Friday, February 24, 2012

The start of a start.

What are some people's favorite openings to books. Not just the first sentence, because one sentence should never be able to tell you that much (unless it's a monster sentence). I have a few favorites. One of the best is Conrad's Victory. Not the first sentence but the first page. I'll put below the passage (well aware that my excerpts will pale in comparison. Though, in my opinion, it's safe to say anything these days would pale compared to old Conrad).

Here's the passage: (about half a page into the novel)

...but this could not be said of Axel Heyst. He was out of everybody's way, as if he were perched on the highest peak of the Himalayas, and in a sense as conspicuous. Every one in that part of the world knew of him, dwelling on his little island. An island is but the top of a mountain. Axel Heyst, perched on it immovably, was surrounded, instead of the imponderable stormy and transparent ocean of air merging into infinity, by a tepid, shallow sea; a passionless offshoot of the great waters which embrace the continents of this globe. His most frequent visitors were shadows, the shadows of clouds, relieving the monotony of the inanimate, brooding sunshine of the tropics. His nearest neighbor—I am speaking now of things showing some sort of animation—was an indolent volcano which smoked faintly all day with its head just above the northern horizon, and at night leveled at him, from amongst the clear stars, a dull red glow, expanding and collapsing spasmodically like the end of a gigantic cigar puffed at intermittently in the dark.

As with all great writing, one is hard-pressed to say what it is about this piece that strikes the reader so hard (I assume it strikes everyone as a fascinating piece of prose). Is it the command of the voice that sweeps from mere thoughts, to a striking visual of a perch on the Himalayas, to the talk of where in the tropics he is, and the shadows... christ what a magnificent observation... to the volcano to a cigar puffed away at, in the middle of the night, nothing around but a red glow.

The novel then goes on to dive into Axel's life and what he does, his motivations. To say the least, this is a magnificent novel, but this first page puts you on notice that there will be moments of brilliance to be dealt with... Another great part of this book has Axel talking to a misanthropic father who chides him for his beliefs.

To anyone out there who would look at Conrad as too dry or verbose a writer to have to read, I highly recommend this book. Though more individualistic than works like Secret Agent, Heart of Darkness, or Under Western Eyes, it still will be worth the time.

One thing I must say is that I do not find such prose in today's writing, or if I do it's in translated works. In other words, sometimes I wonder if the workshop mentality of keep away from verbose passages and use simple sentences (kill adjectives and adverbs!) as the only vehicle to a story is a loss for writing...

Thoughts? Objections?

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