scarecrow editorial

Sunday, March 19, 2006


10: Opening Paragraphs

Recent online musings concerning the value of opening paragraphs in Literature has led to further contemplation here at Scarecrow. I cannot stress enough the power that lies beneath a well-orchestrated opening paragraph [not to be confused with opening lines]. And, although it doesn’t happen enough, it is simply paramount. It is the legerdemain of great literature. It is the hook, the dazzling light that draws us closer, that pulls us into the text. And, to my sheer delight, most of the time we don’t even know it’s happening to us. Although it can’t happen without the presence of voice, it isn’t an event, or a milieu, or some dialogue that pulls us in - it is something much more esoteric; something beyond tonality, voice, scene and setting; it is an unfathomable undercurrent, and it lies beneath each word, each caesura, each sentence. It simply lurks, waiting for us.

Quite possibly the most remarkable opening paragraph I have read [and reread] for some considerable time is Lydia Davis’s translation of Maurice Blanchot’s haunting l’arret de mort [more commonly know to us over here as Death Sentence]. Please consider:

“These things happened to me in 1938. I feel the greatest uneasiness in speaking of them. I have already tried to put them into writing many times. If I have written books, it has been in the hope that they would put an end to it all. If I have written novels, they have come into being just as the words began to shrink back from the truth. I am not frightened of the truth. I am afraid not to tell a secret. But until now, words have been frailer and more cunning than I would have liked. I know this guile is a warning: it would be nobler to leave the truth in peace. It would be in the best interests of the truth to keep it hidden. But now I hope to be done with it soon. To be done with it is also noble and important.” [Pg 1].

The weight in this, on the surface rather simple, opening paragraph is quite overwhelming. [see Steve Mitchelmore] It speaks of the past, of something that has already happened, of something that haunts the narrator, of something that will not end. It speaks of strength, that in whatever has happened the narrator has still attempted to write it down. When he exclaims:“I am not frightened of the truth. I am afraid not to tell a secret.” Is this his strength? And if it is, what kind of strength is it? Read this paragraph again and let each word pull you closer. Consider Kafka’s Überschuß der Kräfte: is the strength in this opening paragraph the very fact that it has been written at all? Amidst all that has happened? His retelling? His suffering? Or is it something else? That unfathomable undercurrent lurking beneath each breath? Here, then, is its power. [See also Lars Iyer.]

Something similarly remarkable happens in the opening paragraph of Margeret Sayers Peden's translation of Juan Rulfo’s [this week’s Scarecrow cover-star] Pedro Páramo:

“I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him. I squeezed her hands as a sign I would do it. She was near death, and I would have promised her anything” [Pg 3].

The weight of this opening paragraph is not in the mother being close to death but in the squeezing of her hand, the contact, the touch. It is the regret, the passing and sense of life this gesture creates that is so powerful to us. It is something that touches us all. But, rather tellingly, she is not yet dead, she is still alive, waiting. Something else lurks beneath this paragraph. And just as Maurice Blanchot declared:

“There is in death, it would seem, something stronger than death: it is dying itself.” [The Writing of the Disaster].

It is this idea of waiting that resonates within us all. Even if this scenario is meaningless to you, there is something unfathomable in its directness, it reaches out to you as you skip along in life, it touches something in you, something you are/were unaware of. It gradually seeps into you, changing you from here onwards. Susan Sontag, in her revealing foreword, states:

“These sentences, of a bewitching concision and directness that pull the reader into a book, have a burnished, already-told quality, like the beginning of a fairy tale.” [Pg 1].

Here the nail, as rusty as some may see it, is hit firmly on the head. The point of great Literature, then, is to pull the reader into the book, to hoodwink them with understated, simple brilliance, with slight of hand; and I guess it is this “burnished, already-told quality” that Maurice Blanchot [like all writers] was hoping to illustrate.

It is why a book like Tony O’Neill’s Digging the Vein can fall into this category. A book that some may turn up their noses at [as we all do from time to time whilst skimming the surface], a book some may call cult or whatever, ignoring the fact that its surface is exactly that, a façade, and deeper, beneath what we ostensibly see first time around is something else, something powerful, something that pulls us closer even if its subject could not be more diametrically opposed to our very being. Please reread this opening paragraph and I defy anyone to tell me that there isn’t something unfathomable prowling underneath, something lurking, waiting. And if you still can’t find it I suggest you look again immediately, because it's still there, as it always was/is.

But then again why bother? Is any of the the above really worth it? Really? Should we really be worrying about the strength of an opening paragraph? Should we? Consider the following paragraph:

"The heroes we know from history or literature, whether they have shouted love, loneliness, anxiety of being, of non-being or revenge, whether they have fought against injustice or humiliation, we don't think these figures have ever been forced to the point of expressing - as their only and final claim - the profound sense of what it means to belong to the human race." [Avant Propos, L'Espece humaine (1947) Robert Antemle (private translation)].

Have we ever truly recovered from the one single true "event" that has shaped our lives? This is something, it seems, even Maurice Blanchot couldn't fathom.

Lee Rourke © 2006.

PS And, please, try not to confuse the above with the great Midnight Bell's views on the opening paragraph.


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