. . .

Make the voices stop

At a similar literary salon about, oh, maybe seven or eight years ago, the favorite first lines game was played, and I quickly realized that I didn't have any.

Partly that's because so much of my favorite writing occurred before the late-twentieth-century vogue for hooky opening sentences; partly it's because I dislike that vogue, which will seem as eccentically simplistic to future readers as an earlier era's focus on moments of moral sublimity seems to us. Grabbing the reader by her arm and yanking seems a rude way to initiate a conversation, and when I remember particularly enthralling beginnings, I remember their structural effects rather than the wording of sentence one: the early and peculiar disappearance of Madame Bovary's initial narrator, for example. (Back at that salon, the only opening line I could recall right off was a condensed version of the Bovary gambit, as played by Beckett in Mercier and Camier: "The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time." The rest of the book being I-less.)

On the other extremity, I'm a sucker for endings that snap close with a satisfying click, and I recall (and re-read) a good many last lines, with special fondness for those whose persistent startle ripples backward through the entire work, restructuring it retrospectively into something far richer than one had even dared to hope for as one kicked joyfully up surfacewards holding one's perfectly timed-to-the-last-page breath.

(Oddly, few of the examples I'm about to offer really count as "spoilers": to understand their defiance of expectations, one must have developed those expectations in the first place. The truly itchy can feel free to request story-wrecking explanations from me.)

Such an ending is more likely to speed the traveller on with a slamming of the door than with a gentle swinging to, treating readerly expectations so aggressively that they could almost be called rebuttals to their own books. (Ulysses is one such rebuff after another.) Closure is, after and above all, a refusal of further story.

Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

Madame Beck prospered all the days of her life; so did Père Silas; Madame Walravens fulfilled her ninetieth year before she died. Farewell.

"That was the happiest time we ever had," said Frédéric.

"Yes, perhaps you're right. That was the happiest time we ever had," said Deslauriers.

I remember them all with such happiness.
I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.
"That may be," Nora said, "but it's all pretty unsatisfactory."
He bent to pick it up, then stopped. Don't touch it, he thought, don't touch it.
[The first remains the most chill-enducing and daringly experimental ending I've ever read, as befits Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the pinnacle, in English literature, of characterization through narrative voice: The plot is resolved in the imperative! or, more accurately, via the narrator's very use of the imperative! Aided by the unemphasized selectivity of her seemingly conventional last paragraph wrap-up! (I think we can agree that exclamation marks are called for here, given the tightrope-acrobat precision of the performance.)

The second concludes Flaubert's most brilliant closing movement: that of the infinitely self-undermining Sentimental Education -- whose influence can be clearly seen in my third entry, from M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, and perhaps also in Mavis Gallant's "The Moslem Wife" (as cited in Eclogues).

Next, and speaking of characterization through narrative voice, the befuddled detective of Henry James's The Sacred Fount finally manages to reach a conclusion. Fifth is Dashiell Hammett's last word on the murder mystery genre (or perhaps on fiction in general) in The Thin Man, and lastly Patricia Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl abruptly becomes non-Highsmithian -- and freezes.]

Some end with a flourished signature:

And by what I have written in this document you will see, won't you, that I have obeyed her?
And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight.
Having seen this time what I needed to see, I started writing; and in time wrote all that you have read.
"You and Capablanca," I said.
[Janet Frame's Faces in the Water throws mental health into our eyes like vitriol; Virginia Woolf's Orlando shoots its arrows of desire right through the temporal barrier; Jack Womack's Going, Going, Gone goes home; Raymond Chandler's The High Window gives everyone a fucking break.]
Some with a gleeful or furious or heartbreaking -- but perfectly definite -- denial of closure:

That is said nowadays by the most modern of the physicists. If that is true, then that is how it is with Pooch and with Carmen and with all the others.
I'd always felt the future held wonderful things for me. I'd never quite caught up with it, but quite soon I would. I felt sure I hadn't long to wait.
Something further may follow of this Masquerade.
Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes.
[Carol Emshwiller's Carmen Dog; Barbara Comyns's Mr Fox; Herman Melville's The Confidence Man; and the devastating final sentence of John Crowley's Engine Summer, whose subject (in several senses) might be said to be the tragicomedy of incompletion.]
And some are simply, disturbingly or delightfully, accomplished:

"Nothing, Mamma. I was just thinking."

And, drawing a deep breath, he considered the faint whiff of scent that rose from his mother's corseted waist.

He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.
The beautiful weather was compared with the Great Disappointment of '44, when Christ failed once again to appear to the Millerites.
[Robert Musil's Young Törless enters sentimental grad school; Djuna Barnes's Nightwood pays tribute to Aphrodite; Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon lights out for the hills.]

2015-06-21 : Guy Lionel Slingsby kindly directed my attention to this trimmer and more Twitter-friendly approach.

. . .

A comment on "Some Versions of Mock-Pastoral, Part I"

2) It turns out there are fairies, men and women can't be friends, one big speech can save the nation and win your love, a guy in tights will protect us from a guy in tights, Republican retards do make the best philosophers, love does conquer all, Charlie Kaufmann must throw in the car chase, chivalry is not dead, Jesus loves screwball nuns, the highest corn stalk successfully blinds the rogue elephant, the right team always wins the big game, Ed Wood did produce a hit....

Yes, we knew it already; we tell it that way ourselves. Fools are almost always vindicated. Even before the pressures of the producer's pitch and the ad campaign, it's so much the fastest way home. Narrative closure is where any fiction, no matter how ostentatiously naturalistic in other ways, stops mimicking reality: where we more-or-less forcefully, more-or-less idiotically, shut our eyes to make the world go away. Intelligence complicates plots; only stupidity can end them.

That fraudulence stings less when there's more to it. Buster Keaton didn't just play a holy fool: he played a holy fool who performed phenomenally graceful and painful stunts.

Even so the formula does get tiresome. (They save the world and next month the world needs saving! They die tragically and then they come back! Oh, fermez la porte, s'il vous plait!) And so does living with the results of all this fool-flattery.

One way to de-simplify is to display those results: Don Quixote riding the bomb that'll trigger the Doomsday Device, hee-yah!; or Troilus and Cressida, even: A Trojan Ending. That's intellectually respectable, but there's something unlovably smug and stand-offish about it, with a whiff of titillation-and-punishment hypocrisy. Despite its manifest inferiority as a script, I find the ending of Elektra: Assassin far more satisfying than that of Watchmen (and the happy endings of The Sentimental Education and The Temptation of Saint Anthony far more satisfying than Madame Bovary's catastrophe).

Another way is to allow the dolts their rightness while still rewarding the clever, who, after all, only need to get stupid while negotiating the finale. Most of my favorite romantic comedies might be described that way; see also the aplomb with which Bill Murray redirects his cynicism from gullible students to the gods themselves in Ghostbusters.


Other possibilities include stepping in to remove the sophisticate before the third act, either by train (Metropolitan) or suicide (Primary Colors).

Postscript: See also the finale of Prince Prigio.

. . .

Make the Voices Stop, addendum

Despising all other grandiloquent nonsense, I will always respect scruples. I will always enjoy seeing highly scrupulous people obeying rules that they cannot articulate and of whose origins they know nothing.
- last sentences of Three Women: A Novel by the Abbé de la Tour,
by Isabelle de Charrière (tr. Emma Rooksby)


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.