing boat moored to a pier. And how in a split second the ropes that were fastened before are let loose and a fifteen-year-old sees his life fading away in the distance as his boat sets sail on uncharted waters. The father who spots him playing truant is himself cheating on the boy's mother. Nadine presents a conflict between father and son and father and wife and mistress. It doesn't help that the father's lover is a white woman in apartheid-ridden South Africa. And the clincher in that first page is the phrase 'the moment we saw one another it was I who had discovered him, not he me'.

Good opening passages are not just the province of prose. Poetry has many good examples, too. Even short poems, which sometimes are dismissed haughtily for their brevity, can provide one or two intensely emotional line(s). One of my favourite authors is Chicago-born, Mexican-American Sandra Cisneros, whose humour and perspicacity are omnipresent in her work. Take the opening lines of 'Original Sin', a poem included in 'Loose Woman', a collection of her poems:

Before Mexicana flight #729
en route to Mexico City departs
from San Antonio International Airport
I buy a 69¢ disposable razor at
the gift shop because I forgot
in Mexico they don't like hair
under your arms only
on your legs and plan to

shave before landing but
the stewardess handing out declaration
forms has given me the wrong
one assuming I'm Mexican but I am!
and I have to run up the aisle and ask
for a US citizen form instead because
I'm well how do I explain?

Is the author's apprehension to fall from divine grace related to hirsute armpits or her dual cultural heritage? Is the biblical apple presented to her, a hairy one or does it carry a label reading 'Hecha en Méjico'? As we read on, we get a snippet of the poet's internal struggle, the battle to get rid of the unwanted tuft.

Although the three examples above were chosen randomly, only now, as I write this post, do I realise that they were all written in the first person singular. A common trait that underlines the allure of them all. That first contact with the author's world; a world of sowing, growing, ripening and harvesting in which once we give our ticket at the entrance, we're invited to work on this strange land.

© 2010

Next Post: 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly(Review)', to be published on Thursday 3rd June at 11:50pm (GMT)


  1. Thanks for the introduction to Sandra Cisneros. I'm making a note to find more of her wonderful poetry.

  2. You know I am highly sentimental today. I am thinking of my children's birth parents, of what it means for them to be minorities raised by minorities. The economic, social and cultural dictums that brought them to relinquish their children. My heart heavy with their parents's losses, with my children's losses. It is with that sadness that I come here to your doorsteps today to find refuge. Should have known better. Hah! Tough love is what you give me. Thank you.

    Loved this for its pure truth: " Because that's the common denominator of many minority groups: their imperceptibility. And that opening page goes to great length to sum up briefly the effects of it."

    Tell me you are writing a book please.

  3. interesting - I have read all 3 authors and particularly like the work of Gordimer - she presents the human consequences of apartheid so perceptively...

  4. I love all three of your excerpts and the writers as well.

    And I do like the sleek new look of the blog, Cuban!

  5. Beautiful excerpts, Cubano. Sorry I haven't visited for a while but it has been sooo busy and I am permanently sleepy!

    Thanks for another interesting and beautiful post. You should publish your entries!

  6. Thanks for your enthusiasm!

    The third person can be effective too. My readers group has been talking about "The Iliad," which begins:

    "Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,/murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,/ great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,/ feasts for dogs and birds . . . "

  7. Wonderful post, Cuban, From my perspective as a writer, I can tell you that the most difficult lines of a book to write are those first lines. Did I start the story in the right place? How do I communicate the back story of the characters without smothering the reader with back story? How do I convey a description of the character(s) without making a list of physical characteristics? And more. Perhaps the most important challenge is, how do I convey in those first lines the essence of the book's conflict? I have probably spent more time -- and I know I am not alone in this -- editing the first lines of a novel or story than any other other part of a work.

  8. Many thanks for your kind feedback.

    I can just imagine what it's like to start writing a book. And whether the tone with which you begin ought to be the one you use all the way throughout. Several authors adopt different styles for each of their characters. The book I'm reading (a superb one, if I may say so), 'The Inheritance of Loss' is a case in point. Solitude joins all the characters but how they express is varies from person to person and Kiran is very deft at changing the tone, and even the language, when focusing on a specific personage.

    In years gone by I used use the opening page (s) of a book as a barometre. If I felt attracted to it, I carried on reading, if not, I closed the book. Luckily, I changed, for instance, 'Burger's Daughter' by Nadine Gordimer, too, is a difficult read, but it's only when you leave behind the first twenty or thirty pages that the gist of the novel begins to sink in. Needless to say, I loved that novel.

    Greetings from London.

  9. I have to go back to the book shelves over this post, Mr. Cuban.
    Richly textured poetry! Life must be calm over there for you to write such a deeply reflective post. We're having student strikes, heat, and lots of trouble over here in Puerto Rico. Take care!

  10. I don't know why it didn't post, but I wrote an additional comment saying that I really like your blog's new look.

  11. I loved Invisible Man. Thanks for reminding me why. How interesting that they are all first person. The power of the first person POV is that it draws the reader into the mind of the protagonist.

    As a writer, I angst over my first sentences. I usually go back and rewrite my openings after I finish the first draft. I prefer the first person POV to establish character, but sometimes the third person works better for plot and multiple perspectives on a complex issue. I’ve used different narrative structures in my novels as suits the story.

    Thanks, this post has got me thinking more about openings and how they work.

  12. More for my reading list! I hadn't heard of Sandra Cisneros so I'll look out for her, if this snippet is anything to go by I'll enjoy her a lot. Thanks Cuban.

  13. Wonderful post, Cuban. Great choices.
    So much think about in that first opening, first encounter, and some are indelible in my mind.
    Of course, "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world", which follows the 1st person rule.
    Then, "How do people get to this clandestine Archipelago? Hour by hour planes fly there, ships steer their course there, and trains thunder off to it - but all with nary a mark on them to tell of their destination."
    I'd love to put the opening of "The Wanderer" and "The Dream of the Rood" in, but they need to be in the original. Milton, of course - how can you not read on?
    And I bet you can read "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse" in the original. I love that first paragraph.
    Oh, could play this game all night. But a lot of my favourite books are slow-burners, and their genius doesn't jump out on that opening page.
    Apologies if any misquotes in the above, all from memory.

  14. Sandra Cisneros is a force! I dropped in from Sotto Voce, attracted by the title of this post. Literature is a great pull.

  15. p.s.
    I reviewed The Inheritance of Loss on my blog. Enjoy it!

  16. Isn't it wonderful to find passages that sing to us , and that are in themselves, mirrors, re-affirming both what is in-visible and at the same time making such 'real'connections...
    long time I haven't visited, so it's nice to see you again, happy day to you!

  17. Many thanks for all those contributions. I admit that some baffled me as I haven't read the books in which they appear. But that's what this thread is for, interaction. And action. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  18. Sorry Cuban - "Moby Dick" and "The Gulag Archipelago" from me. The Wanderer and The Dream of the Rood are Anglo-Saxon poems in Old English.

  19. Thanks for pointing this out..I think I have a fetish for making up first lines..but no novel to follow, so far.
    Will be opening up fav books to the first page, immediately..
    Also, love the look of your blog!

  20. Thanks, Titus, no worries. I loved the mystery of it all. :-)

    I'll second you, Lyn! :-)

    Many thanks. The idea for the new look and the quote came after I cooked a delicious meal for my family this week and Nigel's words came instantly into my head. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  21. you're so right, literature is like a ticket to strange worlds that we enter with so much pleasure. I love immersing completely into the worlds books create. I'm now reading Forsythe's Saga and the world of Victorian London has swallowed me completely, I wonder why there are no horse drawn carriages on the streets of London!

  22. I like your words about books, tickets to work on a strange land... or opened doors on the same strange lands and worlds...

    I read you (slowly, my english, sometimes, is very weak) ; I see you, you're not invisible ;) a tittle chosen by Paul Auster...

    Have a nice day



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