You open a book for the first time and read the first few sentences. You might be confronted with a ‘brick through the wall’ type of opening much favoured by writers of crime and adventure stories – the kind that plunges you straight into the action with barely a pause to work out what’s happening.
Other times you’ll be faced with one of those measured openings, the type that might not contain any great revelation or insight but intrigues you enough to want to read on. And as you do, the power of the language takes hold and you become suffused with the consciousness that you’re leaving the world you inhabit and being taken over the threshold into a newly imagined world.
That’s the feeling I get with the book I’m using to answer this month’s Classics Club question: What is your favourite opening sentence from a classic novel (and why)?
For me, just choosing one sentence from all the classics on my bookshelves, felt like an almost impossible task. That’s why it’s taken me almost a month to decide and even now, it’s a close run thing between two novels that are tremendous, though vastly different.
Runner up is George Eliot’s Middlemarch; the book that is my number one favourite and the novel that, were I ever to be stranded on some desert island with only one book available, I know could sustain repeated readings. Although it has an extensive Preface, the story proper begins with this sentence:
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
It’s a classical opening; simple and lucid yet there is a ironic hint about the character concealed beneath its stylishness. Reading further into the novel is to discover how Eliot continues to gently mock her heroine’s desire to vouchsafe everything that doesn’t fit her ardent desire to do good in the world. This is to be a story of misguided ambition and thwarted dreams.
But the novel I chose in the end is Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, the first of his Raj Quartet series set in an India in the dying days of British colonial rule. It opens:
Imagine then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of, standing where a lane ended and cultivation began: a different landscape but in the alluvial plain between the mountains of the north and the plateau of the south.
This is a sentence that grabs my attention because it’s so mysterious: Why is the girl running? Who is Miss Crane? What’s the significance of the Bibighar Gardens? And so elliptical – there’s a hint of a connection between the two women. Some experience they both had but there is no clue as to what this might be. It’s a paragraph that’s so replete with atmosphere, of darkness and of space.
What emerges on reading further is that the girl is white and running away from the Bibighar Gardens where she has been raped by four Indian men. She, like Miss Crane, had dared to cross the line between two cultures and paid the price; an event that has political repercussions in a country where relations between the ruling class and the native inhabitants is about to reach a turning point.
It’s a book that poses serious questions about racism and cultural divisions, about colonialism and self determination. A powerful novel that more than lives up to the promise of that opening line.
It’s been a quiet month in this corner of South Wales – quiet that it is when the rain isn’t drumming down on the conservatory roof. Even the birds seem a bit subdued today. I can hardly blame them – what’s there to chirrup about when all you can see are miles of leaden skies?
The rain should of course mean that instead of labouring in the garden, I could spend the time curled up on the sofa reading. But somehow it hasn’t worked out like that in the last two weeks. There’s been the small matter of Wimbledon to keep an eye on for one thing. So Monsieurs Murray, Federer and all those Czech players with the unpronounceable names are to blame.
Even so, I did finish reading this novel by Mildred Taylor this week. It’s one of the set books on my Open University Children’s Literature course.
Written in 1976, it features the Logan family who ae cotton farmers struggling to make a living from their cotton farm in Mississippi. Although times are so tough their father has to get a job working on the railroad so they can pay the bills, at least they own their own plot of land. What the children – and especially the central character of Cassie Logan – come to understand is why the land means so much to their father. The novel is very much a ‘coming of age’ novel which deals with racism, loyalty and justice.
The message was a bit obvious but there are some well written characters. Cassie is pitched perfectly as the girl who seems forever angry at the examples of injustice she sees and simply has to speak up. My favourite character though was Little Man, the baby of the family, who gets very distressed when his few possessions look dirty.
Progress in my quest to read all the Booker prize-winning novels can best be described as ‘steady’. But I realised this week that I’m ok with this – I don’t want this to feel like a chore or an objective against which I will get scored (I have enough of those in work thank you). This is meant to be enjoyable after all. Plus I need to devote some time to reading the children’s lit course books and there are scores of other novels that I have on my TBR list. It would of course help if I didn’t keep adding to the list but I can’t resist all those suggestions from other bloggers. So I decided this week to use a form of rotation – reading one from the Booker list, then one from the children’s lit list and then one from the TBR list before starting all over again with the Bookers.
I’m a bit behind with the reviews however – they take me a lot longer to write than I expected. But I did get around to posting a review of Staying On by Paul Scott that I read a few weeks ago. Now I am reading my next Booker winner – Offshore by Penelope Fitgerald. After that it’s back to children’s lit with the new Patrick Ness novel.
Staying On is a quiet coda to the more epic approach Paul Scott took in his Raj Quartet series in which he depicts the final stages of the collapse of imperialism in India and the birth of a new independent nation. It’s a process that Scott once described as ‘the British coming to the end of themselves as they were’. For many of the key figures in the quartet, the new order did indeed force them to question their own attitudes and beliefs. Only a few chose to remain once they were no longer in charge of the country.
With Staying On, Scott moves us forward 20 years after India’s independence. The action is located in the same small hill town of Pankot that featured in the earlier novels and makes reference to some of the same buildings and areas. He introduces several new characters (both Indian and British ) but he makes a few others reappear — most notably two of the minor characters from the Quartet – Tusker and Lucy Smalley. The last British couple remaining in Pankot, their world has shrunk as their fortunes have declined. Tusker’s retirement from the British Indian Army and his subsequent career in administration for a maharaja have left them with limited funds which have been further eroded it transpires, by a stint of gambling.
By the time we meet them they are living in straightened circumstances in the Lodge, a small annex of Smith’s Hotel which was once the town’s principal hotel but is now overshadowed by the brash new Shiraz Hotel. The Smalleys, like Smith’s Hotel, are adrift in the new India. They try desperately to cling to the old order with its esteemed values of the family and tradition and its strict codes of behavour. But such currency no longer matters in the new India, in which its the entrepreneurs and money makers who hold sway.
The Smalleys are an ill matched pair. He is brusque, irascible and prone to spontaneous irrational actions; she is loquacious, a romanticist who believes many of the young English officers she has met over the years, were secretly attracted to her. Lucy Smalley has never forgiven her husband for deciding — without consulting her — that they would ‘stay on’ in India after he retired from the army. As her husband’s health declines, she becomes increasingly worried about her financial status when he dies. But her pleas for information are unanswered and in place of real conversations with her taciturn husband she creates imaginary dialogues in which she shows a male visitor the delights of Pankot and introduces him to local society.
What Scott brings to life is that despite the feelings of frustrations, anger and disappointment that encircle the Tusker’s marriage, there is still an affection that has endured. Staying On is in essence a tale of loss; of unfulfilled dreams and years lived always on the fringe, never quite ‘fitting in’. When I first read this novel about 15 years ago, the comic storyline of the larger-than-life Mrs Bhoolabhoy and her henpecked husband seemed to dominate the novel. I felt the domestic nature of the plot made the novel feel rather lightweight in comparison to the Raj Quartet. But reading Staying On again, the poignancy of Lucy’s story came more to the forefront. How could I not feel sorry for a woman who has
‘a faraway look in her eyes as if looking back into places she’s walked in her long-ago shoes.
It’s true that Staying On doesn’t tackle the same big issues as the Raj Quartet or focus similarly highly dramatic events. Gone are the questions around loyalty to one’s birth nation and community versus loyalty to an acquired social group like the regiment. Gone also is the question Scott poses in The Jewel in the Crown (the first of the quartet) about the personal and socio-political consequences that arise when individuals try to cross the racial divide. There are certainly no dramatic events in Staying On like the rape in Jewel in the Crown, or the massacre on the train in Division of the Spoils. In fact the main drama of Staying On is dispensed with in the very first page where we learn that Tusker has died while Lucy is at their hairdressers. And yet there is one theme that seems to tie all five novels together – the ability of human beings to connect with each other; whether across class or across the breakfast table. Lucy and Tusker have as much of a divide between them as Ronald Meyrick and Sarah Leighton or Daphne Manners and Hari Kumar experience in The Jewel.
The recognition that Scott earned with Staying On — most notably the Booker Prize in 1977 — is in stark contrast to the muted enthusiasm which greeted publication of the Raj Quartet and the accusations that he had written caricatures of the British in India and those who served them. Sadly he did not have long to enjoy the Booker success . In the year he won the award, he was diagnosed with cancer. He was too ill to attend the prize giving ceremony and died five months later.
If you want to learn more about Paul Scott, take a look at this Short Bibliography
After a week under cloudless blue skies and surrounded by Renaissance architecture, I returned to torrential rain and leaden skies on Saturday. With the forecast for even more of the same I expected to be writing this – my first Sunday Salon post – to the accompaniment of rain plopping onto the conservatory roof. But what a pleasant surprise – I’m sitting instead looking onto fluffy white clouds and listening to the birds chirrup. Sadly there is no Italian gelataria nearby otherwise the afternoon would be perfect.
Apart from marvelling at the splendours of Florence and Sienna, I also somehow managed to get through a fair amount of reading, ending with two unqualified successes, one ‘mediocre’ and one ‘never want to read this kind of book again’ …..
I took with me Staying On by Paul Scott, which won the Man Booker prize in 1977. I first read this novel about 15 years ago and thought at the time it was somewhat ‘light’ in comparison to the grand themes of the Raj Quartet series. A stage version featuring Nadim Sawalha, in one of the key roles, did nothing to change my view. But reading it afresh, I discovered that the comedy which had been played up fully on stage, masked the poignancy of a story of undeclared affection, loneliness and insecurity. I’ll post fuller comments on this later in the week………
My second novel also had a domestic setting but couldn’t have been more different than Staying On. I’ve never read any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels – and knew very little about her other than she wrote one of the early ‘definitive’ biographies of her friend Charlotte Bronte. But the interest spurred in her work through the BBC adaptation of Cranford, encouraged me to give her a go. The experiment wasn’t a resounding success. It felt a very skimpy and insubstantial read – not really a novel so much as a series of episodes. I kept waiting for a plot line to develop but just as something began to sound interesting, it was resolved within the next chapter. On screen, it would come across a bit like a soap opera with the audience as voyeurs looking through the windows of a bunch of spinsters who fret about candles and bonnets the correct form of address for a titled widow. I like my novels to have more substance so its unlikely I will find my way to Mrs Gaskell again.
A work colleague who is also an avid reader, recommended Tatiana de Rosnay to me. It wasn’t until I started reading Sarah’s Key that I remembered having seen the film version earlier this year. Even though the plot was therefore familiar, I found myself engrossed by this dual timeline story of one of the most horrific events in French history – the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. More than 13,000 Jewish men, children and women were removed from their homes by French police and held for days in a baking velodrome without food or water before being transported to labour and concentration camps. It’s an indication of how engrossing this story is, that I started reading Sarah’s Key as the flight took off and barely lifted my eyes from the page until we had touched down… I haven’t finished it yet but am hoping to sneak a few hours with it later on.
Monsters of Men
Just before my holiday started, the winner of this year’s Carnegie prize for children’s literature was announced as Patrick Ness. It was a remarkable achievement since he also won last year’s award with Monsters of Men. After three pages I experienced a sense of panic that somehow the download of Monsters of Men to my Kindle had gone wrong and I had only half the book. The story seemed to open in the middle of a battle with characters that were never described but appeared to have a back story. Only later having done some rapid web searching did I find that Ness’s book was the last in the Chaos Walking trilogy that featured the same characters and this action was a progression from number two in the set. The only reason I had this book on my list because I thought (mistakenly it now appears) that it was on the reading list for my upcoming children’s literature course. Having never managed to see the appeal of science fiction or fantasy I knew this would be a challenge. I struggled on for another 30 pages or so but abandoned it when I learned it’s the newest Ness book I should have been reading. What a relief – his new one A Monster Calls – is undoubtedly dark in tone since it’s about a young boy coming to term’s with his mother’s fatal illness, but at least it doesn’t feature space ships…..