Friday, August 25, 2006

Old Beginnings 8

Evil Editor was accused of lacking class, and as penance, I've decided to class up today's Old Beginnings. We can all use a little culture every month or so. So, put on your best dress or your tux, pour yourself a cup of tea, and appreciate these five beginnings to novels by authors who've won the Nobel Prize in Literature in the 2000's. Sources are posted at the bottom.

1. For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, slides into bed beside him. "Have you missed me?" she asks. "I miss you all the time," he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.

Soraya is tall and slim, with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically he is old enough to be her father; but then, technically, one can be a father at twelve. He has been on her books for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In the desert of the week Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et volupté.

2. Let us call our man, the hero of this story, Kingbitter. We imagine a man, and a name to go with him. Or conversely, let us imagine the name, and the man to go with it. Though this may all be avoided anyway since our man, the hero of this story, really is called Kingbitter.

Even his father was already called that.

His grandfather too.

Kingbitter was accordingly registered on his birth certificate under the name Kingbitter: that, therefore, is the reality, on which--reality, that is to say--Kingbitter did not set too much store nowadays. Nowadays--a late year of the passing millennium, in the early spring of, let us say, 1999, on a sunny morning at that--reality had become a problematic concept for Kingbitter, but, more serious still, a problematic state. A state from which, on the report of Kingbitter's most private feelings, it was reality above all that was lacking. If he were in some way compelled to make use of the word, Kingbitter invariably added "so-called reality." That, however, was a very meager satisfaction; nor indeed did it satisfy Kingbitter.

3. Shortly before he was born there had been another quarrel between Mr. Biswas's mother Bipti and his father Raghu, and Bipti had taken her three children and walked all the way in the hot sun to the village where her mother Bissoondaye lived. There Bipti had cried and told the old story of Raghu's miserliness: how he kept a check on every cent he gave her, counted every biscuit in the tin, and how he would walk ten miles rather than pay a cart a penny.

Bipti's father, futile with asthma, propped himself up on his string bed and said, as he always did on unhappy occasions, "Fate. There is nothing we can do about it."

No one paid him any attention. Fate had brought him from India to the sugar-estate, aged him quickly and left him to die in a crumbling mud hut in the swamplands; yet he spoke of Fate often and affectionately, as though, merely by surviving, he had been particularly favoured.

4. The old bus is a city reject. After shaking in it for twelve hours on the potholed highway since early morning, you arrive in this mountain county town in the South.

In the bus station, which is littered with ice-block wrappers and sugar cane scraps, you stand with your backpack and a bag and look around for a while. People are getting off the bus or walking past, men humping sacks and women carrying babies. A crowd of youths, unhampered by sacks or baskets, have their hands free. They take sunflower seeds out of their pockets, toss them one at a time into their mouths and spit out the shells. With a loud crack the kernels are expertly eaten. To be leisurely and carefree is endemic to the place. They are locals and life has made them like this, they have been here for many generations and you wouldn't need to go looking anywhere else for them. The earliest to leave the place traveled by river in black canopy boats and overland in hired carts, or by foot if they didn't have the money. Of course at that time there were no buses and no bus stations.

5. The piano teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother. The baby was born after long and difficult years of marriage. Her father promptly left, passing the torch to his daughter. Erika entered, her father exited. Eventually, Erika learned how to move swiftly. She had to. Now she bursts into the apartment like a swarm of autumn leaves, hoping to get to her room without being seen. But her mother looms before her, confronts her. She puts Erika against the wall, under interrogation – inquisitor and executioner in one, unanimously recognized as Mother by the State and by the Family. She investigates: Why has Erika come home so late?

Old Beginnings 8

1. Disgrace....J.M. Coetzee
2. Liquidation....Imre Kertesz
3. A House for Mr. Biswas....V.S. Naipaul
4. Soul Mountain....Gao Xingjian
5. The Piano Teacher....Elfriede Jelinek


Stacia said...

1. Absolutely.

2. Absolutely.

3. Depends on what it's about. This reminded me of the opening of Brick Lane (hey it might be the opening of Brick Lane, I don't recall), which I found incredibly dull.

4. Again, depends on the back cover.

5. After #3 this was my least favorite, but it reads like the story to come could be pretty involving, so I'd keep going.

Beth said...

Judging by these, one might assume the Nobel prize committee has its collective brain stuffed up a dark, moist, and anatomically unmentionable place.

Or that they suffer severely from ENC (Emperor's New Clothes) syndrome. Myself, I'm looking at the emperor and thinking he's nekkid.

But. Obviously one can't judge an entire book on the opening sentences (though one can get a pretty good idea of what the writing's going to be like for the next few hundred pages), and doubtless the committee found something deep and meaningful (to them, at least) in these stories.

I daresay, though, that they'll not be remembered next decade, much less next century. Literature that endures tends to be good stories well told. The stories here might be good, but I take leave to doubt that they're going to be well told. At least, not by my definition of well told.

#1. This is the best of a sorry lot. Although I found myself mentally revising the first sentence (not a good sign) to cure it of its plague of commas, this is at least clear and straightforward. I would probably read a little further to see if an actual conflict is introduced.

#2. You've got to be kidding. This is just painful. How did this rambling, boring, wordy, terminally redundant opening ever get past an editor to win the most prestigious (and one begins to wonder why it's so prestigious) prize in literature?

#3. This is going to be a depressing story about depressing people. I can just tell. I'll pass.

#4. Second person? Oh please spare us. Unless...could it be a choose-your-own-adventure?

We should be so lucky, but I kinda doubt it.

#5. The worst of the worst, even topping #2 (though barely), and that's going some. I think of no possible reason why anyone would adopt this writing style. If it's natural, then the author needs to learn to write properly; if it's affected, then I am even more convinced that MFA programs have probably ruined more good writers than we know. It's a tragedy, really. Thank goodness I stopped with a degree in English Lit and resisted my professor's cajoling ("You'd be nuts not to do it," he said) to continue down the path of destruction. Clearly, he was a minion of the Evil One. (I hasten to add, Not you, EE.)

Anonymous said...

Clearly I know nothing of good literature, because these look like evidence that nobody edits Nobel Prize-winning authors.

1. Best of the lot. Not sure yet why I should keep reading, but at least it seems competent. (Would have liked more about the breasts, though.)

2. Whoa. That Abraham Lincoln query doesn't look so bad now, does it?

3. Nothing particularly interesting here until the last paragraph. Confusing jump between first and second paras - first is Bipti at her mother's, second is back at home with Raghu; took me two tries to get that.

4. Hmmm... Lot of words. Strange digression at the end. No sense that anything is about to happen. Yawn...

5. This is awful - is it translated, from German perhaps? [German novels must have really low wordcounts. I wonder where the spacebar is on a German keyboard; up in the corner, maybe, where mine has a tilde?]

Think I'll go find that one with the driver/bodyguard instead.

Anonymous said...

Erk; so if I don't like these, I'm an embarrassing rube? A slack-jawed literary heathen? The Nobel committee will come around and whack me on the forehead with a stamp that reads, "idgit"?

*hangs head in shame* I really don't like these.

Anonymous said...

Were you accused of lacking class because of the old beginnings on romance novels?

Romance novels are like Southern fried chicken. Of course there's a healthier way to eat chicken, but who wants to?

Anonymous said...

1. Yes i would keep reading. I dont have a problem with the commas. Unlike some people, I guess I'm not biased againts literature.

2. Slam the book closed and put it back on the shelf. I hate meta-fiction.

3. I would read this. It strikes me as the beginning of a wonderful, spiritual Indian novel, where people talk about Fate and things like that. Where they invoke family lore into every discussion.

4. I like the picture this creates, but unfortunately i am allergic to second person accounts.

5. Don't know yet. I would probably give it another paragraph. I dont mind the short sentences. After all, Erika moves fast, like a whirlwind; it follows then that short, fast sentences would describe her best.

I'm struck by the implication of reverse snobbism. Do you hate these openings precisely because they are Nobel prize winners and can therefore not be good? I did finish my degree in Literature and do not consider it an evil path. I am a writer and I am very well aware that while I might spin a good yarn and tell a great tale, I will never approach the level of beauty some of these writers achieve. Literature is about the whole picture, not just about the opening paragraph.

There are different levels of writing. There's fast food, mainstream writing which satisfies your hunger just as well and some of it is darn good. I myself like romance novels, good ones, much as i like the philly cheesesteak sandwhich at Mickey D's.

There is literature, which is like haute cuisine. A little goes a long way and the way it looks is as important as the way it tastes. Unusual ingredients are used in strange combinations and we might balk against trying something "different." But if we give it a chance, and try it with an open mind, we might have to admit that Mickey D's is okay but it's not exactly good food.

Evil Editor said...

Were you accused of lacking class because of the old beginnings on romance novels?

Nothing like that. A crack I made about Natalie Wood's affairs in the Dennis Hopper Face-Lift. True, I didn't name names, as Natalie's sister Lana did in her book Natalie, and I doubt I'd have been taken to task for a crack about JFK's affairs, or Thomas Jefferson's or Monica Lewinsky's, but . . .

Anonymous said...

1. Nah.
2. Nope.
3. Yup. Reminds me of Rudyard Kipling. Or could it be Yann Martel?
4. South America? Sounds interesting. A lovely snapshot of village life.
5. A bit jarring to read, but I'm curious.

Feisty said...

I'm going to be contrary and say that I like them all except the Indian one. But, I was thinking as I read it if it would measure up to The Pearl.

I wouldn't mind trying any of these really. I do like literature. And I'm not from the school of action adventure starts or the school of big hooks. Yeah, I know, I'm old fashioned. (I happen to write like that because I HAVE to, not because I want to.)

I like language. I also like something that makes me think. I like deep stories (I'm not saying I think those all are, because I have no idea what they are.) And I like subtlety.

I don't know why everyone wants to kill literature and replace it with stories. But I've always been a rebel, so I guess I will remain that way.

Macuquinas d' Oro said...

Thank you for the Naipaul and the Coetzee. I didn't know the South African's work, but now we've been introduced.
As for 2, 4, and 5, part of the problem, I assume, is that we are reading translations. From Hungarian (2)? From Chinese (4)? From German (5)? I would like to see another translation of 2 and 4. The translator was been more skilful and successful, I think, with Jelinck (5).

Dave Fragments said...

I recently read an article stating that many writers named Cormac McCarthy as the best writer's writer.

I tried to read Blood Meridian and it is a BEASTLY style. I'm in three chapters and there have been massacres, scalpings, killings, gutting, death, dismemberments, evisceration, doudle-crossings, vomit, and gangrene.

But, I like the way the man tells a story. It makes my little heart go pitter pat.

I liked these opening as stories, as possibilities, as adventure and not as writing.

Beth said...

marie-anne said...I'm struck by the implication of reverse snobbism. Do you hate these openings precisely because they are Nobel prize winners and can therefore not be good?

Speaking for myself, I dislike these openings because I think they're poorly written and/or pretentious and affected, and therefore not good. When EE mentioned they Nobel winners, I was actually hopeful of reading something beautiful or evocative or in some way elevated above the ordinary. I love language and old literature, but I'm not fond (to put it politely) of modern literary trends in writing.

I didn't realize some of these were translations, which might account for some of the bad writing; cultural differences might as well.

Knowing that does not tempt me to read them, though.

(Word verification keeps telling me I have to type the letters I see--which I do, except that what I see is apparently not what's written, at least half the time. Anyone else have trouble with that?)

Anonymous said...

#1 - I liked the first line, the whole thing is well written and readable, but so far no intrigue or any emotional engagement
#2 - No, I just can't read it, too much work. "Reality" - a snore.
#3 - Yes!
#4 - Powerful writing, though I might get tired of second person after a while
#5 - Interesting characters, but some of the writing felt clumsy

HawkOwl said...

1. No, but I liked the nod to Beaudelaire.

2. Hell no. How pretentious can you be? That's the thing with literary prizes. A lot of it is really full of itself.

3. Definitely. Novels set in India or thereabouts always tend to amuse me.

4. Hell no. Not only is there too much attention to the useless detail, but I hate being told what I'm doing. (Although, it would be something else if the book told me what I was doing, and it really was what I'm doing. That would be creepy yet interesting.)

5. No. Too much talk. I do get the "whirlwind" image, but I don't care for it.

Kathleen said...

#1 is awesome.

#2 boring.

#3. Not as much of a grabber as #1, but I would keep reading. It sets the scene and story up nicely.

#4. not incredibly interesting to me, but the voice and tense are different, so I would keep going to see if the story could sustain itself.

#5 - a nice attempt with the present tense, and I like the passing the torch imagery, but overall I think it is boring.

Anonymous said...

I didn't care for any of these. But then again, I don't read fiction so that I have to work. I read fiction strictly for escapism.

pacatrue said...

Like many of the commenters, I liked #1, couldn't make myself read all of #2 as it was horrible boring, thought #3 could be interesting, then came #4. The first time I read this I just couldn't get a handle on it. It seemed like a random collection of images. Then I went to see that it was Gao's Soul Mountain, which I have always intended to read but never gotten around to.

I went back and re-read #4 and I suddenly liked it. Now that I knew it was China, I could place everything that was happening. I only spent a few months in China myself, traveling on trains and studying, but after knowing the basic location the writing seemed terribly vivid, because I can remember the sunflower seeds and the men carrying packs and everything. Apparently, I needed some point of reference, in this case China was enough, to ground it all. After that, I was good. The first time I was just lost.

Anonymous said...

I've read #1.

#2 does not strike me as a promising beginning.

The others I would certainly read, based on their openings. The Naipaul especially.

Anonymous said...

Amazing. Reading through this comment trail, I thought I was still on the Guess the Plot for "Over Their Heads". I guess the key to this is that the Nobel Prize is an international award. Out there, you know, where language and literature have not been reduced to the verbal equivalent of a Pop Tart, people do appreciate this level of artistry.

Each one of these openings is masterful and wel-deserved of its award. It's the kind of writing that I, no more than a moderately educated individual, can appreciate, like the viewing of a fine portrait or the drinking of a superb claret.

I hadn't previously heard of any one of these, but now I feel compelled to seek them out and add them to my bookshelf.

EE - kudos and thanks to you for sharing and helping us see the light of day.

McKoala said...

I always drink tea, does that automatically make me cultured?

1. Yes, this is great - good writing although those commas needed a trim, interesting situation - I'd like to know how he's solving the other problems that come along with divorce and being fifty-two.

2. Maybe. Wow this one's annoying. Probably not actually. Too annoyed.

3. Yes, I like this.

4. No. Present tense, second person, pile up of description. I'm stopping right here.

5. Maybe. Paragraphs!!!

Anonymous said...

If I'd had some reason to pick up #1 I would keep reading, at least for a while; it moves along smoothly. I wouldn't pick it up based on this sample, though.

#2 reminds me of Calvino, but not in a good way--the Calvino of _If on a winter's night a traveller_ which was just an intense experience in frustration from one end to another. I'll pass.

I might continue reading #3, but the suggestion that the whole book will be flavored with this sort of despair and weary futility does not attract me.

Given how difficult second person is to make work, #4 isn't half bad and I might read on a while, but I have trouble imagining being able to tolerate it at novel length. Then again, maybe this is prologue and it settles into something else. (If it were a submission to an agent or editor, and it really did shift out of second person, I'd strongly recommend sending pages from the non-second part!)

Yikes, I loathed #5. You couldn't make me read any more of this. It reminded me a lot of the Salinger opening from a few rounds ago, except it became unpleasant immediately rather than luring me in first.

I am too old to worry about whether my tastes will be seen as reverse snobbery, or regular snobbery for that matter; I know what I like, and won't try to defend it. There's nothing here I liked very much.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that all of them keep the reader at a distance. One may be intrigued - as I was with the Coetzee (1) and the Jelinek (5) but none of them aim to engage the reader with first bite. No characters walk off the page, either.

I wonder if contemporary literary fiction needs a longer runway than either old literary fiction or modern genre fiction?

I think poor old Kurtesz (2) probably suffers from acute translated joke syndrome. I bet it's a riot in Hungarian.

Anonymous said...

Comments first (reading other comments later).

1. A divorced man of 52 has a weekly date with a prostitute. I should be interested because...?
That would be no.

2. I like the name Kingbitter. He's having trouble with reality. I would read on. But if things continued in this round-about way, I'd stop.

3. The B's have it. A little hard to keep track. But I like it, like fate and survival and the cultural context.

4. I like the idea of a jouncy bus ride and a place where people are relaxed. I don't like the use of "you" or the present tense. I might read on, but I might not. I have other books I'm eager to get to.

5. First the piano teacher bursts in, then she's Erica, then she's a little child, then she bursts in again into an autumn room and then Mom is the inquisitor. I like Mom as the inquisitor--tells me there's going to be conflict. But I'm not impressed.

Is this literary writing? I'm not impressed with any of these. Oh well, the tea was delightful.

HawkOwl said...

Anonymous 12:02 AM - the funny thing is that your writing is also ineffective yet pretentious.

There is nothing intrinsically superior in trying to use language as art, and I don't think that's what the Nobel committee looks for. Knowing what the Nobel prizes stand for, I suspect they're looking for an intelligent reflection on the human condition, not for linguistic furbelows.

Anonymous said...

Checking dictionary: furbelow, furbelow-ah yes. found it.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:02

Hmm. A fine portrait; a superb claret; the seeking out of these (hitherto unheard of) Nobel prize winners to put on the bookshelf...

I think I detect the faint scent of satire in that claret; but forgive me if I am wrong - in which case, I do hope your gout improves...

Anonymous said...

On some of the other sets of old beginnings, I felt comfortable giving my initial, untutored reaction to the opening passages. But with these I wanted to know more about the stories before I judged them.

These are like modern art, where you have to have studied the subject before you can appreciate it; there's no "I know what I like" opportunity.

After reading summaries of all the novels, I can see why they won Nobel prizes. Each story illuminates some complicated, twisty side of human nature -- things too complicated to be introduced by a nice, punchy opening that sums everything up quickly.

That said, would I read any of them? Probably not. I admire them, but none of them sound like the kind of story that would cheer me up at the end of a busy day.


none said...

Go back to being unclassy, EE! (not that I think you are)

1. No. A man who uses whores and an author who pretends it's "making love". Not something I want to read.

2. No. I didn't even finish reading the extract. Hate self-conscious writing.

3. Maybe. It's modestly interesting.

4. No. Second person has to be done really well to draw me in; this didn't.

5. No. "absolute speed demon"? What does that even mean?

Anonymous said...

1. yes
2. no...I kept wanting to read the character's name as Kingbiter, which amused me at least.
3. yes
4. yes
5. no

Isn't the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded for a body of work? Thus some of these authors might have better openings elsewhere.

none said...

Nobel Prizes aren't awarded for individual novels, but for a body of work.