Monday, April 29, 2013
First sentences: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
Scratch the surface of To Kill a Mockingbird and you'll find a controversial book. On the one hand, it's a novel of evangelical tolerance, promoting the soothing message that 'most people are [nice] when you finally see them' even in an environment bitterly divided by prejudice, that makes a hero of the white lawyer who defends a black client unjustly accused, and a tragedy of the childhood loss of innocence that goes with discovering you live in a racist world. It's one of the great anti-racist novels ... at least if you ask a white person.
But at the same time, many black readers are far from happy with it*. Its portrayal of the defendant Tom Robinson, for instance, is very much the portrayal of a 'respectable Negro', who feels no anger at the injustice of his situation, just regretful sorrow towards the girl accusing him, simple fear of her father, and unmixed gratitude to the white lawyer who remains friends with the white farmers even after they try to lynch him- a lynching which Atticus forgivingly prevents, in itself something of a difficult issue given that, as Isaac Saney points out, 'this act has no historical foundation' and is an unduly rosy portrayal of how 'good' white people acted in the era. Real white people didn't intervene in lynchings, and it's a comforting fiction to pretend otherwise - and a comfort, many would argue, that we have no right to indulge in. Likewise, the African American community of Maycomb shows no desire to resist the oppression they struggle under. The closest they get to concerted action is raising money to support Tom's family in a church collection, an impeccably apolitical response - and again, contrary to actual history: consider, for instance, the case of the 'Scottsboro boys', which provoked not only demonstrations but activism from the African American community, including the NAACP's attempt to provide the defendants with legal representation (whereas Atticus Finch is asked to take on the case by a white judge). No African American character shows the kind of suspicion and wariness towards well-intentioned whites you'd think any normal person would feel in so rigged a system, with the one exception of a rude woman at the maid Calpurnia's church who objects to Calpurnia bringing her white charges along on Sunday but is quickly told not to be 'contentious' by her fellow parishioners, dismissed thus: 'She's a troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas and haughty ways'. In other words, To Kill a Mockingbird presents the only open expression of black anger towards whites as an aberration that better-minded black people recognise as getting above her station, an interpretation that seems - let us say, somewhat at odds with human nature. The virtuous majority of black characters are acknowledged to feel upset at Tom's fate, but their only action in response is to shower gifts on the white man who tried and failed to save him, and to stand up with quasi-religious deference (the gesture is promoted by their reverend, indeed) when he is 'passin''.
To Kill a Mockingbird is, then, a book that's undoubtedly well-intentioned - tolerance and empathy are its watchwords - but it's also a book that suppresses anger at injustice. The children are counselled to forgive and understand the racists; black characters are permitted to celebrate good white people but are not depicted as resenting bad ones. Opposition to racism is a question of white heroism, not black, and unmixed white heroism at that: Harper Lee apparently based the character of Atticus on her own father while glossing over the fact that he was, like real people tend to be, a complex mixture, defending black clients but advocating Jim Crow. That white heroism is also explicitly class-coded: 'The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only' are 'The handful of people in this town with background, that's who they are' - which is to say that racism is the attribute of 'poor whites', not white aristocrats, which rather puts it on the level of other gaucheries like pouring molasses on your meat, a regrettable affliction of the ill-bred that should be forgiven along with other forms of ignorance and bad manners. Noblesse oblige, and it obliges without stopping to ask whether black people, or indeed poor white people, see it the same way.
In short, it's a book that presents a nicer portrait of history than the facts would strictly allow, that intermixes its claims of tolerance with a firm intra-racial snobbery, and most problematic of all, advocates forgiveness before redress. To forgive may be divine, but even many divines concede that it doesn't serve justice to ask forgiveness towards one who is still harming you. Rather than presenting injustice as something that must be righted before it can be forgiven, though, To Kill a Mockingbird presents forgiveness as the first step: racism can only be opposed gently, and only by white people who are all but canonised for their efforts. This may be a noble sentiment, but it's one that is, shall we say, easier to assume from a position above systemic injustice than it is from below, and open to accusations of complacency and condescension. It's a very feel-good book, viewed from a certain perspective, and that perspective is not unassailable.
But from from within that perspective, my goodness what an effective feel-good book it is. Politically, To Kill a Mockingbird can be difficult for many people to swallow - but one of the reasons for this is precisely that, for many other people, it's all too easy to swallow. Part of this, to be sure, is that it's a perfect cockle-warmer for white people insulated from black voices, but the other part of it is that, on a purely artistic level, it really is an excellent work of fiction. Wonderfully structured, linking tiny loss to tiny loss of innocence to the final tragedy and redemption; writing that goes down as smooth as good whiskey; infused from the first page with a vivid sense of place and an ever-delightful set of scrappy, charming, unsentimental children carrying us into the adult world, To Kill a Mockingbird is a book skilled enough to please college professors and readable enough to be the first 'grown-up' novel many children read. Indeed, I can testify that it was probably the first such book I enjoyed, and I still remember the sense of, 'Hey, this isn't boring! I'm actually enjoying this!' Adult conversations often went over my head and left me impatient, but this book spoke to me, not much older than Jem (and far more insulated from the pain of race relations in American history), as naturally as it spoke to my parents, whose copy I had in my hands. You can disagree with To Kill a Mockingbird politically; of course you can. There's no question, though, that it's a beautifully-done version of what it is. Among the famous 'Southern lady' writers, Harper Lee manages to eschew Florence King's cutesy digs and Margaret Mitchell's passionate polemics, and writes instead out of a kind of idealism, a genuine love of place and people that idealises them as well as any virtues they may have had. You may not be able to see the place and people the same way she did, and if you can't, history is probably on your side - but in writing what she saw, she wrote well.
Which makes it rather interesting that her book gets off to what looks like a slow start. We don't begin in the middle of a scene, but with a rather circular, discursive beginning. Jem 'got his arm badly broken'; the rest of the paragraph describes how the arm never quite healed right but that Jem didn't mind because he could still play football, meaning that the whole thing is filled with non-event. In the second, paragraph, the children's dispute about 'the events leading to his accident' are paraphrased, Scout blaming 'the Ewells' and Jem referring back to 'when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out', with no helpful hints for the reader as to who any of these people might be ... and then from there, we unspool straight into a family argument, Scout adding 'I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson,' and from there, as if reminded of the role American history played in the development of her home town of Maycomb, wanders off into a digression about her family tree (which does in fact include a slave-owner, this fact presented without comment), her father's career, the family unit she grew up in and the town they inhabited. Scout's voice has the eloquence of an adult in these first pages, and, too, an adult's awareness that history shapes us -especially in a town that prides itself on its 'background - but she retains something of the distractibility of a child, taking four pages of paddling around in the backwaters of her life before giving us the definite event of 'the summer Dill came to us', and the meeting between brother Jem and sister Scout and their new part-time neighbour Dill Harris. (Famously based on Truman Capote, Nelle Harper Lee's childhood friend, though one doesn't need to know that to read the book.) In a story of a 'tired old town' populated by people deeply preoccupied with history and reluctant to relinquish whatever scraps of aristocracy they can glean from it, we almost need to get a little family history before we can really meet the Finches: they live in an environment in which family history is an essential part of who you are - at least if you're white.
It's a fairly common teaser to refer to a dramatic incident and then slide away from it, and this is Lee's technique here: Jem's arm breaks, and we don't know why. It's not a violent sentence: the retrospective tone makes this an injury we're remembering, not seeing, and the word 'broken' is cushioned at both ends, the innocuous 'when he was nearly thirteen' easing us in, and the practical detail of 'at the elbow' easing us out. Even 'badly broken' is, paradoxically, less harsh to read than 'broken': the word on its own can have a jabbing force (a device I've admired in F. Scott Fitzgerald recently, in fact), but 'badly', even though it sounds serious, is still something of a shock-absorber. Any writing teacher can tell you that adverbs tend to lessen the impact of verbs: it's not a generalisation worth being too paranoid about, of course, but they do take up space in the sentence and can act like packing-straw around the central action, and so it is here. 'Badly broken' sounds like a medical assessment, and medical assessments are done post facto: at the instant of breakage we don't register exactly how 'badly' the bone splits. We just feel the crack, and the pain. 'Badly broken' is what the break is agreed to be after it's happened, and as a result, this sentence is packed in layers of past. Aptly enough for a novel that eases away some of the harsher truths of history, we begin with a wounded child whose injury we hear about from a safe distance.
At the same time, it's definitely a teaser, hinting towards the direction the story will take: what caused this break is complicated, and it will take a book to explain it. What is being hinted here? On one level, it sounds mundane, the kind of ordinary accident that happens in most childhoods: children fall down and hurt themselves a lot. There are just a few little whispers, though, that this is not a question of falling out of a tree or tripping on the football pitch. Jem was 'nearly thirteen', getting out of the clumsiest phase: twelve-year-olds do break limbs, of course, but it's not quite the age you'd expect - too old to fall over as often as small children do, too young to be in full-flight teenage recklessness. It sounds, if we listen closely, as if something has happened to Jem. Scout doesn't say 'my brother Jem broke his arm', which would be the usual construction, she says, 'my brother Jem got his arm badly broken': Jem is the passive subject of this sentence, not the active breaker. Jem didn't break his arm ... which carries the troubling hint, borne out by later events, that somebody else did. Even though the next paragraph soothes us by describing it as an 'accident', the precise phrasing suggests something more. It's only right at the end that we learn what really happened to inflict this permanently disabling injury: that a grown man has attacked two children, and that it's only through the appearance of a kind of guardian angel that he didn't murder them both. Scout's slightly unusual choice of words makes it absolutely clear that Jem is not responsible for the breakage. Jem is one of the book's innocents, in fact, not responsible for anything really bad, and even in the first sentence this is clear. He didn't break his arm. Jem is one of the mockingbirds.
Also clear, implicit in the very choice of subject, is where the book's focus is going to lie. From a political angle, one can find support for the African American criticisms of the book: we begin with a survivable injury to a white child, not with the effective murder of a black adult. Of course, to reveal Tom Robinson's fate on the first page would be to undermine the tension of the plot, so there are practical reasons why Lee couldn't begin there, but we don't have to be that literal about it. What it makes very clear is that this book is going to be from a specific viewpoint: Scout, who is white, mostly interested in her own family, and lives in a segregated world. Tom Robinson is a symbol in her childhood memories, not a 'neighbor' even though they live in the same town: she doesn't know him personally, never meets him face to face, and doesn't even know what he looks like until she sees him in court. One reason why the book's tight focus on the white perspective flies as well as it does is that this is a child's-eye view of the world: we don't expect children to be broad observers of the world outside their small circle. Children are expected to be insular, and Scout, naive, hot-headed and fallible, is the perfect vessel to carry the insularity of which people can reasonably accuse the book. She's not supposed to be all-knowing, and her imperfect perception of race makes a good cover for the book's imperfections.
Of course, this naivete is a luxury reserved for safe children; as J.L. Chestnut remarked of the era (quoted here), 'If you were black, the significance of race wasn't something you suddenly discovered. It wasn't even something you had to be told. It was something you just grew up knowing, something almost instinctual ... It was just the way things were, and folk accommodated themselves to it.' Scout and Jem's sad discovery that it's a racist world is something they have to work out from a limited vantage point. They grow up with an African American maid, Calpurnia, who effectively serves the function of their mother, but when she scolds Scout, Scout can still complain about to Calpurnia to her father with the opinion that he should 'lose no time in packing her off'. Atticus responds with a 'flinty' refusal and a sharp injunction to show more appreciation for 'how much Cal does for you', but the fact remains that this is a society in which a white child's African American acquaintances are sackable servants, not comrades and equals. The old Southern apologetic about the 'special relationship' between white masters and black workers hangs over it: the book focuses on the affectionate relationship between Calpurnia and the Finches and nobody, black or white, points out the unequal structure upon which the relationship rests. The incident that Scout chooses as the story's climax, and hence the appropriate subject for the first sentence, is Jem's broken arm, not Tom Robinson's stolen life, and we go from there. 'Lawyers, I suppose, were children once,' reads the quotation from Charles Lamb at the book's beginning, and again, this makes it clear where we will focus: the legal heroism of a white lawyer, and on the children that look up to him.
It's impossible to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird and keep politics out of it: it is a political book, about a fraught issue, and from a questionable perspective. The awkward thing, too, is that the first sentence isn't very helpful when I'm trying to be fair to it: I can make a lot of political capital out of it, but the real charms of the novel lie in its dialogue, its humour (so often at Scout's own expense), its vivid spark of character against character, and these are simply not present in the opening pages. Those are the pages I skipped as a child, and I suspect a lot of other children did likewise: you need to have some knowledge of American history for them to make sense, and some patience in waiting for a story to start. But the first sentence still has Scout's most effective charm of voice: it is direct. No commas or digressions weigh it down, no presumptions about the reader: Scout just pulls up a chair and plants her elbows on the table and starts talking straight to us. How old is she when tells this tale? It's hard to know; she recounts her feelings and thoughts with no editorialising, as if still feeling as a child, but with a fluency, a vocabulary and a diction free of the Alabama accent that rings through Scout's speech that suggest an adult speaker - just one who remembers her childhood with the clarity of water over sand. Jem is still 'Jem', not Jeremy, his full name. Age is still measured with a child's aspiration: not 'twelve', but 'nearly thirteen', reaching up towards the older-sounding figure. 'Got his arm' has an earthy quality, 'got' always sounding that echo in which we remember some strict grammarian reminding us that it's 'I have', not 'I've got.' The descriptions are matter-of-fact, 'got his arm badly broken at the elbow' sacrificing elegance for a tumble of detail to make sure we understand plainly what's what. No word lasts more than two syllables, and none of them are high-sounding. There's nothing in any of it for a reader to snag on, no pretensions of language or flaunting of erudition. Stylistically, this is the art of making it look easy, one of the hardest tricks in the world. It's the perfect vehicle for the deadpan humour that will animate so much of the book's best passages and lend an air of dignity to its saddest ones. We trust a voice like this - even if we later regret it.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a good book, artistically speaking, with the particular merit of being both good and accessible. That's why it keeps cropping up on high-school reading lists, often to the discomfort of African American students, for whom having to sit through reading after reading of the N-word is, I imagine, rather like the experience of being a girl in film class expected to absorb a curriculum in which the only female-centred film is I Spit On Your Grave. Is it a good book politically? It depends on who you ask, and if you ask someone who immediately answers 'Yes', you'd better be prepared for an argument if you disagree. So persuasively, so wittily and eloquently and vividly does it put across its message that it's a genuine shock for most admirers to hear that it really does offend some people, and reasonable people at that. The sense of voice is so authentic that it can be hard to separate from its less-than-accurate portrait of history, the less-than-equal weight it gives to white and black anger at injustice, white and black activism, white and black heroism in the real world. It simply feels real, to the point where an entranced reader feels really, honestly confused if someone says that it's not.
Kick Margaret Mitchell off all the school reading lists you want, I guess, but remember you'd better brace yourself if you want to challenge Mockingbird. And it's not just white blinkers that make it so, though it is that too. It's a well-written, engaging, attractive work of fiction. It's just what it chooses to fictionalise that can be such a problem.
*For those who'd like to read up, Isaac Saney's famous 'The case against To Kill A Mockingbird' is an excellent place to start, as it's one of the most authoritative and comprehensive critiques; see also Malcolm Gladwell's 'The Courthouse Ring'. For some less scholarly viewpoints, the comments here are also worth checking out.
Commenters in the thread cited mention Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as an interesting counterpoint to Harper Lee. I'd suggest another book too, though this one is by a white author: for those who've been following this series, you may remember my piece on Donna Tartt's The Little Friend. Among its various excellences, it contains an interesting riposte to To Kill a Mockingbird in the relationship between white child and black housekeeper. Ida Rhew, like Calpurnia, is a de facto mother figure to the protagonist Harriet Cleve, whose mother is alive but has lived in a permanent psychological haze, probably clinical depression, since the death of her oldest child, and whose father is living in another town with his mistress. Ida is not caressing, but she cooks meals and cleans clothes and makes beds and imposes order and creates, through her repetitive, menial work, a degree of comfort and predictability that make Harriet's shattered home a bearable place. What's different is that while Harriet passionately loves and absolutely relies upon Ida, she is forced to acknowledge that this love is basically unrequited - that in the relationship between employee and employer's child in a racist system, feelings cannot flow simply back and forth. Ida has her own children and her own concerns and, after the Cleve family try her patience too far, gets tired of her underpaid job and leaves. Harriet is desolate, but this not blamed on Ida: she has clear reason to limit her goodwill towards Harriet, given that the family pay her exploitatively low wages and make no effort to oppose the racism of the town, and that Harriet's best friend Hely prides himself on being so unmanageable that he manages to drive out one black housekeeper after another. Working for a white family, even if the children love you, is not much of a job, and Ida doesn't feel bound to sacrifice herself for ever.
Ida is also politically aware: she speaks to Harriet about the terrorism poor white people have perpetrated against her community 'after Dr King come to town' and the way middle-class white people have done nothing to punish it, and is openly angry, silencing Harriet's protests with a sharp 'Sometime the police favor criminals more than the one against who they commit the crime.' There's an interesting linguistic contrast in how she describes her neighbours, too: where Calpurnia describes the Robinson family as 'clean-living', Ida describes 'Miss Etta', who was killed in the attack, as 'righteous'. (And note the honorific; Calpurnia has to start calling the boy she's raised from childhood 'Mr Jem' when he hits puberty, but nobody is calling Tom Robinson's wife 'Miss Helen'.) Both are talking about victims in terms of their virtues, and their Christian virtues at that, but 'clean-living' is an unthreatening term of approbation, suggesting little more than passive acquiescence to social standards: the Robinsons keep their bodies and houses up to the mark, they don't drink, gamble or make too much noise - they are, basically, noted for what they don't do. Miss Etta, on the other hand, is 'righteous', a far more active term with the suggestion of moral authority.
There are other ways in which Tartt holds a mirror up to Lee: she takes an interest in the lives of 'poor white' characters, for instance, and makes one member of the Ratliff clan (the Ewells of The Little Friend) her secondary protagonist. It's interesting to read the later book with the earlier in mind.
Note to commenters: I wish I didn't have to say this, but this being the Internet I probably do, so here goes. The subject of race and racism is a difficult one to discuss without people losing their heads, but I would like to have faith in people here. Please confirm my hope that comments can remain civil and sensible.
To that end, some basics. Stay on topic; the subject is To Kill a Mockingbird, not who gets to win the not-a-racist competition. If you're going to speak about other people's experiences, quote, cite and/or link as much as possible. If you're going to speak about your own experiences, especially if you're white, stick to the subject under discussion, which is the book, not whether or not you're a good person. Comments that smack of the troll, the tantrum, the breakdown, the racist diatribe, the progressiver-than-thou show-off or the asinine remark will be deleted without discussion.
Monday, April 15, 2013
First sentences: Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
This site is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of first sentence posts can be found here.
I take requests, or at least some of them; a post on Graham Greene was requested by Anonymous, so I chose Brighton Rock because it's the work of Greene's I'm most familiar with. Hope that pleases you, Anonymous.
Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.
Beat that for a strong opening. Crisp, pacy and ruthless, the first sentence slices straight into our attention: we are trapped - and in a place more inexorable, more claustrophobic and terrible, than we could anticipate from such a slickly suspenseful beginning.
The story, for those unfamiliar, sounds simple on the face of it: Hale, a journalist who has previously exposed a Brighton gang, is sent back to the town on an assignment. Stalked and killed by seventeen-year-old Pinkie Brown, he falls - but Pinkie then realises that there are witnesses who could hang him. One, Ida Arnold, pursues him, but the other, the plain, meek waitress Rose, doesn't know the significance of what she witnessed - and to keep her under his eye, Pinkie marries her, identifying another victim for Ida to save. This is not, then, a thriller with police in it: the detective, such as we have one, is a middle-aged woman motivated not by law and order but by right and wrong - neither of them ideologies that mean anything to Pinkie, whose driving force is instead a faith-twisted sense of good and evil. There, rather than in the question of 'Will he get away with it?', lies the central conflict of the story: the cosmic question of whether one soul, or any, can be saved.
One way to put it is this: Graham Greene is the kind of author who doesn't help the Catholics' case when Protestants call them 'morbid'. An immense but entrapping universe flavoured with a kind of sour-potatoes Catholicism is the world in which Pinkie Brown moves, and by the time we realise how far we've fallen, it's too late: we're already reading the story, lulled by the exciting plot into believing ourselves safe even as the earth curdles under our feet.
As a stand-alone sentence, this opening is almost a masterclass in swift, efficient drama. 'When I describe a scene, I capture it with the moving eye of the cine-camera rather than with the photographer's eye ... I work with the camera, following my characters and their movements,'* Greene remarked, and he certainly knew how to keep things flowing - but at the same time, there's a precise and honed sense of language in the rhythm and diction of this sentence. Look at the way it breaks up: two commas snap it into three sections, each with its own punch to deliver. 'Hale knew,' introducing us to the character and showing him in the act of knowing, of mental engagement and action. 'Before he had been in Brighton three hours,' giving us his location and movements in a fast, neat stroke. 'That they meant to murder him,' a brilliantly quick, emphatic phrase, no wasted words to detract from the terrible force of that word held off until just near the end: 'murder'. The commas allow each subclause to be felt in full - there are no thickets of language for our attention to wander in - and the sentence almost races to its fearful conclusion. The language is all simple, no long words or complicated vocabulary to detract from 'murder's impact. In terms of structure, it's a thing of beauty: not even a work of art, but something sleeker than that, the smooth polish of a master craftsman.
Which is, in itself, notable, because after that smoothness, things immediately become difficult. 'With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn't belong - belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd,' runs the second sentence, dropping the simple structures to begin with the grammatically stickier 'With his inky fingers', and picking up several themes that were absent from the first sentence. There's the sense of religion (it's a 'Whitsun' wind, that is to say the seventh Sunday after Easter, time being marked by a Christian calendar that expects us to know what 'Whitsun' means without explanation), and, too, the sense that the universe itself is religious, the 'Whitsun wind' as if the very weather knew which festival it was. There's the sense of grimy displeasure and social awkwardness in Hale's description. Above all, there's the sense of cosmic alienation: Hale, whoever he is, isn't just feeling painful emotions in a cheerful crowd, he's utterly removed from it, he doesn't 'belong to' the sun, the wind or the people, cut off from both nature and culture, the growing world and normal humanity. Fear is an isolator, and the inability to feel at ease in one's environment - which will dominate Pinkie's relationship with the entire universe - seems to be reflected back by that environment: if you don't feel it belongs with you, you don't belong to it.
We don't see any of this in the suspenseful first sentence, but we're dropped into it straight after. What we get, in fact, is first the cold bath of pure fear, then the queasy waters of alienation: the knowledge of death, the knowledge of hatred and evil, and then the complex shadows that they cast. We bite the apple, and everything follows after.
What can we make of the details in this first sentence? To begin with, we're told straight away that we're in Brighton. Now Brighton, for those unfamiliar with the British coastal towns, is traditionally a holiday location - the 'holiday crowd' of the second sentence isn't a coincidence, but an essential part of Brighton's history and economy. George IV famously built a pleasure-house there as Prince Regent, but what really made it was it is today was the arrival, in 1841, of the railway. Brighton has a train station, and it has beaches, and it's within striking distance of London: it is, as a result, a place where people can make day trips or short stays without needing a great deal of money. Nowadays it's very fashionable, thanks at least in part to it having the biggest and liveliest gay scene outside of London, but that's another story: at the time of Brighton Rock's publication, 1938, it was a pleasure town for ordinary, non-wealthy people, and with a slightly seedy reputation. Its visitors were people with money to hustle away from them, if you were a gangster; people busy living their lives and enjoying themselves, your mirror opposite, if you're afraid the gangsters are coming for you. Brighton was run down in the 1930s, though becoming less so, and racecourse gangs like Pinkie's were a part of it: to a contemporary audience, the location would carry an convincing air of roughness and risk. What we see first, though, is the holiday crowds: people seeking simple human enjoyment in a universe where nothing is simple.
Too, it's worth thinking about the way the character's name is introduced: 'Hale', at the beginning of the sentence, with no explanation of who he is. It's a good plain English name, ironically echoing 'hale and hearty', which Hale is certainly not feeling right now. What it's not, though, is a full name: we're introduced to 'Hale' as if we too were early twentieth-century men who might naturally refer to a man by his surname if we didn't know him intimately. In fact, his first name is presented as something of a shock: Pinkie appears and calls it, and it creates not recognition but panicked denial:
'Fred,' a voice said behind him, 'Fred.'
The gin slopped out of Hale's glass on to the bar. A boy of about seventeen watched him from the door - a shabby smart suit, the cloth too thin for much wear, a face of starved intensity, a kind of hideous and unnatural pride.
'Who are you Freding?' Hale said. 'I'm not Fred.'
'It don't make any difference,' the boy said...
Hale said, 'I'm only here for my job. Just for the day. I'm Kolley Kibber.'
'You're Fred,' the boy said.
'All right,' Hale said, 'I'm Fred. But I've got a card in my pocket which'll be worth ten bob to you...'
The sound of his first name, withheld from us at the start, makes Hale spill his drink in fright: the fact that we ourselves don't recognise it makes the moment a disorientating lurch, the word 'Fred' being as unexpected to us, unfamiliar with it, as it is to Hale, not expecting to hear it. By introducing him to us only as 'Hale', Greene manages to make the very act of saying his first name a threatening moment of unmasking. (And in fact, it's even more complicated than that, as his real name is Charles; 'Fred' is what he introduces himself as to casual acquaintances. Almost nobody has a very stable name here as the story begins; even solid, sane Ida begins by being jokingly addressed as 'Lily'.) Fred/Charles Hale denies his identity in ordinary times out of a fallen-humanity impulse towards secrecy, but he denies it now because he knows people are after him. 'Kolley Kibber' is the role he has to play that day, leaving cards through Brighton that can be exchanged for cash prizes with a bonus for anyone who identifies him as the 'Kolley Kibber' advertised; the gimmick is based on a real promotion, the 'Lobby Lud' game, though the name is taken from the actor Colley Cibber, those staccato Ks giving it the sense of kipperish squalor and spiky jargon that pervades the whole story, very different from the real Cibber's luxurious comedy. It's both his defence and his doom, because it sent him to Brighton in the first place: when his real name comes out, all he can do is desperately try and fail to bribe the boy who knows it.
But on the subject of names, it's worth considering something else, too: this is not a book that starts with its protagonist, a character who barely has a name at all. Once he takes centre stage, he's only referred to in the narrative as 'the Boy'. We know he's called Pinkie Brown because that's what other people address him as, but 'Pinkie' cannot be his Christian name; it's not a real name, and certainly not for a Catholic boy: there is no Saint Pinkie (and this one certainly isn't about to break the tradition). He must have a Michael or a John or a Francis attached to him somewhere, some appropriate baptismal handle, but all we have left - and even that we have to learn from eavesdropping - is that weirdly off-colour, pun intended, nickname.** 'Pinkie Brown' sounds like a joke, a shade of paint rather than a person, and when added to the name of his hapless girlfriend Rose (another shade of pink, as if the two of them can't escape each other), it starts to feel as if names have no meaning - or rather, no power, except to make you the butt of some obscure joke. We begin with Hale's name, but that's the last time in the chapter a name will feel solid, and even then it's only his surname that stays still. Once we get to Pinkie's name - ironically unthreatening, like a glance at his beardless cheeks that doesn't see the knife in his hand - things start to come disconnected. He has no saint's name, nor any saint's nature. His humanity is cut off. As Ida says, 'A man always has a different name for strangers,' and within the book, Pinkie is a stranger to all of us.
Because this is the other real point about the first sentence: not what it says, but what it excludes. Absent from it is the person the book is actually about.
And this, in itself, is an essential part of the book's story. Pinkie is a character who evades our questions: is he damned? Is he evil? And if so, is he evil all through, like a stick of Brighton rock, or is there any merit left in trying to see his humanity as Rose does?
As the book begins, Pinkie is nowhere, just part of an amorphous, frightening 'they'. He steps out of the background, naming his victim, and stalks him in and out of the pages. He moves closer to the centre as the narrative takes up his perspective ... but he's stalking again, this time the naive little Rose, hiding his character from her as well as he can - which means hiding himself from the only other 'Roman' near the centre of the narrative, hiding himself from the only person who could understand him on his own spiritual terms. Pinkie is gradually materialising throughout the book, sharpening ever more into focus, until the final revelation, the 'worst horror of all'. On their wedding day, Rose presses Pinkie to step into a recording booth to make a gramophone message for her; knowing that they have no record player and that she won't hear the message at least in the immediate future, Pinkie records his bitterness and resentment at being married to this girl: 'God damn you, you little bitch, why can't you go back home for ever and let me be?' After his death, knowing him to have been a violent thug, Rose is unable to quite let go of her loyalty to him, of her belief that his love for her might have been the one good thing in his soul that might save him from the fires. She speaks to a priest who reflects, comfortingly, that there can be moral heroism in standing by the fallen and that if she should be pregnant (for Pinkie, though revolted by sex and women, has grimly consummated the marriage 'in a sad, brutal, now-or-never embrace' that he consoles himself for by the reflection that 'It's mortal sin') she might 'Make [her child] a saint - to pray for his father.' Rose, feeling 'given the sight a long way off of life going on again,' heads out holding her head high:
She had a sudden conviction that she carried life, and she thought proudly: Let them get over that if they can; let them get over that [...] There was something to be salvaged from that house and room, something else they wouldn't be able to get over - his voice speaking a message to her: if there was a child, speaking to the child. 'If he loved you,' the priest had said, 'that shows....' She walked rapidly in the thin June sunlight towards the worst horror of all.
The worst horror: Pinkie's voice speaking hatred out of the pit, both a cruel husband who never valued her love and a damned soul rejecting her prayers. The book leaves us helplessly anticipating this final, crushing blow, the moment in which Pinkie finally comes into full focus.
Interestingly, neither the 1947 nor the 2010 film could bear this ending, choosing instead a dodge in which the record is scratched and she hears only, 'What you want me to say is I love you ... I love you ... I love you...' In the original film this was apparently a rather clever compromise on Greene's part, rejecting a happy ending added by Terence Rattigan for an ambiguous one, Greene remarking: 'Anybody who wanted a happy ending would feel that they had had a happy ending. Anybody who had any sense would know that the next time Rose would probably push the needle over the scratch and get the full message.' For a 2010 remake there's less excuse, really. But that's rather the point: the ending is purposefully, remorselessly unbearable.
Life, according to Pinkie, is 'Worms and cataract, cancer. You hear 'em shrieking from upper windows - children being born. It's dying slowly.' As far as he can, he inflicts 'dying slowly' on those around him, and what the book focuses around is not just his murders, but his attempted soul-murder of Rose ... which looks likely, finally, to succeed, not by the swing of a blade, but by the final revelation of himself, the final appearance after a booktime of hiding. And that hiding act begins in the first sentence. We start with Hale, who knows what Pinkie is but not where, and we end with Rose, who has been physically closer to Pinkie than anyone, spiritually entangled, but lacks the basic knowledge that Hale begins with: what Pinkie really 'meant to' do to her. Right up until the last sentence, something about Pinkie is hidden from someone - or at least, from his victims. He begins offstage, and his final impending appearance is enough to annihilate the narrative.
Brighton Rock's first sentence is deceptive: it hooks our attention with its swift simplicity and then drags us under. We begin with a victim's-eye view ... and we end just before the final victim can have her eyes fully opened. Some things, even Graham Greene's narrative doesn't want to see.
*Quoted in J.M. Coetzee's introduction to the Vintage Classics edition; footnote attributes it to Marie-Francoise Allain, The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983, p 125.
**In the 1947 film he's identified as 'Piers Brown' when talking to a policeman, and as Greene co-wrote the script with Terence Rattigan we must assume that this was a choice Greene either originated or approved, but it doesn't feature in the book.
Thursday, April 04, 2013
First sentences: Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
This site is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of first sentence posts can be found here.
Somewhere on my shelves there still rests a slim picture-book from my childhood, adorned on the cover with a familiar scene: the giant Gulliver bewilderingly tied down by a regiment of swarming Lilliputians. The story explained itself to me in simple terms: at first they were very afraid of him but then they let him go; they saw themselves as normal and him as a giant; once the palace caught on fire and Gulliver helped put it out. Being a book for children, it didn't add the true Swiftian detail: that he 'helped' extinguish the fire by pissing on it - and in so doing, igniting a bizarre political debate about as sane as Swift was prepared to consider the real world.
How do we view Gulliver's Travels - or, to give it its full original name, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships? Most of us are raised on it as a children's tale of whimsy, the undoubted imagination of its calmer waters being the only things we hear about. But it is, in fact, a book of satire, pointed and specific: an undergraduate can pick their way through it making charts that match whimsical diversion to historical controversy in a neat line. If we're going to talk about it on its own terms, this must not be forgotten: Swift had points to make and axes to grind and heads to sever, and that is what Gulliver does. From a writing aspect, though, it seems wrong to abandon entirely the child's eye perspective. To ignore the history and see only the fantasy is obtuse, yes, but reading the book as a mere game of spot-the-satire misses the wild excess of imagination that made it so unforgettable a read even centuries after the controversies it lambasts are forgotten by all but the historians. Jane Eyre reads Gulliver as a child quite unaware of its parodic edge ('I considered it a narrative of facts,' she remarks dryly): Usborne and the modern publishers are not to blame here. There's something in its virulent profusion of fancy that has outlasted its political relevance. It's not just a long pamphlet. Swift was a politicker, but he was also a writer. Gulliver is a novel - more so than it needed to be, maybe even more so than it intended to be, and even more so than contemporary culture expected to to be, the novel itself being a form still in its infancy. Its elements are not easily separated even as they strain against one another.
And so, characteristically for such a bundle of opposed forces, it's actually difficult to know what's the first sentence. We've seen this problem before, of course - Umberto Eco capers to mind - but here it's even worse: even different editions disagree about which elements of the beginning to include. Going through the Kindle store to find a copy, I was appalled to find that not all of them began in the same place. There are historical reasons for this: Swift was a novelist, yes, and also a poet, but he was also a pamphleteer. Imagine a commentator on the Internet nowadays, and you have something of the flavour: a political writer producing text as part of an ongoing war of words, with anonymity something of an issue - it's thought, for instance, that Swift may have had his manuscript copied before sending it to press so he couldn't be identified as its author through his handwriting. There is, too, more than one edition: there is the first edition published by Benjamin Motte, who cut some of the most inflammatory material, and the 1735 edition published by George Faulkner, restoring what he could based on notes from 'a friend of the author' (probably not Swift himself, though it's generally thought that Swift may have reviewed Faulkner's edition before going to press).
The trouble is, this was all done secretively. Faulkner's edition is considered more authoritative than Motte's, but because Swift was writing satire, at a time when it was dangerous to do so, his agency and intentions were deliberately kept off the record. Authorial intention is hard to prove even in a well-documented case, but here, it's almost impossible. We simply have to take what we can get - and different modern editions draw on Faulkner to different degrees.
This is, in short, an issue that professional academics and editors could have a real argument over. The copy I chose in the end was the Penguin Kindle edition, Penguin being about as safe a pair of hands as you're going to find: this edition includes a 'first' that was part of Faulkner's text but not Motte's - indeed, was a reaction to Motte's, a letter supposedly by Gulliver complaining that 'I do hardly know my own work' after the alterations his 'Cousin Sympson' made to a previous edition.
A complaint from Gulliver, we note, not a preface from the author. Gulliver's Travels is a cavalcade of authorial thimble-rigging, and what we hear of Gulliver's complaints mixes in as much madness as sense - lamenting not only that his text had been altered, but that he lives in a world where 'I see these very Yahoos carried by Houyhnhnms in a Vehicle, as if these were Brutes, and those were the rational Creatures' - throwing in minor quibbles about whether it should be spelled 'Brobdingnag' or 'Brobdingrag' alongside the self-righteous declaration that 'I still improve in some Virtues' by talking to the horses in his stable, and the crazed lament that the publication of the previous volume has not put 'a full Stop to all Abuses and Corruptions, at least in this little Island, as I had Reason to expect.' This is an introduction that pokes fun at itself for expecting any serious good to result from pamphleteering even as it indirectly complains that the pamphlets were censored. It begins - our first first sentence - thus:
A Letter from Capt. Gulliver, to his Cousin Sympson
I hope you will be ready to own publicly, whenever you shall be called to it, that by your great and frequent Urgency you prevailed on me to publish a very loose and uncorrect Account of my Travels; with Direction to hire some young Gentlement of either University to put them in Order, and correct the Style, as my Cousin Dampier did by my Advice, in his Book called, A Voyage round the World.
No address to this letter, no 'Dear Sir', but a blunt, aggressive challenge: you're responsible for the faults of this volume. Gulliver sidesteps criticism from the beginning, so absolute in his judgement that we immediately run into the problems of interpretation. So problematic is Gulliver's voice that there are actually two contending schools - something it's hard not to feel would have given Swift further tinder - known as the 'hard school', believing that Gulliver's view of human nature as irreparably depraved accurately resembles Swift's, and the 'soft school', believing that Gulliver is as much an unreliable narrator when he decries all human beings as revolting 'Yahoos' (the name for the savage humans in the land of the Houyhnhnms, sentient horses devoted to reason) as he is when he recounts without comment the Lilliputian courtiers' tradition of seeking advancement by 'leaping and creeping' over and under a stick. The latter is obviously a satire - 'Sometime the Emperor holds one end of the Stick, and his first Minister the other; sometimes the Minister has it entirely to himself,' Gulliver explains deadpan, and the swipe at the courtier's need to balance the favour of king and government is obvious to all. How much are we to trust Gulliver when he does express an opinion? It depends who you ask.
The reference to Dampier is a telling indication. William Dampier was a real author, and his travel writing very successful: one of the multiple, inextricable purposes of Gulliver's Travels was to satirise that popular genre. The Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians and the Laputans and all the rest are good opportunities to point up political grievances of the day, but they're also parodies in their sheer outlandishness: by referring directly to 'my cousin Dampier', Swift makes us aware that at least one of his arrows is aimed at the excesses or implausibilities of travel stories. But if we look at one of his most direct shots at that target, it shows up just how hard it is to be sure how much Swift, or Gulliver, mean what they say.
The incident is simple one: under the care of a Brobdingnagian family, Gulliver finds himself in dire need of relieving himself, and describes in detail how he was 'pressed to do one more Thing, which another could not do for me', and has to pantomime his desire for privacy before, carried out, 'I hid myself between two Leaves of Sorrel, and there discharged the Necessities of Nature' - wittily delaying naming those necessities, struggling to preserve his modesty before the reader as before the Brobdingnagian until he can finally let both go. But having done so, he then turns and addresses us:
I hope the gentle Reader will excuse me for dwelling on these and the like Particulars, which however insignificant they may appear to grovelling vulgar Minds, yet will help a Philosopher to enlarge his Thoughts and Imagination, and apply them to the Benefit of public as well as private Life, which was my sole Design in presenting this and other Accounts of my Travels to the World ... I did not omit one material Circumstance: However, upon a strict Review, I blotted out several Passages of less Moment which were in my first Copy, for fear of being censured as tedious and trifling, whereof Travellers are often, perhaps not without Justice, accused.
It's a sharp attack: even weeing behind a leaf is not as 'trifling' as the 'Passages' he imputes to travel writers. So the incident is a parody of Dampier and his ilk for including exhaustive minutiaie, right? Well, in isolation, perhaps. But at the same time, this is the 'Celia, Celia, Celia shits' author - a line so pleasing to Swift that he employed it not just in the poem 'The Lady's Dressing Room' but in 'Cassinus and Peter' as well. Therein lies one of Swift's paradoxes: while he lambasts Strephon in the former for failing to see the 'Order from Confusion sprung, / Such gaudy Tulips rais'd from Dung,' he dwells, in this and other poems, with prolix, graphic fascination on the shit and sweat and grease and filth of physicality, and female physicality at that. It's 'dung' that ends the poem, not 'order from confusion sprung', and the yuckier word ends every equivocating couplet in that poem's conclusion - 'ooze' has final say over 'refuse', and 'quean' over 'scene'. Swift denies that a man should think too disgustedly on such matters, but disgust animates his writing to such a degree that even nowadays, calling someone's disgust 'Swiftian' carries an immediate meaning. Whether he was really disgusted and dwelled on that disgust, whether he saw disgust as the inevitable punishment of excessive expectation, or whether he simply found excrement interesting in and of itself, is characteristically impossible to say: do we side with Strephon or Celia, and how much does he mean any of it? It's hard not to think of the modern vulgarism, 'Are you shitting me?' In Swift's case, the question is actually easier to answer literally than metaphorically: yes, he is, but it's hard to be sure exactly how. To assume that Swift included Gulliver's ablutions solely for the sake of poking fun at excessively detailed travel writers is - let's say, difficult to sustain when one thinks of the rest of his work.
Dampier is thrown at us in the preface, in other words, but he's not the whole explanation: when one reads the book itself, it just doesn't cover it. Nothing does. It's too complicated.
So, there we see two immediate effects in this first first sentence: the poke at Dampier that doesn't explain everything in the book, and Gulliver's confusingly aggressive tone, opening at the pitch that, once the voyages themselves start, it takes an entire book to work up to. Too, there's the parodic sense of verisimilitude: while Swift had ample reason to complain that Motte had censored him, there's also a sense of fun in treating Gulliver as an ongoing character who would have opinions about the public reception of his work - and indeed, Swift himself wrote a sequel called Memoirs of the Court of Lilliput, continuing to play with the idea. Gulliver isn't quite inert on the page: he turns and complains about how it represents him, leaving us even less certain, even less safe, than before. He's watching us, with angry opinions about how we interpret him - even when this is not an easy book to interpret.
This opening sentence is prolonged, making no modern concessions to the reader's attention span, but there's also the quality of a rant about it. The following first sentence - 'The Publisher to the Reader', the fictional cousin Sympson's mild comment on the whole situation - is altogether more temperate and urbane:
The Author of these Travels, Mr. Lemuel Gulliver, is my ancient and intimate Friend; there is likewise some Relation between us by the Mother's side.
There's no such frantic accusation in Sympson's voice; instead, the confident assumption that the public will care to know who Sympson is and how he's involved in this whole situation. Interestingly - which might perhaps be taken in support of the 'hard school' of interpretation - he has plenty to say in Gulliver's favour, that he's held 'in good Esteem among his Neighbours' even though he's apparently spending his time talking to horses, and that he is 'so distinguished for his Veracity, that it became a sort of Proverb among his Neighbours at Redriff, when anyone affirmed a Thing, to say, it was as true as if Mr. Gulliver had spoke it.' Sympson's brief introduction builds on the sense of verisimilitude, sounding very sane while testifying to the truthfulness of this mad crank.
What do we have, then, going into the book proper? A knowledge that both literary and political parody are in question, and that while the book is going to play it absolutely straight - and indeed, the book's narrator will be furious if we disbelieve it - we will have to keep our wits about us because we are being absolutely, thoroughly messed with, by an author deeply fascinated with mess.
And, just to make things more complicated, really full editions like my Penguin one include something else as well, an 'Advertisement' from the 'publisher', beginning with the mild assertion that 'Mr. Sympson's Letter to Captain Gulliver, prefixed to this Volume, will make a long Advertisement unnecessary. Those Interpolations complained of by the Captain, were made by a Person since deceased, on whose Judgment [sic] the Publisher relied to make any Alterations that might be thought necessary...' - in other words, blaming a safe target off-stage for any reflections that might offend 'her late Majesty.' Motte actually died in 1738, a few years after the Faulkner edition; in any event, the effect of a book under dispute both by its author and its characters is heightened. We aren't just reading a book here. We're jumping into an argument.
So, how does the first chapter begin?
The Author gives some Account of himself and Family, his first Inducements to travel. He is shipwrecked, and swims for his Life, gets safe on shore in the Country of Lilliput, is made a Prisoner, and carried up the Country.
My Father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the Third of Five Sons.
Like Sympson, Gulliver is capable of a conventional opening, a kind of self-identifying letter of introduction to the reader, when required. The brief summary at the beginning of each chapter is likewise conventional for the time, and Gulliver's social position, too, the middle son of a respectable if not wealthy man - in other words, a son obliged to work for his living - is easily comprehensible: he is, socially at least, a gentleman. It's quite similar to Dampier's introduction, in fact:
THE AUTHOR'S DEPARTURE FROM ENGLAND, AND ARRIVAL IN JAMAICA.
I first set out of England on this voyage at the beginning of the year 1679, in the Loyal Merchant of London, bound for Jamaica, Captain Knapman Commander.
Chapter summary and practical beginning are present and correct; Dampier waits a few paragraphs before referring to his own 'small estate in Dorsetshire,' but the similarities are obvious. It may also be worth noting, if we're trying to assess Gulliver, that the 'soft school' of interpretation could make some advance by pointing out that Dampier was, at one point, court-martialled for cruelty and 'deemed unfit to command any of HM's ships': he continued to make voyages, but he was not an unblemished character. Gulliver's discovery of 'The Country of the Houyhnhms' follows a mutiny of his crew ('debauched' by new members who 'had been Buccaneers'); Dampier's second voyage ended in mutiny. Parallels with Dampier may give the book a certain literary familiarity, but they aren't an unmixed endorsement. So much, at least, the 'soft school' may argue, though the 'hard school' may interpret piratical mutineers as support of Gulliver's disgust for Yahoo humans: in any even, in literary terms, the Dampier-like beginning feels recognisable. People who had read contemporary travel books would know the style, have some sense of what was being parodied, some expectations of structure, if not of content or tone.
What's the effect? Mostly, to lull us into a sense of security that the rest of the book smashes up. The inclusion of Gulliver's angry correspondence at the beginning gives modern readers some kind of warning, but then we lack the advantage of contemporary readers in that we are not, unless we are professional academics, automatically familiar with the events and controversies brought in willy-nilly.
Talking about Swift in the light of this first-sentences method of mine is really something of a challenge. For most books, the first sentence does cast a lot of light, even when it's difficult to pin down exactly what the first sentence is, but with Gulliver's Travels, it starts to feel like a gimmick - or else, like a magnifying glass that excludes more than it enlarges. The thing about Gulliver's Travels is that we can't understand it through single sentences, because we never know which way it's going to jump next. Satire strives against imagination: take, for instance, the 'leaping and creeping' moment in Lilliput mentioned above. Gulliver starts talking about the contortions of court in the middle of a paragraph that dwells with simple fascination on the kind of detail that gets the story trimmed down into children's picture books:
I would sometimes lie down, and let five or six of them dance on my Hand. And at last the Boys and Girls would venture to come and play at Hide and Seek in my Hair. I had now made a good Progress in understanding and speaking their Language. The Emperor had a mind one day to entertain me with several of the Country Shows, wherein they exceed all Nations I have known, both for Dexterity and Magnificence. I was diverted with none so much as that of the Rope-Dancers, performed upon a slender white Thread, extended about two Foot, and twelve Inches from the Ground. Upon which I shall desire liberty, with the Reader's Patience, to enlarge a little.
This Diversion is only practiced by those Persons who are Candidates for Great Employments, and high Favour, at Court...
Bang: one minute we're at a curious little festival, replete with vivid images of children hiding in a giant's hair and adults jigging around an upturned palm, and then suddenly the local colour turns into a blunt satire of contemporary politics. Is this a book of politics, or a book of imaginative festivity? Both at once, Swift's sheer talent for picturing the peculiar outlasting the political issues that drove so much of his writing, and it can lurch from one to the other without ceremony. Add to this the fact that there's an element of randomness to some of the satire: at one moment the Lilliputians are exemplars of virtue in treating breach of trust as a more serious crime than theft or for rewarding the law-abiding as well as punishing the guilty, and at another, they're performing these ridiculous corrupt circus-acts. Other races such as the Laputa scientists are more consistent - the name, 'la puta' for 'the whore', is a pretty big hint - but even there, flashes of wit, such as the famous scheme for 'extracting Sunbeams out of Cucumbers', have an imaginative beauty that makes them, like so many other details of the book, objects that we enjoy contextless, flourishes of whimsy that take on their own life. And come to that, even the clear moments of satire have just that quality: clarity. Jung Chang, in her autobiography Wild Swans, describes encountering Gulliver's Travels for the first time after the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution and comments, 'When I first read in Gulliver's Travels about the emperor who "published an Edict, commanding all his Subjects, upon great Penalties, to break the smaller End of their Eggs," I wondered if Swift had been to China.' (Page 604 in this edition.) Chang may have been in no position to assess the analogy's relevance to the issues of Catholic-Protestant fighting in eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland, but she didn't need the reference to understand Swift's attack on needless suffering inflicted over doctrinal differences. Swift's writing brims with moments that stand alone. It's just that they stand so alone that sometimes it can be hard to know where they stand in relation to reality at all.
Holden Caulfield famously loves books that make you wish the author was 'a terrific friend of yours'. Swift feels like an author you never want to meet: a man whose wrong side is a terrifying place to be - and who, like a dropped diamond, looks like a whirling flash of nothing but wrong sides. The details are so charming, so funny and clever and inventive, that small children are fed them like illicit treats out of the literary cupboard - and this is not a new phenomenon; John Gay wrote to Swift in 1726 that 'It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery' - and yet professional academics cannot agree on whether this is a book that concludes in damning all mankind. It's a pretty disquieting mixture. Even today with the issues he sided on long gone, Swift feels like a dangerous read: so brilliant, so aggressive, so fast-moving in his thoughts and inventions, that sometimes you fear that if you tilt the book wrong, it might explode in your hands. And if you just picked up and started reading from the first page, you'd never know it. You never do, until the next storm blows up, and suddenly you don't know where you are.
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