Scottish author Muriel Spark’s The Hanging Judge (1994) has as strong an opening to a short story as any:
“The passing of sentence,” wrote one of the newspapers, “obviously tried the elderly judge. In fact, he looked as if he had seen a ghost.” This was not the only comment that drew attention to Sir Sullivan Stanley’s expression under his wig and that deadly black cap required by British law at the time. It was the autumn following the lovely summer of 1947. …
It had been Justice Stanley’s lot to condemn to death several men in the course of his career—no women, incidentally, but that was due to the extreme rarity of women murderers. …
Sir Sullivan Stanley’s facial expression throughout the trial had been no different from his expression at any other time or in any other trial.… “He was plainly shaken, not so much when he heard the foreman of the jury pronounce the word ‘guilty’ as when he put on the black cap which had been lying before him. Can it be possible,” speculated this reporter, “that Judge Stanley is beginning to doubt the wisdom of capital punishment?”
Sullivan Stanley was not beginning to doubt anything of the kind. The reason for the peculiar expression on his face as he passed judgement on that autumn afternoon in 1947 was that, for the first time in some years, he had an erection as he spoke; he had an involuntary orgasm. (564-5)
In Spark’s typical sharp style, the premise—a judge experiences an involuntary erection/orgasm while sentencing the last ever British man to death—is executed with precise slyness; the punchline is explosive. Once I start reading, I have to finish it (and I have no doubt that readers of this blog will now halt their reading to track down Spark’s story to find out what happens to Sir Sullivan Stanley).
Literature is full of great openings: the literary and literal mire of Dickens’ Bleak House (1852–3), the alliteration that causes readers to involuntarily cluck their tongues at the start of Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), or the punch to the face that is the first line of Bellow’s Herzog (1964):
If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. (1)
Then of course, the famous Russians. The openings of Tolstoy’s A.K. (1878): Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (1)
Dostoevsky’s Notes (1864): I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. (1)
Gogol’s Overcoat (1842): In the department of—but it is better not to mention the department. There is nothing more irritable than departments, regiments, courts of justice, and, in a word, every branch of public service. Each individual attached to them nowadays thinks all society insulted in his person.
Or punchy final lines, as at the end of Woolf’s An Unwritten Novel (1920):
And yet the last look of them—he stepping from the kerb and she following him round the edge of the big building brims me with wonder—floods me anew. Mysterious figures! Mother and son. Who are you? Why do you walk down the street? Where to-night will you sleep, and then, to-morrow? Oh, how it whirls and surges–floats me afresh! I start after them. People drive this way and that. The white light splutters and pours. Plate-glass windows. Carnations; chrysanthemums. Ivy in dark gardens. Milk carts at the door. Wherever I go, mysterious figures, I see you, turning the corner, mothers and sons; you, you, you. I hasten, I follow. This, I fancy, must be the sea. Grey is the landscape; dim as ashes; the water murmurs and moves. If I fall on my knees, if I go through the ritual, the ancient antics, it’s you, unknown figures, you I adore; if I open my arms, it’s you I embrace, you I draw to me–adorable world! (54)
To my mind, these words have never lost their freshness. They outlive their period. Most prose these days feels anachronistic before it’s even printed. The ‘now’ has become a very slippery fish. At this moment, there’s a temptation in every single author’s mind to write about COVID-19, quarantine, travel restrictions, toilet paper hoarders, empty grocery shelves, mass death… and yet when that avalanche of fiction inevitably comes in the months and years that follow, I doubt many of us will feel much attachment to them. Our current experiences will likely feel a greater affinity with Camus’ The Plague (1947) or Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (1842). Perhaps this is because Camus and Poe’s stories aren’t really ‘about’ plagues. I therefore predict that the first great post-corona work (whatever that may or may not mean) will not in fact be ‘about’ the virus as such; it will be about something else entirely. And through this ‘other’ thing, our current times will be retrospectively illuminated. But only for some of us.
This the great paradox of contemporary arts. One wishes to press so hard on the present one appears as a prophet, and yet one also wishes to express a transcendent longing beyond the immediate. To do both seems an impossible dream. Yet that is exactly how I feel when I view British artist Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991). This piece includes the restored contents of a garden shed exploded by the British army at Parker’s request. The retrieved pieces are suspended from the ceiling, as if held mid-explosion. It is lit by a solitary lightbulb in the centre, which casts sharp, broad shadows around the surrounding walls. This work was created around the time of the IRA bombings. It also perfectly recreates the still frame of an explosion. Parker’s work is intimately attached to that period—that split-second—and yet her precisely-hung rubble still has the power to devastate me now; her archetypal explosive visual transcends history.
This was American Sterling Professor for the Humanities Harold Bloom’s (2003) greatest praise to Shakespeare and Cervantes:
Cervantes and Shakespeare, who died almost simultaneously, are the central western authors, at least since Dante, and no writer since has matched them, not Tolstoy or Goethe, Dickens, Proust, Joyce. Context cannot hold Cervantes and Shakespeare: the Spanish golden age and the Elizabethan-Jacobean era are secondary when we attempt a full appreciation of what we are given.
I quote Bloom aware of Naomi Wolf’s accusations against Bloom sexually encroaching her while at Yale. The point still stands. And yet, there are, in recent years, a handful of disgraced writers—notably comics—whose works and jokes I used to love and admire, but that now barely generate a smirk. The gags and bits are too heavily associated with questionable personalities. To revisit these jokes is like reading sheet music. You can admire it on the compositional level, but the symphony is silent. Is this just staunch political correctness on my part, or a failure of their words to transcend history?
Is this true across the board? If historians tomorrow unearthed undeniable proof that Shakespeare committed several murders, could we ever read Macbeth with the same reverence again? Perhaps there’s a problem with the whole author-as-individual ideal we seem to romanticise. Perhaps we should just toss words into the void, uncited, unsigned, unattributed. Let myth roll around, erode, mistranslate, remix. Right now, I’m tempted to gather all of these works I’ve cited—the expired jokes, some Shakespeare sonnets, profound opening/closing lines, maybe also a couple of pamphlets on hand-washing and social distancing—chuck them all into a poetry generator and see what it spews out.
In fact I have done just that. It’s out there in the world, now, floating around somewhere. Perhaps on a random internet message board. Perhaps as a review for a real estate company in the Philippines. Perhaps scratched into a bathroom stall door. Perhaps in a note in a bottle floating in the Pacific. Perhaps scribbled inside a library book’s margins. I assure you, these words are magnificent. They define and transcend our times. They are wholly efficacious in their purpose. But they cannot be read here. You’ll just have to keep your eyes open. Trust me.
David Thomas Henry Wright won the 2018 Queensland Literary Awards’ QUT Digital Literature Prize and Honourable Mention for the 2019 Robert Coover Award for a work of Electronic Literature. He has been shortlisted for several other national and international literary prizes, and published in various academic and creative journals. He has a PhD (English and Comparative Literature) from Murdoch University and a Masters (Creative Writing) from The University of Edinburgh, and taught Creative Writing at China’s top university, Tsinghua. He is currently co-editor of The Digital Review and Associate Professor (Comparative Literature) at Nagoya University.
Bellow, S. (1965) Herzog, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Bloom, H. (2003) ‘The knight in the mirror’, The Guardian. Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/dec/13/classics.miguelcervantes
Dostoevsky, F. (1972) Notes from the underground and The double, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Gogol, N. (1972) Diary of a madman, and other stories, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Spark, M. (2011) Muriel Spark: The Complete Short Stories, Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
Tolstoy, L. (1987) Anna Karenina, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Woolf, V. (2008) The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.