Good beginnings: the best of Saki
I have just re-read ‘The Lumber Room’, a short story by the former Burma police officer H H Munro, who wrote under the name of Saki. More than 30 years after having the story read aloud to me when I was 15 years old, its language and tone are still vividly familiar, even though until this week I had had only one encounter with it.
Saki captivates the reader from the very start: ‘The children were to be driven, as a special treat, to the sands at Jagborough. Nicholas was not to be of the party; he was in disgrace.’ With these 27 words, Saki invites us into the household of ‘The Lumber Room’.
We find that it is one of privilege (there is a car or carriage available, pre-First World War) and one with rules (trips to the seaside don’t happen every day). Nicholas is the only child named, so takes his place as the central character of the tale. The use of the passive ‘were to be driven’ places the children in a formal social hierarchy in which adults are in charge, paving the way for the central tension of the story, the power play between Nicholas and the aunt, who also unnamed and designated by the definite article rather than the more familiar ‘his’, assumes the role of representative grown-up and authority figure.
The second sentence, without a single adjective or adverb and by the measured pause introduced by the semi-colon, succeeds in emotionally engaging us in what is to follow. Already, our loyalties are divided. On the one hand, we are asked to do the right thing by siding with the adults in chastising an errant child. On the other, our curiosity is aroused as we do not yet know what terrible deed has led to Nicholas’ exclusion from the family group. Saki has us on tenterhooks for just long enough to keep us intrigued without boring us.
The next sentence reveals that Nicholas is doubly responsible for his own fate: not only did he refuse to eat his bread-and-milk breakfast ‘on the seemingly frivolous ground that there was frog in it’, but we also discover that ‘he had put it there himself, so he felt entitled to know something about it’. Now, we transfer fully to the side of Nicholas, confident of his ability to outsmart his elders and therefore unwilling to align ourselves with them.
The short story is the miniature of the creative writing world. To the creative writer whose natural bent is the airy mansion of the novel, the form offers the discipline of succinctness and the associated delight of savagely trimming the fat. Short story writers must turn their attention from the first paragraph to enticing the reader into a time and a place which anchors the brief narrative that follows. They must introduce a handful of characters who are clearly distinguished one from the other. And they must do all this in as few as six pages, or two and a half thousand words. In ‘The Lumber Room’, Saki achieves it in just two sentences.
What makes a short story opening work for you – and are you able to point to one you admire above all others?
6 thoughts on “Good beginnings: the best of Saki”
A good opening for me, is one which can transplant the reader into the world of the primary character in as few ‘moves’ as possible. One of my favourite beginnings is that of Raymond Carver’s ‘Viewfinder’: “A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.” This opening comes as such a surprise to the reader that the reader instantly feels something of the surprise that the primary character must have felt at opening the door to a man with no hands and a camera. The story itself is as surreal (and yet, paradoxically, normal in the sense that it depicts an otherwise mundane event) as its opening, and is darkly humorous; for example, I recall that the central character is eager to give the man a drink so he can watch him lift the cup (or glass, I can’t recall at present) with his hooks. I found myself, whilst reading the story, quite embarrassed to share the same curiosities as the central character, despite those curiosities being quite ‘wrong’ and insensitive.
There’s also that element in The Lumber Room – the reader empathises with the boy as a kind of ‘hero’ against all odds, and by the end we’re quite lifted by schadenfreude at all the misfortunes inflicted on the largely innocent secondary characters; the reader roots for ‘their boy’ in the same way that a patriot roots for ‘their country’ in war, regardless of moral perspective.
The thrill of the cut is by no means exclusive to the short story writer. As any unpublished novelist who has ever tried to snare the attention of a slush-pile reader will know, the ability to write a stunning opening sentence and maintain interest in the reader is crucial.
A good opening is necessary in any written genre; but the great beginning is not always the first thing that gets written down, dictated by that mythical creature the Muse or that other mythical creature called ‘Inspiration’. Getting hung up on how brilliantly your favourite writer begins a story or a novel or a chapter or a poem or sonata, is not going to help you find your own great beginnings. The act of reading does not (always) reflect the act of writing. As students of creative writing we need to remember that the messy process of composition is hidden.
Miniatures of the creative writing world, hmm. Let’s not forget that wonderful form the Haiku – a whole world in a mere seventeen syllables.
Some good openings:
‘The stairwell with its stained-glass windows was as dark and cold as it had been fifteen years earlier.’ From ‘The Woman Who Borrowed Memories’ by Tove Jansson, in her collection of Short Stories ‘Travelling Light’.
‘In the end she went home, in spite of herself.’ From ‘The Island’ by Roger Hubank in the collection ‘Sea Stories’ published by the National Maritime Museum.
‘And because sometimes he no longer knew what to do, or how to be, he went up to the emptied church on the hill and simply looked out of the window for a while.’ From the title story in the collection, ‘Now that you’re back’ by A.L. Kennedy.
‘Early in the year 19—, when Srinagar was under the spell of a winter so fierce it could crack a man’s bones as if they were glass, a young man upon whose cold-pinked skin there lay, like a frost, the unmistakable sheen of wealth was to be seen entering the most wretched and disreputable part of the city, where the houses of wood and corrugated iron seemed perpetually on the verge of losing their balance, and asking in low, grave tones where he might go to engage the services of a dependably professional burglar.’ From ‘The Prophet’s Hair’ by Salman Rushdie in his collection, ‘East, West’.
A good start!
My immediate thought was of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” which I haven’t yet finished: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”
But I love some of the beginings of Charles Dickens’ novels – “A Tale of Two Cities” for instance “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …”.
“Hard Times” ‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. …”.
And “A Christmas Carol”: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”
I’ve tried to find a common denominator for these beginnings. Kafka’s is striking because it baldly states the problem raising all sorts of questions in my mind – who, what, why, where, whem and how (thanks, Kipling).
But the Dickens starts are more varied. I love the rhythm of “A Tale of Two Cities” – it rolls off the tongue inviting you to love the language. At the same time, it conveys to me a feeling of period – the ultimate folly of the Age of Enlightenment.
“Hard Times” lays out the philosophy of its principal protagonist right from the start in short pithy sentences. It makes me wonder “Surely there must be more to life than that – and indeed Dickens follows through on that thought.
The start to “A Christmas Carol” is so weird as to grab my attention right from the beginning.
Indeed, it seems to me the key thing about all these starts isthat they are attention grabbing, though for different reasons, and that is what you want for a good start – grab the attention and make your reader want to read on – for whatever reason.
A further thought.
The discussions so far have centred around works of fiction. Should writers of non-fiction seek to grab attention in the same way? I’ve taken the most accessible books off my bookshelf for a quick look.
Bill Bryson’s “At Home” starts: “In the autumn of 1850, in Hyde Park in London, arose a most extraordinary structure …” (the Crystal Palace). It strikes me that this is a take it or leave it start, but it does raise a question – what has this got to do with “Home” – and that may encourage you to read on.
Max Hastings’ “Finest Years” starts “For seven months after the Second World War began in 1939, the British people deluded themselves that it might gutter out before there was a bloodbath in the west.” Now this, to me, is a much stronger start, even if you know your history. I think it is stronger largely because of the language, but it does also raise questions. Why did things change? (as we know that they did), who was reasonsible for the change? How did that change manifest itself?
To be honest, Max Hastings makes me more interested in reading his book than Bill Bryson does his (and no, it’s not just a question of subject matter!)
This leads nicely to my interest which is poetry. Should I be worrying more about the fist line (or first stanza) than the rest of the poem?
Endings and beginnings are important in many arts as well as writing. I was once advised that when presenting pictures I should aim to start with my second best picture and end with my best. That rule wouldn’t work for every type of presentation, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb: first and last impressions are a large part of what we remember about anything.
Back to literary form, a few beginnings and endings that have haunted me since I first came across them.
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again.’ The rhythm and intonation in this first line of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca are curiously haunting and compelling and somehow drive you further into the narrative.
And the anger and power of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, which starts from these staccato lines with their intense visual and sound images:
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…”
and ends with these lines, almost spat out in their intensity and at the same time so smooth and rhythmic and abstract in comparison to the battlefield experience documented in the first lines:
“The old lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro Patria Mori.”
Every spring I hear in my head the opening liens of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, which first read as a teenager doing A levels:
“April is the cruellest month (breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain…)”
In novels and stories I recall a number of otherwise good works where an unsatisfactory ending (when you feel that the author just hasn’t known how to get out of the thing) has ruined my memory of an otherwise good piece. The ending which has stuck in my memory most from a lifetime’s reading is probably this one:
“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
From ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce.
Hi Eileen, your mention of Eliot’s poem has brought to mind another of his; The Hollow Men begins with:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
This poem managed to resurrect my interest in poetry last year from the moment I read those opening lines, which seem to read themselves in my head as a kind of Solemn choral chant, evocative of secret sects, and that same droning rhythm pervades the entire poem right up to its famous closing lines:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
I’m glad you mentioned The Dead; it’s one of my favourite short stories and as a whole serves as a good ‘introduction’ to Joyce’s more experimental later work in its criticism of language; right from its deceptively simple first line of: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” That innocuous dead metaphor ‘literally run off her feet’ (the first of several dead metaphors throughout the story) preempts Joyce’s later experimentation with language… most of which I have to confess I find far less pleasant to read. It’s boldly critical prose such as this that maintains my interest in literature; the short story seems to be a particularly good format for making such ‘statements’, since within a novel they might be easily missed or become tedious if drawn out.