Saturday, April 26, 2008

Opening Lines

I don't think I would have noticed the opening line except for a recent conversation in the back of my mind. A new found writer friend ( wonders about the power of opening lines either to draw a reader in or to become quotable-- she cites Jane Austen, but I am afraid to say that the only opening line I could conjure up was Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

With that as preamble, I was re-reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and stopped and lingered over the first sentence. It is a jewel. It is a sentence* that somewhere else might be lost in a clutter of detail. If Stevenson wrote character sketches, it might have been his description of Mr. Utterson. As the opening sentence of this story, however, it does so many things that it should be paid over time.

It introduces Mr. Utterson, sets the stage for the duality of character that is the central theme of the story, and it gives us a credible narrator. All in one sentence.

In case you can't find your copy of Jekyll and Hyde or you read the Classic Comic book version, here is my much loved sentence:

"Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrased in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable."

From The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories. 1968. Minster Classics, London, England.

I am reading a 1968 paperback of Jekyll and Hyde because James Robertson, "novelist poet and publisher" and keynote speaker as described on the schedule for the NALD literature development day included it in his list of 10 favourite books--of course with the usual disclaimer that "favourite" is a fickle title. Not that old ones fall off the list, but that new ones are showing up all the time. Like cats but longer lived.

I am re-reading this because despite the countless books I will never get a chance to read at all let alone a second time, I am old enough to appreciate that a book is not the same the second time around. Arguably, it is not the book that has changed but that intangible interrelationship between reader and book. The book will be better, or at least different, because I can now bring a different set of experiences to it, including James Robertson's recommendation and Caroline's question about opening sentences.

Now having finished it, I doubt if I would put it on my favourite's list, but it is still readable despite all the years that have passed since its writing, which is more than can be said for some books written closer to our own time. It is not likely to be a favourite because the Faustian bargain kinds of stories don't resonate with me and the structure of the story seems awkward. The introduction takes a long time and so the ending seems disproportionately hasty. Perhaps if I did not know that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same from long years of exposure then the secret letter which reveals all might have seemed more startling.

Perhaps as an older reader trying to mellow into acceptance of my own foibles, I appreciate more the pain that led Jekyll to experiment in the first place. It was not a hunger for the unsavory side of life that led him to experiment, rather it was his frustration at not being good enough. He wanted to be purely good and thought that by removing the evil side, he would attain that. Alas, the experiment, as well all know, went sadly wrong because evil was seductive and had a mind of its own.

I enjoyed the re-read but I look forward to some others on the list, which includes:

Neil Gunn (Silver Darlings or Blood Hunt)
Ali Smith (The Accidental and Free Love)
Louis Grassic Gibbon (a trilogy of works published as Scot's Quair)
R.L. Stevenson (Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde and Bottle Imp)
Raymond Carver a collection of stories
Don DeLillo (Underworld and Libra)
Fran O'Brien (At Swim 2 Birds)
?? Healey (A Goat Song)
James Joyce (Ulysses)
P.G. Wodehouse (Code of Woosters and The Mating Season)


At 1:39 AM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

I read (reread?) Treasure Island a few months ago and liked being able to see the mechanics of the story. One to avoid is Under the Volcano--a very depressing book, about an alcoholic who is not even likable. We read it for book club over the summer and then saw the movie for fun and interest. Movie no better than book, although Albert Finney's acting was superb.


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