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.)

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