Read-in-Progress: Orhan Pamuk, Snow

It probably just reminds me of Doctor Zhivago because, you know…snow. Or maybe it’s the political intrigue layered with an (apparently) doomed romance.

The prose hasn’t gotten any less clumsy, but at least that was evident from the start. And the shooting in the teahouse, with the follow-up “transcript,” is a tour de force. Anyway, I have to finish Snow as part of my goal of reading a book by every Nobel-prize-winning author. (Which isn’t going to be easy – when’s the last time you saw a Sully Prudhomme translation in the rack by the checkout lane?)

Postscript: here’s a Sully Prudhomme translation. It looks like the translator was Google. Ugh.

The Centennial: November 17, 1914

“I observe an honorable member reading a newspaper, which is a disorderly practice not allowed in the House.”

Rules of decorum had to be obeyed, but Eran couldn’t blame his host for wanting a distraction. The Goat, leaving aside his personal deficiencies and tiresome rhetoric, had an insufferable reedy voice that sounded nasal even though it wasn’t. He had been speaking for more than two hours. He estimated that Britain was three hundred million pounds in the hole from the war. He would tax tea to extract revenue from the teetotalers (and the beer drinkers, someone else insisted). He had appealed to the good name of Sir John French, future Earl of Ypres. He sought a war loan. The host had only been able to tolerate this for so long.

Eran didn’t even try to follow the speech. Winter weather had arrived with a vengeance, and already cabin fever was in full cry. Eran’s discussions of Reagan and Gorbachev were derailed by students’ sharing travel plans. The seminars he attended were listless and silent. Even Mildred had cracked, cancelling her class for the week of Thanksgiving and booking her flight to California for immediately after Stefan’s class on Monday afternoon. Then Stefan cancelled class, and Mildred had promptly rebooked for Saturday morning. “I’ll take an extra couple days of my dad badmouthing my mom if it means an extra couple days of wearing shorts,” she said, unashamed.

Eran would be at his parents’ house. Just the three of them, as Ian and Cam were visiting her parents. It was sure to be a long weekend in Highland Park; Eran’s mother and father had been asking about the visions so persistently that Eran had learned to lie.

He didn’t mind. Since the killing in the copse, he didn’t mind a lot of things. Killing people was fun when it was GTA. When it was a scared teenager trench-knifing another scared teenager out of desperation, it was unbelievable and true. He saw it over and over, awake or in nightmares. It was the real war. Lloyd George’s pontificating about taxes and revenues was just the mark of an old man trying to feel important.

Lloyd George was gone. Eran was alone in Cup-Cake. Outside, in the cold, a train howled past, half-empty. He had finished whatever he was drinking – he forgot what he had ordered – and he had no reason to stay. He stayed.

November 17, 1914: David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, proposes a war budget before the House of Commons.

First Words in World Literature

The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.

Orhan Pamuk, Snow (2002)

Openers are tough. I skip dialogue (sorry, Elmore Leonard) and long chunks of description, but I always read the first and last paragraphs of a novel. I love looking at the strategies authors use to open things up. Do you use a thematic opening statement (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”)? Do you drop right into the action (“Selden paused in surprise”)? Do you plug into the oral tradition (“I sing of arms and a man”)?

Snow is a read-in-progress – as in, I’ve progressed two pages – and I’m going to keep plugging, but I was put off immediately. There’s really no reason for that first sentence to exist. The second sentence allows the title drop without draping it in gaudy pennants, and the following paragraph establishes that the man is on a bus. The repetition of “The silence of snow” is a cheap trick for reinforcing importance. Edit! Efficiency!

Thinking about this made me turn my attention to other openers, famous or otherwise. Which see:

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Probably one of the three most famous openings in English literature (the others being A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick). Also a marvel of efficiency. This is the thematic-statement strategy: a single-sentence satirical bomb laying out the theme of the book. Austen elaborates in an equally brief second paragraph, and then gets right into the matrimonial operations of the Bennets. The pinnacle.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s/Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

Rowling is on record that this first chapter was tough to write, and hoo boy does it show. There’s nothing wrong with this paragraph, exactly, but it reads as the opener for a Roald Dahl knockoff and gives no hint of what the series is going to become. The themes are there – normalcy, prejudice, soon-to-be-upended expectations – but the scope isn’t.

 

The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

Stephen King, It (1986)

Validates the Book-a-Minute version of Stephen King. He invokes the oral tradition with a present narrator, which is appropriate given that King works in the medium of campfire tales. It’s that juxtaposition between characters doing the same random crap that readers would, and malevolent cosmic forces looking to destroy the world, that makes King’s work so effective.

 

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe, nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber 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.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1947)

Probably the finest piece of fiction American letters has ever produced. Also has one of my favorite closing lines in the world. I love this opening because Ellison just insists on his central conceit right off the bat: here’s what we’re going to talk about; I know it’s weird; get on board. Ellison takes longer to lay out his theme than Austen did, but after all, this isn’t a truth that’s universally acknowledged.

 

He judged men and he grew apples and it was a perilous autumn for both.

W. D. Wetherell, A Century of November (2004)

Wetherell is one of my favorite contemporary authors, but not someone I see talked about a lot. It’s a shame. I cheated here by quoting just the first sentence of a longish paragraph, in which Wetherell elaborates about the apples (the second paragraph is about the men), but it seems effective. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the entire mood of a novel (it’s about the period immediately after Armistice Day in 1918) evoked so effectively in fifteen words.

 

Every morning on his way to work, Gortvai – a dark-haired young man living in Budapest in the early Fifties of the twentieth century – walked down the Danube Promenade. At the Concert Hall he would accelerate his pace so as to arrive at his office in five precisely calculated minutes. Nor was he ever late, not once in three years; Gortvai was appreciated for his punctuality.

Tamás AczélThe Ice Age (1965)

My favorite novel of the Second World (yes, I do have one) for the way it likens life in a Communist bureaucracy to a neverending nervous breakdown. Aczél kicks it off with a brief character sketch, another common opening strategy that I tend to associate with the nineteenth century. Between the concrete location in 1950s Hungary and the nod to Gortvai’s absurd punctuality, you can kind of see where it’s going.

One more:

 

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)

Well, it’s an accurate portrait of the artist as an old crank.

The Centennial: November 11, 1914

From behind the bush, he could see the tiny clearing where they had received their cocoa rations two days ago. He had come to know this tiny patch of ground as if it were a resort copse he had discovered on holiday as a child. Just outside Gheluvelt, he was waiting.

He was deaf. He (Eran) thought he should be listening for crunching leaves, snapping twigs, or a video-game comrade shouting “A cunning trap!” But a morning of artillery fire stood between his host and hearing anything for the rest of the day.

It had to be a mirage because it was what he had been expecting. A small German party skulked into the clearing. He should have leapt into action, he knew. His sergeant should have been exhorting him. (Right – deaf.) He was alone. He was responsible for his own actions.

He let the Germans file away. They brushed past the leaves not two feet from him, heading directly toward an Ox-Bucks pocket that, the host knew, would wipe them out.It wouldn’t be a fair fight.

The host had just disconcealed himself from the brush when a laggard German appeared. Each pulled up short. They shared a long soundless moment, both deaf from the artillery, neither trying to speak. In Eran’s eyes, the German was young, lost, tired, and scared, and sure to surrender or bolt.

Instead he raised his gun.

The host had a thought that Eran could only interpret so: Oh. I guess I had better kill him.

Eran would have liked to say that he was only along for the ride. That he had been delivered into the host at the least opportune moment. That his hands were still, blameless. But he plunged his trench knife into the German’s chest.

The German, eyes moonlike and pleading, folded.

Again Eran was shaking. Before his eyes swam a map of the First Ypres trenchline. His coffee still steamed, fogging the window of his cold carrel, blurring the new snow and ice outside. The first cold, lonely day of the Minnesota winter.

It had been a fucking accident.

November 11, 1914: As First Ypres comes to a close, the Germans launch an assault at the Ypres-Menin road near Gheluvelt. Though some German bands breach the British lines, the attack was ultimately unsuccessful.

Detail drawn from E. D. Swinton’s account.

The Centennial: November 7, 1914

“Look, Eran, come to Hawaii,” Ian said. “Mom and Dad won’t mind paying, and Cam and I’ll have a better time if you’re there.”

Eran shook his head. “I’m tired of feeling like the alcoholic uncle you invite to Thanksgiving out of pity. I don’t want you guys to be covering my shit all the time.”

“Is that why you’re letting me pay for dinner?”

Eran picked a piece of eggplant off his Borgata. “Shut up.”

The first week of real fall – leaves down, pane-rattling gusts, gloom, drizzle, dark evenings – had ended. Cam was in Milwaukee visiting her parents, who insisted on face time with her baby bump. Ian had wanted to go out with, he said, someone who wasn’t a co-worker and didn’t want to go crazy. Thus the charity dinner at Punch.

“Look, whatever’s going on in your head is the best scam ever. As long as they still think you’re seeing things, Mom and Dad’ll cough up the parental care nonstop. You could probably get a new car out of them.”

“If I did, it’d just be a money-saving move on their part.” Eran’s 1994 Camry had just needed an ignition repair to the tune of $995. His parents had “chipped in” (read: paid).

“Those visions – are they still happening all the time?”

“Are you interested?” As always at Punch, Eran pretended he could eat his pizza like a Little Caesars slice, only to have the mozzarella and toppings slide back onto the pan.

“It’s more interesting than talking about the regional strategy meetings I go to.”

“Hmm. Well, yeah, they’re once a week-ish. I had one this morning.”

“Are they always in the morning?”

“No. And they don’t always match the time of the original event. Although it’s hard enough to tell whether the day is right, if I’m converting from the Julian calendar.”

“Pure gibberish to me.”  Ian didn’t notice the olive oil dribbling onto his work shirt, an expensive Oxford in the male-standard light blue. “Was it violent?”

“Pretty mild, really. It was in China. The Germans were surrendering to the Japanese.” Eran’s host had been weary after a long fight the night before. The Germans were lightly armed compared to the Japanese; they were besieged; they had run out of artillery ammunition; they had no hope of holding out. He remembered feeling very tired, a precursor, he thought, to the war-weariness he might absorb from trench troops as the years went on. The announcement had brought a sense of relief, which his host had kept to himself. No need to lower morale. They would all be interned or executed, surely.

“Wrong war.”

“No, it was for real. Remember when you had a Tsingtao at Grand Szechuan a few weeks ago? The brewery was founded by German colonists just after 1900 or something.”

“I guess I was wrong. History is relevant.” Ian spotted the oil spots. “Damn. New shirt.”

“Mine are all from Goodwill, dude. They come pre-spotted.”

November 7, 1914: Following the Siege of Tsingtao (undertaken by the Japanese at the request of the British), the German garrison of the Kiautschou Bay concession in China surrenders.

The Centennial: October 31, 1914

Living in an apartment, Eran didn’t ordinarily have trick-or-treaters. If it were a warm October night and his windows were open, he might hear children barging through dead leaves to the houses across the street. Otherwise, he’d cue up a MST3k-worthy horror bomb and relax with a bowl of popcorn. But his parents, still making noises about his mental state, had asked him to help them hand out candy. “It’ll be good for you,” his mother had said, tentatively, as if suggesting a sponge bath to a lycanthrope. Ian and Cam would be there for conversation, and anyway it was Friday night. So he went.

“Does your department do anything? Like an office party?” Cam asked. They had Prom Night (the original JLC version) playing for background noise. As one, Cam, Ian, and Eran had vetoed the suggestion of Eran’s mother: Practical Magic.

“Most of the students are younger. Like Mildred, my new mentee? She and the other first-years were doing something at First Ave.”

“But didn’t you do something last year?”

“Yeah, with Kyle. But he’s either in rehab or on the psych ward. Stefan isn’t telling.”

“What about all your college friends?”

“What about them?” Cam was putting a salty finger on an open sore. Eran’s college friends had moved out of state, trending for DC, NYC, LA, San Fran, or (for the less ambitious among them) Chicago, Portland, or Austin. He was the only one of his Minnesota-bred circle who had stuck around. And, judging by his Facebook and LinkedIn connections, he was the only one of his circle who had been through unemployment or a euphemistic “career change.” They were buying homes and having children. He was borrowing his parents’ money for travel funding. So they had fallen out of touch. In turn, he had made friends at work, only to lose touch with them (save for an occasional “Found work yet?” text) when the org died.

“Sore subject? Sorry. You know my dad went through rounds of unemployment. He always said it sucked.” She paused, and caught his face. “I guess it’s not quite the same when you’re a CEO.”

“It’s all right.” It was, because the doorbell rang. He claimed it before his parents could. Grabbing the bowl of Snickers and Milky Ways, he opened the door and

All Hallows’ Eve. He (a Declan) remembered tying latches on this day as a boy. But there wasn’t going to be any of that.

In the line, they were talking about the flood to the north. Something about opening the weirs. “Now the Germans can’t get through,” someone was saying, and someone replied, “But now they don’t need all those soldiers up there.”

Eran remembered that First Ypres had lasted for weeks, erupting in fits. He seemed to be in the same place that he had visited last week. Everything was still sodden, and unbearably quiet. It was night. Nerves felt high – Declan’s were, at any rate.

Crash – bang – boom. (The title of a Roxette album – idiotic thought.) “We’re outnumbered!” someone shouted. There weren’t many of them – six hundred, Declan had heard, bringing to mind (unfortunately) the Tennyson. Waves of men around him left their positions, descending the ridge. They couldn’t hold. Declan, indecisive, wanted to hold his position and distinguish himself – wanted to join his comrades in arms – wanted, more than either, to hide and sleep. Eran wished he could make his host’s legs move. But no need: Declan joined the rush, fully intending, Eran thought, to regroup as soon as suitable ground appeared.

dropped handfuls of bars into bags held by commandos, ninjas, that princess from Frozen. “Merry Christmas,” he said without thinking, and closed the door.

Ian, seeing his face, took the bowl from him. “Another one?”

“Not so intense.”

“They haven’t gone away?”

“No.”

“Are you okay?”

“I am for now,” he said. “Nobody died.”

Ian appraised him, then shrugged. “Then let’s go watch Jamie Lee Curtis live.”

October 31, 1914: First Ypres continues. Following the arrival of reinforcements from the north, where the flooding triggered by the Belgians prevented an advance, German cavalry begins another push by driving a light British force from Messines Ridge south of Ypres.

Abandonment Issues: A.C.O.D.

Adam Scott, Amy Poehler, Catherine O’Hara, Jane Lynch: I have every reason in the world to like A.C.O.D. But the editing sucks! In mere minutes there are two scenes that end on cliffhanger lines and cut to another setup that’s cued by jaunty music. You cut the scene of Adam Scott reading in the bookstore by having him walk into the restaurant with the book in his hand, and you eliminate his meeting with his mother by having her join him at the restaurant. It’s not hard! Figure it out!

Visual isn’t my medium (as you can tell from the imagery on this blog. “What imagery?” Exactly), so I give up on movies and TV pretty easily. But this is just unforgivably lazy.