Britain's first book blogger (November 2000). This Space is now a major motion picture, or something.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tense beginnings

Sandra of BookWorld draws my attention to Susan Hill's Creative Writing Course, run from her popular blog. Hill warns readers who might take part that she is "the Simon Cowell of the Aspiring Writers' world", which presumably isn't intended to mean she knows nothing about art and everything about marketing. Anyway, the first part is harmless enough and involves identifying opening paragraphs of novels that "urge [you] either to read on immediately or to shove the book back on the shelf". It's a good start.

As I've mentioned before, I'm drawn to reading about Creative Writing courses, not only because I'm keen to look everywhere for the way forward with writing but also because, as that link attests, I'd probably be very negative and alienate my previously enthusiastic colleagues. It would be another act of literary self-definition. The only creative writing course I have taken, however, is my own. And I'm more Morbo than Simon Cowell.

But going back to the question of novel openings. Sandra makes it clear from her own search that there is no guarantee of reading-on in either a slow-burner or a meteorite. So it must be something else, something more fundamental. And that reminds me of an essay in The Singer on the Shore in which Josipovici quotes Proust on his own unexpected reactions in reading:
I have to admit that a certain use of the imperfect indicative – that cruel tense which portrays life to us as something at once ephemeral and passive, which, in the very act of retracing our actions, reduces them to an illusion, annihilating them in the past without leaving us, unlike the perfect tense, with the consolation of activity – has remained for me an inexhaustible source of mysterious sadness. Still today I can have been thinking calmly about death for hours; I need only open a volume of Sainte-Beuve's Lundis and light, for example, on this sentence of Lamartine's (it concerns Mme d'Albany): 'Nothing about her at that time recalled … She was a small woman…etc.' to feel myself at once invaded by a profound melancholy. (from On Reading)
"The use of a tense in a book" Josipovici explains "or of a preposition or conjunction, seems to force upon us truths we had hitherto protected ourselves from, or which we could never have experienced if left to our own thoughts."

Hence Proust's defence in the same volume of the significance of Flaubert's style. His use of "the passé défini, of the passé indéfini, of the present participle, of certain pronouns and prepositions ... renewed our vision of things almost as much as Kant, with his categories and his theories of knowledge and the reality of the external world."

Yes, reading others is a good start.

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