All's Well That Ends Well: Tales From The Arse End of a Novel

on Friday, March 28, 2014
A recent feature in The Independent got me thinking - why do we always fixate on literature's best opening lines? Yes, there is an incredible art to crafting the perfect hook. And a couple of obvious ones immediately jump to mind:

"All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

"When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect." Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis. (Obviously using the Bernofsky translation here).

Heck, I could rattle them off all day. I even know the beginnings to a bunch of books I've never read thanks, in part, to the constant deluge of articles about the best first lines in literature. The general agreement that seems to surround a certain few seem to suggest that they are self-perpetuating creatures much like The Most Photographed Barn In America from Delillo's White Noise. It's like a bloody mantra. For what it's worth, you might want to resist the intense gravity of consensus and branch out because there are some rather excellent openings that just don't get the recognition they deserve:

I'm Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it. Philippe Claudel, Brodeck's Report.

Looking back on it later it could only have happened because Budai had gone through the wrong door in the confusion at the transit lounge and, having mistaken an exit sign, found himself on a plane bound elsewhere without the airport staff having noticed the change. Ferenc Karinthy, Metropole

At the end of the twentieth century, the young Montano, who had just published his dangerous novel about the curious case of writers who gave up writing, got caught in the net of his own fiction and, despite his compulsive tendency towards writing, suffered a complete block, paralysis, a tragic inability to write. Enrique Vila-Matas, Montano's Malady.

Great. Now I've gone and got myself caught up in the very thing I'd come here to slag off. But it's so much fun!

I digress.

While the merits of a punchy opening are self-evident, spare a thought for the poor arse-end of a novel. Too often overlooked, a great last line can ensure the novel stays with the reader long after it is shelved/given to the Salvos/sold at your grandma's garage sale. You can blame Karl Marlantes for this latest obsession of mine. As I finally reached the end of his uneven but rather brilliant brick, Matterhorn, I was so blown away by the last line that I forgave all the book's imperfections. Spoiler alert: This will not spoil the book for you. Check it out:

"He knew that all of them were shadows: the chanters, the dead, the living. All shadows, moving across the landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things as they moved but leaving nothing changed when they left. Only the shadows themselves could change."

Sublime. Those three sentences have haunted me for two weeks now. What then of other last lines? To me there is a clear frontrunner. Nothing has punched me in the gut quite so hard as Jospeh K.'s cry of existential resignation at the end of The Trial.

"“Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him."

Among the classics, a few others stand out:

"For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of hate." Albert Camus, The Stranger.

"He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die." Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man; and from man to pig; and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." George Orwell, Animal Farm.

Not that I'm offering anything new here. You can readily find all those with a basic Google search for "best last lines". I want to start a new mantra. Reload the canon, so to speak. So here are a few of my favourite closers from off the beaten track:

"And now, as he turned and joined in on the kicking and screaming, and the paddywagon had begun to pull away from the cemetery-in-shambles which would be the final installment in a ten week media blitz, he knew for certain that nothing was finished, that John was not in a better place, and that an object in motion tends to stay in motion. A lord at rest tends to roll in his grave." Tristan Egolf, Lord of the Barnyard

"A new legend will arise of a great flood sent by God upon a sinful humanity. And there will be stories of drowned mythical lands said to have been the cradle of human culture; there will perhaps be legends about some country called England or France or Germany...'
'And then?'
'... I don't know how it goes on.'
" Karel Capek, War With The Newts

"And the mouse took her own life." Jesse Ball, The Curfew.

"With a quick gesture he tosses back his straight greying hair, dragging his feet a bit, as if each step raised clouds of ashes, although there are no ashes in sight." Harry Mulisch, The Assault

"When he turned to look up for the last time at Ephraim, all he saw was a six pointed star turning slowly against the black sky." Michel Tournier, The Erl King (Also published as The Ogre)

"It all works out just right, and it turns out that you can get shot in the stomach and live, if you do it just right, and it turns out that I'm okay, it just happens to be the most excruciating pain I have ever felt in my life, and it feels really good." Charles Yu, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

That'll do me for now. Can't think of a punchy way to end this. (Insert best ever closing line to a blog post here)

Kafka's Metamorphosis: A Classic Transformed

on Tuesday, March 25, 2014
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (Tr: Susan Bernofsky)
When it comes to the cult of Franz Kafka, I have always been a lonely island miles off the coast of the greater archipelago. Sure, I love the usual suspects - The Trial is my favourite novel of all time. In The Penal Settlement is one third of my holy trinity of short stories (Peretz's Bontshe The Silent and Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart make up the rest), though it sometimes vies for position with The Hunger Artist. But when it comes to the one story that everyone seems to fall over themselves to love, The Metamorphosis, I am, at best tepid. Conceptually it is a work of genius but I have always thought it a little stale in execution. It was with some hesitation, then, that I picked up Susan Bernofsky's new translation of this "classic" tale and, colour me off-grey indistinguishable insect colour, I am a convert. I probably need not proselytise too much; I get that I am the guy who is turning up late to the party. But holy mother of Joseph K., Bernofsky has breathed so much new life into it that it was like reading the book afresh (her choice not to name the insect is itself a great start). I am reminded of Breon Mitchell's astounding translation of The Trial which managed to inject Kafka's humour back into the text and restore its timeless tone. So too Bernofsky has made The Metamorphosis something that might well have been written last week by a funny yet tortured writer struggling to make sense of a world spun out of control. It's current and exciting, yet entirely faithful. No matter what you think of The Metamorphosis - and I'm guessing that most of you love it - I urge you to go out and read this latest translation. I dare say it will transform before your eyes!
5 Out Of 5 Crushed Carapaces

Our Man In Hanoi: A Brief Encounter With Graham Greene

on Wednesday, March 19, 2014
It's funny how fate sometimes lands you in the lap of literary history.

There I was, happily traipsing through the streets of Hanoi, taking happy snaps of my grandmother and me eating all sorts of unidentifiable creatures, when a friend commented on one of my Facebook pics that I was at the hotel in which Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American. That's right, no expense has been spared for this holiday extravaganza with 90-year-old gran; we're shacking up at the Hotel Metropole, the only building here that is older than she is. A few quick chats with the manager and I tee up a visit to the Greene suite (which, I find out, is still used as a regular room).

Fast forward a couple of hours. The concierge leads us through the narrow corridors, swipes his key card and presto... we're in the room. Well, not that room. Turns out there was a slight miscommunication. I am in W. Somerset Maugham's room, the place he worked on The Gentleman In The Parlour. I plonk myself down at his desk, feeling thoroughly British. See:

It's cool but it is not THE room. Rumours abound that Graham's place is the showpiece, left intact from his days writing what is arguably his most celebrated work. Heck, I can make believe, if only for this experience, that I actually like The Quiet American. There's even word that his typewriter is still on the desk. I am practically plutzing to see it. I ask the concierge who says that unfortunately he doesn't think it's available to see. I become a petulant child... "But... But... But the manager promised!" A few quick calls and he comes back. The room is ready for me to see. I feel like a total dick but one who is about to play with Graham Greene's typewriter.

A gold plaque announces room 228 as The Graham Greene Suite. There's a second plaque telling me it's also the room where Australian Governor General Quentin Bryce had her headquarters while in Hanoi, but I don't really care. I am a proud aussie and all but seriously this room is about one person and one person only. And maybe his typewriter. The door opens to... just another opulent Metropole suite. Yes, any remnant of Greene's stay has been swept aside to make way for the ugly intrusion of modern technology. Large flatscreen TV. Fancy iPod dock with garish speakers above the sacred desk. It's a travesty. I compose myself, let the disappointment wash away. Graham Greene may well and truly have left the building but HOLY CRAP I'm at the desk. I'll just pretend there's a typewriter. Clackety-clack.

I suspect the concierge thinks I'm insane. I ask him to take a photo of me with the great man. Now we're besties and everything. Say "existential Catholic angst".

The Folio Prize: From The Jaws of Victory...

on Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Well, I should have seen this coming...

After months of overblown hoopla, they've finally announced the inaugural winner of the Folio Prize. You know, the one that was supposed to knock the Booker off its perch... It all got off to a promising start - a shortlist that, while not exactly groundbreaking, was sufficiently interesting to hint at something special. Breaths were baited. Then held. And then they go give it to the most overrated book of the past 18 months. Yes, the 2014 Folio Prize was awarded this morning to none other than George Saunders for Tenth of December. Cue mass exhalation. I'm not saying it's a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. It has a couple of amazing stories. And, while on the topic, it chalks up another major literary win for the short story; ain't no doubt they can play with the big boys now. But a more worthy recipient that Rachel Kushner, Sergio De La Pava, Anne Carson or Kent Haruf? Methinks not.

If there's a form of high culture hipsterism, this has got to be it. Yes, from the jaws of victory the Folio committee has snatched defeat. Which leaves Team Booker with one year's grace to get it right. Mark the 14th of October in your diaries right now. Potentially a far more important date than the Tenth of December.

Reading On A Jet Plane (Vietnam Edition)

on Monday, March 10, 2014
I'm off to Vietnam next week, taking my 90 year old grandmother on what I hope will be an amazing holiday. She's super ace, adventure hungry and great fun to hang around with. Much crazy food experimentation shall ensue. And cultural immersion. And just awesomeness.

Vietnam is one of those places I've always wanted to go but never had the chance. In fact, now I think about it, I know almost nothing about the place other than its cuisine (probably my favourite) and... well... to borrow from Fawlty Towers, don't mention the war. Grandma's been (obvious joke redacted) so she's set. I, on the other hand, risk turning up and sounding like an American tourist (apologies to my American friends but, seriously, you are really annoying when you travel).

Fourteen hours. That's how long I have to fix the problem. Yep, I'm gonna learn as much as I possibly can on the plane from Melbourne. I suppose a more normal fellow would be hitting the Lonely Planet guide, studying it in great detail, planning every minute of the holiday. Screw that. I want novels. Excellent novels. That's how I'm gonna learn! Now, before you jump down my throat, yes I've read The Quiet American. Didn't love it (oh god, crucify me now!) but did read it. Alas, that pretty much completes my entire Vietnam reading experience to date. Flicking through the various lists on Goodreads and Amazon, I can't help but notice that almost every novel about the country focuses on one thing and one thing only. To that end, I've already stocked up on a few must reads: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (which I've been wanting to read since it came out), Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien, Dispatches by Michael Herr (yes I realise it's not a novel) and The Last Supper by Charles McCarry.

That about gets me to Singapore. I still have another three and a half hours to get to Hanoi and I want some non-war books - preferably by Vietnamese writers. Which is where you come in. Hit me up with suggestions ASAP so Grandma doesn't spend the whole week rolling her eyes at my absolute ignorance.

Please, do it pho her! (sorry)