Saturday, March 27, 2010

John Banville's Opening Lines

The opening lines of the most recent novels by John Banville enchant me with their soft poetic nuanced consonants and vowels, openings which prepare the reader for a journey as much for the ear, as for the eye.

In The Sea, it is the letter D which binds the sentence with its wave-like interplay of vowel sounds:
They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.

In The Infinities, it is soft F's that are brought up to the diminished K in the last word, while the sounds of the letter A and O create a soothing counterpoint:
Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works.

And yet, the list of opening lines below reveals that the author has not always started his novels with such poetic rhythms and cadence. In fact, most readers like myself are probably used to his initial sentences of but a few words, such short-breathed musings as:

I am, therefore I think. -Birchwood
At first it had no name. -Dr. Copernicus
Words fail me, Clio. -The Newton Letter
Chance was in the beginning. -Mefisto
Here they are. -Ghosts
My love. -Athena
First day of the new life. -Untouchable
At first it was a form. -Eclipse
Who speaks? -Shroud

They are quiet, moody, reflective utterances, tentative thoughts of the first person narrators--excluding Dr. Copernicus--setting the tone of the narratives to follow.

The openings of Kepler and The Book of Evidence are perhaps more conventional:

-Johannes Kepler, asleep in his ruff, has dreamed the solution to the cosmic mystery.
-My Lord, when you ask me to tell the court in my own words, this is what I shall say.

Short crisp openings are not unusual. Melville's Moby Dick and Ellison's Invisible Man being two rather prominent American ones. They certainly contrast with the openings of Kleist, Sebald or Marias. Every book and author have their own rhythms. What they mean, I will leave to scholars, this is merely an observation of a reader who enjoys entering the fictional worlds created by John Banville. A reader, I might add, who is not a Compleat Banviller for I have yet to read Long Lankin, Nightspawn, and The Ark.

The gate is still open. (That might make a good opening sentence.)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Swimming in the Twitter Stream: John Banville's Infinities and other Gleanings

Over on Twitter, I like to post or retweet links to interesting articles, reviews or short videos. These links, however, eventually become subsumed in the depths of the twitter stream, and are more or less forgotten. Twitter is a fast medium with something new being tweeted every moment, so I thought I would try to capture a few of the more interesting links and put them in the blog.

John Banville is promoting his new book, The Infinities and was in Toronto at the beginnng of March--which incidentally came in like a lamb. Here is a short video of him reading from the book on a very pleasant day on the Toronto waterfront. A recent review of the new book in the Dublin Review of Books can be found here.

A recent auction brought in a hefty price for George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London: the BBC has a short piece on this sale here.

A selection of Otto Penzler's collection of British spy novels by John LeCarré, Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and others will be auctioned off and the Guardian has this item covered here.

And perhaps to finish, a link to a 1/2 hour film available free by Spike Jonze called I'm Here, a quirky tale of a meek library clerk--a robot, or android--whose life is forever changed. The link is here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pseudobookmarkiana, or, Money doesn't fall out of Books

When it comes to bookmarks, I enjoy the serendipitous encounter. Not for me the Bookmark Conventions, archive sleeves, binders and must haves. Whatever I come across is fine with me. Oddly enough, I don't always use bookmarkers when reading books. Most often it is a piece of paper to jot down notes as I go along. I used to occasionally mark books with light pencil marginalia, or page numbers on the flyleaves, and occasionally still do, but, unlike David Foster Wallace, I never marked a book in ink. (Or at least I believe I never did.) The problem with my method is that pieces of paper can become lost, while his annotations and jottings safely reside in perpetuity as can be seen at the University of Texas special collection of his work. Other than pieces of writing paper, I often use such things as ticket stubs, bills, coupons, Canadian Tire money, and occasionally my wife's favourite choice for a bookmarker, those sample cards procured from the perfume sections of department stores. They can provide an added olfactory quality to any reading experience.

Anything thin and paper-like could be used for a bookmarker which makes them good for advertising purposes. Businesses that have no connection with books often produce bookmark-like advertising ephemera. The Bar B Barn which opened in 1967 is still thriving. One of my uncles was a long-lunched regular, no doubt from its inception. I picked this one up in the 1980s. I remember a macho sport/businessman type crowd. Probably hasn't changed. The best ribs in town as is so often the boast. By propping this piece of ephemera on a plate or a cup, it would alert a waiter or waitress accordingly. There was often a line-up to get in, so a seat was much in demand. The die-cut flap mimics those in classic bookmarks hence the dual usage. It is, however, made of extremely thin paper. A fragile museum piece no doubt.

Amelio's pizza resto in the McGill ghetto is perhaps more appropriately linked to books being so close to my favourite secondhand bookshop The Word Bookshop and McGill University. A student reading a book there would not be uncommon, but more likely they would be enjoying one of Amelio's tasty rustic pizzas with a nice BYOB Chianti. This is an earlier business card for Amelio's when they were on Lorne. They are presently situated at 201 Milton in the old location of the, dare I say it, hippyish Café Commune.

Finding bookmarkers or pseudobookmarkers in books is the most enjoyable encounter. Letters, postcards, bus transfers, publisher's promotions, theatre tickets, racetrack betting stubs all make interesting page markers. But, for all my years of handling books, I have yet to find money. I remember a library patron who, when returning books, would open them and gently give them a shake, dryly stating he was checking for 1000 dollar bills. As likely as a Unicorn grazing on one's front lawn I imagine. Perhaps it would make a good saying: "money doesn't fall out of books you know."

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Brief Encounter: Ryszard Kapuscinski (or his Doppelganger)

There is nothing unusual about an author in a bookshop--a veritable cliché. As likely as a hand in a glove. Thinking about it now, I wonder if it was but a daydream.

When operating a brick and mortar bookshop, I did have a variety of writers and illustrators visit on occasion. Some well known, some less so. It seems I had to open my own shop in a small Ontario city to have the experience of seeing an author browsing bookshelves in public. Having lived in Montreal most of my life, and a frequent visitor of most Montreal bookshops, French and English, I can't recall ever seeing a well-known author casually browsing. This lack of observational success would seem almost an example of carelessness. Then again, in my defense, my eyes were usually preoccupied with the lettering on book spines, my neck twisted to the side in a classic book browsing position. Also, it was long before book festivals like Blue Metropolis brought world renowned authors to the streets of that fair city.

So, there I was, sitting at my desk in the corner, when a professorial looking older man entered my very small bookshop. (I always greeted customers with eye contact and a hello. By dipping my toe into the waters of conversation I never knew where the small talk might lead. On many occasions it brought interesting discussions--people often sitting down in the chair in front of my desk, easing their physical and mental burdens and making themselves at home--while others lead but to the shallow depths of meteorological concerns. Some never made it past the greeting stage.) The man who had entered the shop reminded me of a neighbour on the street where I grew up, my best friend's father, an Edinburgh educated professor of Philosophy at McGill University specializing in Kierkegaard, now long retired and an Emeritus Professor. He quietly moved about the shop with a sense of shadowless energy. This was a man who was in no need of assistance. Someone who was at home amongst books. Looking intently at a bookcase only a few feet from me, he reached out and pulled a hardcover book from the shelf. He turned to me and said with a slight European accent, "This is a very good book, you know." The intensity of his eyes and the force of his confidence startled me. Slightly taken aback by the assertion, I agreed that it was indeed a very good book . (I now wonder why it had not moved for three years. Perhaps I had priced it too high. Perhaps I really wanted to keep the book for myself.) Having read the book many years ago, I felt less than confident in broaching the subject matter with the customer who looked so intellectually spry. Betting on my memory, I waited for a response, hoping he might elaborate and open up the possibilities for discourse. In a way it was rather like a game of chess. He had surprised me with an unusual opening move and I had responded with an awkward conventional response. He put the book back in place and looked about for a few more minutes, and then he turned and thanked me kindly with a nod, and made his way out the door. The game aborted, our respective pawns left at the border. I felt rather mystified.

I then went over and pulled the book out. Even though the man's physical appearance made me think it could possibly be the very author of the book, I was also thinking it couldn't have been; the likelihood of the author dropping by my little shop in a rural city in southern Ontario seemed so unlikely. I had read a number of his pieces in Granta Magazine over the years, and some of his works, but I was not familiar with his changing physical appearance. The book he had pulled off the shelf was Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski, the 1994 Canadian first edition, over ten years old at the time. The rear flap of the dustwrapper had what seemed to be an even earlier photograph of the author. I could see the resemblance. A younger version with those intense eyes. I walked quickly to the windows and looked out, but I did not see him. Out on the stoop, I looked up and down the street but he had quite vanished. I contemplated closing the shop and running out to find him, Imperium in hand like some madly obsessive Ryszard Kapuscinski collector.

But no, I remained where I was--trapped by new customers having entered the shop--wondering if indeed it had been the author. The remainder of the day was spent in creating imaginary conversations with him. I imagined us walking about the city streets, feeding the swans on the Avon, discussing great topics and great writers. Then I saw us repairing to a fine restaurant for a good meal and a pint of Guinness. Cigars and cognac were probably conceived, the author regaling me with stories from his travels and extraordinary experiences. Such was the imagination of a bookseller who spent his days behind a desk surrounded by books and dust, daylight framed by a shop window.

I remember carrying the book in my book bag as I traversed the city over the next few days in case I happened across the him sitting in an outdoor café or buying toothpaste at a drugstore, but I was not fortunate in this serendipitous concern. I did not, however, stop people on the sidewalk asking if they had seen Ryszard Kapuscinski by any chance. Trying to sell books was crazy enough.

This unusual brief encounter with the author, or his doppelganger, I took as a form of admonishment and put the book back in my personal collection for future reference and re-reading. One day, perhaps, he would be in Toronto for a literary festival and I could try to approach him for a signature and ask him if had ever visited my small shop in a small southern Ontario city and, coming across this very volume, had asserted how very good it was. The meeting, however, was not to be. Ryszard Kapuscinksi died in January of 2007.

It it wasn't the author who visited my shop, then his doppelganger makes it doubly interesting. I think I would rather have the question to this one, than the answer.