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16 Marts 2005 @ 17:46
Dark and squirmy  

I would like to nominate Umberto Eco for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The BLFC, for those of you who don't already know it, is a competition to see who can create the most inauspicious opening sentence for a hypothetical novel. This is done in memory of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the perpetrator of the immortal line "It was a dark and stormy night...," which was subsequently popularized by a certain beagle. One quibble I often have with the winning entries, charmingly awful as they may be, is that many of them sound as if they could just as easily (if not more so) be the last lines of really bad novels; some of them, in fact, manage to tell a complete story all by themselves.

What qualifies Eco for the prize, though, is a genuine opening sentence, although it's the first sentence of a short story, not of a novel. In the March 7 issue of The Beau and the Butterfly, there appears a story by Eco called "The Gorge," translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock. It begins like this:

My memory is proglottidean, like the tapeworm, but unlike the tapeworm it has no head, it wanders in a maze, and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey.

Now, let's not try to assimilate this all at once, but consider it one piece at a time.

My memory is proglottidean...
I don't usually find myself reaching for a dictionary four words into a story, but I do not necessarily resent having to do so. The trouble in this case is that, having done so, ich bin so klug als wie zuvor. We could take the etymological literalist approach, and decide that this means that the narrator's memory is on the tip of his tongue, but the next bit gives this interpretation the lie:
...like a tapeworm...
Okay, a tapeworm is proglottidean because it has proglottides—segments containing both male and female reproductive organs. I suppose it is quite possible that the narrator's memory does indeed include segments containing both male and female reproductive organs, but one would be hard-pressed to come up with a more obscure way of saying so. Furthermore, nothing in the rest of the sentence or the rest of the story seems to support this interpretation... or indeed any other interpretation. A few sentences on, Eco writes "But when I think of my life at the Oratorio I can see it all, like a film. No longer proglottidean but, rather, a logical sequence...," and the rest of the story consists of a racking good yarn about the narrator's boyhood in Italy during the Second World War, which belongs to the non-proglottidean sectors of his memory. The only real clue we have as to what Eco means by proglottidean is that he places it in opposition to "a logical sequence." Perhaps there is no particular logic to the sequence in which proglottides are chained together in a tapeworm, but surely the illogic is not in the mere existence of the proglottides themselves?
...but unlike the tapeworm it has no head...
Here I would invite you to consider this picture of a tapeworm. Yes, the tapeworm does have a head, but that's one of the least salient features of its anatomy. In order to discern the head, one has to resort to a process of elimination: "Ah, yes—this end tapers off to a point, so the head must be the other end."
...it wanders in a maze...
The tapeworm inhabits mammalian intestines. If that doesn't constitute wandering in a maze, I don't know what does.
...and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey.
Consider now the life cycle of the tapeworm. Does it begin when a proglottis breaks off from the main worm and ventures off in search of new intestines to inhabit? Or is that when it ends? Or perhaps it begins when the tapeworm finds a suitable host, or perhaps at some other point. You could start the tapeworm's biography, or finish it, anywhere you please, really.

So the opening sentence consists of an undecipherable metaphor, followed by a list of three ways in which the narrator's memory ostensibly differs from a tapeworm, but which could just as easily have been presented as ways in which the narrator's memory resembles a tapeworm. It is also, as far as I can tell, entirely irrelevant to the story that follows it. In fact, the story could quite happily start at its third paragraph, which, with the parasites left behind for good, begins like this:

Life changed when I was eleven years old, with my evacuation, in 1943, to Solara.

That's a pretty nice opening sentence right there. As for the proglottidean nonsense that precedes it, perhaps there's some sense to it in the original Italian that's been lost in translation, but if anyone can explain it, I'll give them sixpence. I don't believe there's an atom of meaning in it.

w1ldc47w1ldc47 on 17. Marts, 2005 07:20 (UTC)
Well, I can't explain it, not having read the story, but it occurs to me that one could imagine Mr. Eco (or, rather, his translator) to have committed a comma splice after "it has no head" in which case the next two statements could be intended as ways in which his memory does indeed resemble a tapeworm.

Also, I expect that the memory being a proglottidean business is explained in your post. You say that the tapeworm lifecycle can be said to begin at the point when a proglottis breaks off and looks for a new host (generally spending a fair bit of time wallowing in shit in the meantime). One's memory (or at least one's journeys through it) can often seem like this. You're going through it and everything's in sequence and then suddenly you hit a point and *boink* you've broken off the sequence, and you're focussed solely on this one part, and wallowing in shit (metaphorically, of course. At least one hopes).

In fact, the only thing that makes absolutely no sense to me is the bit about a memory differing from a proglottidean in that it has logical sequence. From what little I remember of first-year biology, it seems to me that proglottideans have little else. They consist of basically identical parts that are attached one at a time, end to end. If that's not logical sequence then I don't know what is.
Q. Pheevr: Portrait of the blogger as a young Pogueq_pheevr on 18. Marts, 2005 11:29 (UTC)
Re: Hmmm

Well, okay. I'm willing to accept the idea that there may be something that memory and tapeworms have in common, and your story about wallowing in shit, etc., seems pretty plausible. But I still think the metaphor makes no sense in context—in relation to everything else that follows it, it's either contradictory or irrelevant. So the first sentence is just this obscure, unhelpful, and mildly disgusting obstacle one has to get past in order to find the story itself.

w1ldc47w1ldc47 on 20. Marts, 2005 21:16 (UTC)
Re: Hmmm
I suppose. But unlike the winners of the contest, this sentence actually makes me want to keep reading, which is, after all, the most important function of a first sentence, no? Maybe it's just because I'm weird, but I think that someone quirky enough to have something so irrelevant and disgusting as their first sentence is probably going to write something I want to read. My first reaction upon reading this post was to wonder if Torsten had any Umberto Eco that he'd be willing to lend me. My first reaction upon reading through a few of the winners of the contest was to stop reading. And that, I think, is the real measure of the quality of an opening sentence.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 21. Marts, 2005 06:34 (UTC)
Re: Hmmm

Well, maybe it's a better opening sentence than I thought, then.

Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 22. Marts, 2005 08:59 (UTC)

You've got sixpence. Jolly jolly sixpence.

(Anonym) on 27. November, 2006 16:32 (UTC)

Vizcachachillyrodent on 19. Marts, 2005 07:05 (UTC)
Pith helminth.
I would say that is an exquisitely bad opening line. And, I'm not sure if it would put me off enough to toss the book aside forever, or entice me with its sheer awfulness.

Secondarily, I laughed when you suggested we consider the tapeworm "one piece at a time."
lascribe on 25. Marts, 2005 17:52 (UTC)
Not to defend Eco at any price, but have you considered that this remarkable opening sentence might be written intentionally to characterize the narrator's rather unusual mental or logical make-up? It is crying out "unreliable narrator" to me.

(And if someone committed a comma splice, it was more likely the translator. I wonder if "proglottidean" is more or less the same word in Italian.)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 25. Marts, 2005 19:21 (UTC)

It's certainly possible, but the rest of the story seems to me to be written in a rather different (and more readable, if also more conventional) narrative voice from that of the opening paragraphs.

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