Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Strong openings

Being on vacation at home this week has allowed me to read two wonderfully funny and sarcastic novels of exuberantly stylized prose, Peter De Vries's Slouching Towards Kalamazoo (1983) and Jerzy Pilch's The Mighty Angel (2000, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston in 2009). The opening paragraphs of both books are worth sharing, for both declare themselves fervently, instantly establishing their distinctive voices.

De Vries's book is narrated by a man looking back on his precocious, if underachieving, fifteen-year-old self, and it opens like this:
My old eighth-grade teacher, Miss Maggie Doubloon, said she was half Spanish, half French, and half Irish, a plethora of halves not entirely unnoticed by some of the brighter pupils. Joke though it was, it well expressed her superabundance of spirits, the verve and fire--sheer spitfire, fire-in-the-belly fire--that made her in the end decide that that golden oldie, The Scarlet Letter, had long been due for an overhaul; must, in fact, be dragged forcibly out of the gray, chill, toxic riverbottom fog of Puritan morality and up into the sunlight of sexually liberated twentieth-century America. To be sure, such stormy petrel stuff was only an intensification of the author's own implied disapproval of the colonial austerity he was depicting, but Hawthorne's "liberalization" left ninety-five percent of the way still to go. A man for whom the Boston Unitarianism of his day was a little far out isn't going to waltz you into the twentieth century. The modernization Miss Doubloon effected wasn't something she wrote--she lived it. That naturally involved committing Hester Prynne's sin, in a North Dakota city of which the mayor, a precursor of today's Moral Majority, said on hearing she had assigned The Scarlet Letter to us eighth-graders, "We're gonna tighten our Bible Belt! We're gonna show 'em we're the buckle of that belt!" Perhaps you share my secret taste for old-fashioned windbags. In any case, I got the message. I must absent me from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw my breath in pain, to tell Maggie Doubloon's story. So here it goes.
Pilch's book, on the other hand, is narrated by an alcoholic about to embark on yet another attempt to dry out:
Before the mafiosi appeared in my apartment in the company of the dark-complexioned poetess Alberta Lulaj, before they wrenched me from my drunken sleep and set about demanding--first with dissembling pleas, then with ruthless threats--that I arrange for Alberta Lulaj's poetry to be published in the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, before there began the tempestuous evnts I wish to recount, there was the eve of those events, there was the morning and evening of the preceding day, and I, from the morning to the evening of the preceding day, had been drinking peach vodka. Yes indeed, I had been drinking peach vodka, brutishly longing for one last love before death, and immersed up to my ears in a life of dissolution.
The mention of poetry reminds me of a funny exchange from later in De Vries' novel, between the narrator and a policeman in a park:
At last [the cop] comes over, propelled by curiosity.

"You a poet or something?"

"How did you guess?"

"Way you gnaw your pencil and look off into space, like groping for a rhyme."
As for poets and drink, I've got more on that subject today over at the Constant Conversation.

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