Yesterday my memory was drawn back to the lovely Scottish city of Edinburgh, whose acquaintance I first made in the winter of 1952-3, drawn back through the agency of a tiny little book, seven inches by four and a half, with a faded green leather cover, a book I bought in one of the marvellous second-hand Edinburgh bookshops of that era, a book that, along with its two brothers bought at the same time, has accompanied me through life every inch of my way as I have circumnavigated the globe several times since that date.
This book came to my attention after lying for years unregarded in my shelves, because, having just completed the reading for the second time of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (about which my select little group of readers may feel they have already heard enough), I began to wonder if any other Dickens novels, of which I once had a goodly selection, had survived my intensive cleaning out of the several thousand books I jettisoned before making the move from Ottawa back to Montreal six years ago.
Thinking about this after going to bed early last night, I arose, stepped over the recumbent form of my eldest son Ben, visiting me from Texas, who had relapsed into a well-earned sleep on the mattress I keep tucked under my desk against the occasional visits of my three absent children. The fourth, Thom, a screenwriter, lives in Montreal, and serves the indispensible additional function of being my right-hand man and staff, watching over me, usually from a respectful distance, making sure that I neither feel unduly crowded, nor that I might suddenly embark on some madcap ninety-year-old adventure that might end with me either in hospital or in the morgue.
I say Ben’s sleep was well-earned, because on his way to my apartment he had stopped off in Toronto, where, as a member of the rock and roll band Big Sugar, he had taken part only the night before in a memorable concert before 1,500 enthusiastic fans which was designed as a memorial for the band’s recently deceased bass player, Garry Lowe, a man who was well-known and well-loved across the rock and roll world, to which he brought his own individual style as a reggae-inspired, Rastafarian Jamaican. Gordie Johnson, leader of the band and his wife Alex, had arranged for more than 40 rock practitioners who had known Lowe across the years, to converge at the Danforth Music Hall to play a concert in his memory. That the concert was a huge success was attested to yesterday by an outbreak on Facebook of enthsuaistic encomia by fans and musicians alike, and my son, who is now playing the bass role vacated by Garry, arrived at my place in a state of exalted exhaustion that I could well understand. For my son, a highlight of the concert had been that two rap groups famous across the north of the continent, Maestro Fresh West and Dream Warriors, had nervously performed, accompanied not by canned music, but for the first time with a real live band, a transition they achieved with spectacular success.
Anyway, to get back to the little book, I stepped over Ben’s sleeping form into a cubbyhole at the back of my apartment into which for six years I have been cramming so much stuff that it reminds me of Robert Benchley’s apartment in the 1930s, about which he wrote that it had became so crammed with chipped cornices off the old Post Office, abandoned window frames, old shoes, disused rocking horses, and so on, that eventually the apartment was “searched by a team from the Missing Persons Bureau, but all they found were three Chinese labourers.”
Well, my cubbyhole may be deficient in Chinese labourers, but I did find three precious little books, Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas Nickelby, and A Tale of Two Cities, being three of seventeen volumes called The Oxford India Paper Dickens, Complete Edition with Illustrations by Cruickshank, Phiz, etc, and published at an undisclosed date by Chapman and Hall, and Henry Froude, of London, and the Oxford University Press, American branch, of New York. The two major novels run to 959 and 961 pages respectively, and are so tightly packed on such thin sheets that I could hold all three books comfortably in my hand, but with the cocomitant disadvantage, as I soon discovered, that I find it extremely difficult and time-consuming to separate the closely-packed super-thin pages.
This morning I awoke at around 2 am, got up, washed my face and bleary eyes with hot water, and began to try to read Martin Chuzzlewit, since I had remembered with pleasure from my first reading his trip to the United States, and Dickens’s ascerbic comments on the American civilization.
Unfortunately, the re-discovery of this volume has coincided with a deterioration in my eyesight, temporary I hope; only a couple of days earlier for the first time I found it impossible to read some of the smallest print in the newly-reduced Guardian Weekly magazine, and when I started to read Chapter I, I had some difficulty in actually seeing the words, they being afflicted with a blurring that caused me to repeatedly stop and try to concentrate on bringing the words into focus.
The first sentence was typical Dickens: “As no lady or gentleman with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathize with the Chuzzlewit family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest time, closely connected with the agricultural interest.”
This compares unfavorably with the famous opening of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the season of Light; it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us; we had nothing before us….” An opening so general as to advise us that we might expect to be led almost anywhere as the book runs its course through the French revolution.
Compare this with the opening of Nicholas Nickleby: “ There once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one, Mr. Godfrey Nickleby, a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who, in her turn, had taken him for the same reason. Thus, two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.”
Of the three openings, I must say I prefer the last, the tale of two cities coming in second and Martin Chuzzlewit a distant third, although, in favour of that particular book, it has to be said that as early as Chapter II, Seth Pecksniff makes his appearance, an anti-hero of gigantic proportions, father of Charity and Mercy, two odious daughters, and himself one of the most monstrous hypocrites ever portrayed in fiction.
Just in passing, perhaps, I may be allowed to remark than none of these Dickensian openings can hold a candle to Jane Austen’s opening of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
This is an opening gambit in praise of which tens of thousands of words have been written, since it establishes the primacy of marriage as a quintessential value of Regency England, as well as the primacy of women, and the fact of romance as the subject of the novel that follows, all that in one short sentence.
Miss Austen was a wow at opening paragraphs, as evidenced in her lesser-known novel Emma: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
What a description of a girl just ready and waiting to be vexed by some damned plausible admirer!
Or in her novel Mansfield Park : “About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon with nearly seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.”
Yes, there’s no doubt about it, Miss Austen wins the title of best novel-opener in British or any other fiction. Just for a spot of variety, how’s this from Mr. Damon Runyon, a prose-spinner of a different kind, from an entirely different world: “Of all the scores made by dolls on Broadway the past twenty-five years, there is no doubt but what the very largest score is made by a doll who is called Silk, when she knocks off a banker by the name of Israel Ib, for the size of Silk’s score is three million one hundred bobs and a few odd cents. It is admitted by one and all who know about these matters that the record up to this time is held by a doll by the name of Ira Teak, who knocks off a Russian duke back in 1911 when Russian dukes are considered very useful by dolls, although of course in these days Russian dukes are about as useful as dandruff.”
Mr. Runyon, who became the most famous and admired newspaperman of his generation, learned his entire writing craft in the newsroom. Since I spent quarter of a century myself in newsrooms of various sizes and shapes, could there maybe, possibly, just possibly, be a future for me in the writing business if I apply myself to it in what little spare time remains to me?