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Let’s Revisit That Opening From The Death Of The Heart

I read through your comments on Tuesday’s post in which I gave you the opening to The Death of the Heart and asked for your thoughts on it.

A few highlights:

That passage was written by someone who loves the sound of language. It’s more poetry than prose, and it’s really pretty and very atmospheric. Would probably be lovely to read out loud. I tend to prefer quick, scannable sentences that don’t get in the way of the story, though. I’m not sure I’d enjoy this book. Guess I’m not the high-lit type. – Brandon

That’s a beautiful establishment of time and place. I get the sense that the narrator’s beloved solitude is about to be broken. – Paul

I’m reminded of the first and second paragraphs of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, where the whole mood of the book is set. (If you want to feel fog, read Bleak House.) Beginnings like this usually “put the frame around the picture” that has yet to unfold. “…swans in slow indignation swam.”: Wow; beautiful. – Lucille

Such gorgeous, meticulous descriptive writing! If I had just opened this book, I’d be pleasantly surprised and would want to read further. When a book opens with action, it might interest me, but it doesn’t tell me much about the author’s style. Heck, most stories written as assignments by kids focus heavily on action and dialogue. I’m looking for something else in my reading. -Candiss

It is a beautifully written paragraph. Reading the paragraph once made me want to read it again. When I read the paragraph, the writer made me want to slow down and take in the beauty of the words. It’s almost as if it is a hypnotic trance the language put me in. This is not a writer who gives me an ordinary language. This writer knows that English isn’t just for the popular potboiler but also it is the English of Shakespeare and Dickens and Keats. And it tells me that if I trust her, I may just get something special. – Don Royster

I would know that the novel was written a while ago, when readers had more patience. – Dennis Fischman

I agree with all of you. Can I do that?

I think that paragraph, with all its imagery, is beautifully written. I agree with Brandon when he said “it’s more poetry than prose, and it’s really pretty and atmospheric.”

However, an opener like that also makes me suspicious, because a book that opens like that tells me this might be a writer who loves description over plot. It tells me the pacing of this novel might be slow. It tells me I might have another Virginia Woolf on my hands.

That said, for those of you worried about the entire novel being like that, it does pick up. I’m about 100 pages in, and Bowen is moving the story along, slightly. It’s very much a conversation-driven story with a lot of backstory in the early pages.

You can’t really judge a book by its first paragraph, but I think most of us are mature enough readers to not do that. However, you can judge the first paragraph for what it is. Those opening lines certainly set the stage and give you a sense for the author’s style.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I might have some trouble reading Elizabeth Bowen, but we’ll see. Like I said, the story begins moving a little more in those early pages. I’m just praying I don’t have another Possession on my hands.

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. I want to reread the book; I read it so long ago I don’t think I appreciated its nuances. Language is what makes that kind of story different from an episode of teen drama on TV! Same plot but so differently, so exquisitely expressed.

    Like

    May 8, 2014
  2. I just have to say that your blog is one of the few that I ACTUALLY keep up with.

    Like

    May 8, 2014
  3. Ted Fontenot #

    I reminded of the advice P. G. Wodehouse had for the young writer starting out: “I’d give him practical advice, and that is always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. … Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start.” Not that the piece you quoted is a “great slab”.

    However, it can be done, if there is a narrative drive. I think of this:

    “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
    When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he
    was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his
    right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his
    thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and
    punt.” There isn’t any dialogue for four pages, when Dill pops into the lives of Jem and Scout, but there is a detailed working out of place, time, and characters.

    Another novel which has a great slab of prose at the beginning that seems to work fine is Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. It does the same thing as To Kill A Mockingbird, even goes into the philosophical underpinnings of the story, but is concrete. There’s a sense of old New Orleans, of the legacy of the antebellum South, of alienation (William Holden walking the street “certifying” ordinary existence), the main characters longing for meaning and romance. Etc.

    Bowen’s beginning seems to just be engaging (or indulging) in an extended but attenuated pretty prose description exercise.

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    May 8, 2014
    • Great points. There’s definitely something to that. Nothing moves a story like dialogue. Plus, it’s just easier to read on the page than a big block of text.

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      May 8, 2014
  4. I really like it. It slows my eye, so you might be right about the pacing, but I tend to like prose that makes me stop and weight each word with the appropriate inflection. I imagine the writer fine tuning that paragraph, crafting it, making it perfect. Having said that I really like Virginia Woolf so, you know, there’s that.

    I just had a similar post, with a similar opening par, By Catherynne M Valente. I love it. Nothing like setting the scene with style.

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    May 8, 2014
  5. I loved this book and indeed most of what she writes, although I agree with your suspicion. I think she is a writer who values description over plot. I am the opposite of Brandon: I don’t like sentences that are scannable. I want crunchy sentences that I can turn over in my mind for pure enjoyment when the book is put away. Elizabeth Bowen gives me all that. I read her for nourishment. I started with The Last September and worked my through, yum yum 🙂

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    May 8, 2014
  6. The good news is this one is much shorter than Byatt.

    Like

    May 9, 2014
    • Ted Fontenot #

      The problem isn’t with description per se. It’s with static description. Some uses are dynamic. They promote the development of plot, place, or character. They go somewhere.

      Like

      May 9, 2014
      • Ted Fontenot #

        Oops, didn’t mean to post it under your comment.

        Like

        May 9, 2014

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