I don’t subscribe to the idea of the strong opening sentence. Since the novel isn’t a sprint to a finishing line, the first sentence is not necessarily about making a ‘strong beginning’ similar to the athlete responding with instinctive release to the pistol shot. At best, it might establish a kind of magic. But other sentences must do the same: no sentence, in this regard, is more equal than the other.
I should add that an early reader of Friend of My Youth in India sent me a text saying: ‘What a wonderful opening sentence! It gave me goose-bumps!’ I thanked her, and pointed out that it was by Walter Benjamin. In the novel – unlike the extract in Granta – the first paragraph (the quotation from Benjamin’s One-Way Street) appears without acknowledgement of source or author, though it’s in quotation marks. The paragraph is meant to be incorporated in the main narrative, rather serve as an epigraph. This means that we’re not reading Benjamin’s words as if they were informing the narrative from the outside, but as part of the author’s recounting. The act of recounting really begins with the title, which is also borrowed (from a title of an Alice Munro story), and the borrowing only dwelt upon in the last third of the short novel. The narrator, at the start, is thinking of his friend, who is now in rehab in Alibag and absent from the Bombay he’s visiting; remembering is indistinguishable, at this point, from the memory of other people’s words.
For me, though, the paragraph – the first one in particular – is the significant unit rather than the first sentence. How do you characterise the first paragraph? I would say that it’s marked by a quality of ‘opening out’ on to something – not to the story, necessarily, but our sense of existence, which the story can hint at but never represent, since our ‘sense of existence’ is transient and without resolution. As stories never begin at the beginning, but in medias res, the first paragraph has not so much the fixity of being point A in a narrative, but the air of buoyancy that all initial utterances have, as well as the irresolution of moments in which many strands are hanging, when you still lack clarity about where you’re headed. This absence of fixity is what I mean by ‘opening out’. Occasionally this irresolution and its accompanying excitement characterises the first page of a novel, or even the first chapter. These first paragraphs, pages, or chapters often have little in terms of event, and may be a meditation on place, or space, or any category that exists in lieu of narrative or story. Then, in the novel, that sense of arrest is painstakingly removed, and the ‘opening out’ is tamed, as it were, by the discipline of narrative. This taming is a skill peculiar to the novelist; she or he must put their intimation of abeyance in the first paragraph or page itself into abeyance, and attend to the exigency of telling us what happened next. The other reason for this taming is, of course, that it isn’t easy – some would even say, desirable – to sustain the ‘opening out’ over an entire novel.
For me, each paragraph is like a first paragraph. It’s probably an impossible aim – to want the paragraph, because of its peculiar enchantment, to be the primary unit; to want it to stand alone, available, at any point, for rereading; to give individual paragraphs primacy over the superstructure of narrative itself; to view the novel as an assemblage of paragraphs and, in a sense, quotations.
I say ‘quotation’ because the paragraph and the quote are to me almost interchangeable. I spent my years as a reader and apprentice writer devoted to poetry. I was first drawn to novels in the 1980s through quotations in critical essays. I remember encountering A House for Mr Biswas in that way – as a paragraph in an essay describing Mr Biswas’s early days as a sign painter in Trinidad. Mr Biswas can’t decide which letter in the English language he adores more, the R or the S. I recall marvelling at the paragraph and reading it repeatedly. It seemed to contain the wonder and humour, the irresolution and opening out into existence, that I would from now take to be the paragraph’s domain. I thought it was a shame that I would have to read the novel. The superstructure, the narrative and plot, were made almost redundant by comparison.
The quotation, like the paragraph, is for me not a sample of writing, or a taster, or a representative of the narrative; inasmuch as it’s an ‘opening out’, it’s of the narrative and not of it. It has its independent existence. It can be revisited for its own sake, in a way that has little to do with the cumulative picture the book presents us with. Ideally, I’d like a book to be composed of such paragraphs only, which both belong and don’t belong to the story, and, in themselves, comprise multiple instances of opening up, each, individually, with their own form and integrity. In which case, development and progression in such a narrative must be an illusion. We think we’ve moved from one point to another, while we’ve been actually been lingering over these entrances and exits.
In the early nineties, there was hardly any creative writing teaching in Oxford. I, having completed my graduate work there, became Creative Arts Fellow at Wolfson College, a job without either much of a stipend or responsibilities. An exchange student called Ted Scott from Yale – a maths student spending a year at Oxford – tracked me down through my designation and asked me if I’d read his stories and give him creative writing advice. I’d never done this before. The idea didn’t appeal – but I said yes.
A year later, he said he’d read my first novel. He made a perspicacious observation: ‘The paragraphs don’t really have to follow each other in the sequence you’ve put them, right? I mean – the paragraph that follows the earlier one could just as easily have come before it.’
He was shrewd to have noticed this. Revising A Strange and Sublime Address had been nightmarish. I’d found that I couldn’t keep much of the first half. Revision became what it often is: an act of salvaging – the sentence that works, the paragraph that works. The second phase of revision involved some writing, but I eschewed composing joins between one salvaged bit and another. I arranged paragraphs that had no innate sequentiality in order to give them an appearance of linearity. Each participated in, and ignored, the onward current. You could move from one to the other; but there was also the option of not moving if you chose.
Two months ago, a French philosopher and dramaturge, Jean-Frédéric Chevallier, who lives in a village outside Calcutta for much of the year, told me this about Friend of My Youth: ‘Your novel is about the present moment. But this ‘present moment’ doesn’t just capture the process of writing, it’s about reading too.’ It’s how he saw the repetitions of phrases and sentences in the book – as the narrator not only writing again what he’s already written, but reading (and possibly recounting) what he’d said a few moments ago.
Perhaps this is what the second paragraph of the novel (and of the extract in Granta) does. Referring to the first paragraph, the quote from Benjamin, the narrator says, ‘I think of Ramu when I read these lines. It’s of him I think when I reread them.’ A journalist in Calcutta said to me that, having finished reading this second paragraph, she went back to the first one to read it in the light of what the second one had said.
The ‘friend of my youth’ on whom I reflect in this novel escaped the punitive rehab in Alibag after two years. I began to see him again in Bombay. I describe a few of these post-rehab meetings in the last two sections of the book. What I don’t mention is that the idea for the novel was already in my head at the time, and that I’d begun warning my friend that I was going to write about him. He told me that he expected a substantial percentage of royalties. More seriously, he asked me to ensure that his name was changed. Thus ‘Ramu’.
Just before publication he was bristly, but, as he began to learn more about the book from newspaper reports and from friends – some of whom had a history of addiction – he relaxed. I would even say that, when I went to Bombay to launch the book in late April, he was happier than I’ve usually seen him. His mood was more celebratory than mine. He didn’t investigate the novel by reading it himself because he didn’t read books. He didn’t have the patience.
But, the day after the launch, I caught him, sitting on a sofa in the club room I was staying in, reading paragraphs from Friend of My Youth with a faint smile on his face: now from the middle, now the end, and now the beginning. ‘You could read it from start to finish,’ I said. ‘It’s not very long.’ ‘I know,’ he said. ‘But I’ve never been able to read a book that way. I get bored.’ Our minds may have gone back then to how he’d struggled in school, despite his intelligence and his gifts as a sportsman, and even failed twice – which is how we got to be in the same class (though he’s two years older than me) when I was twelve years old. ‘To succeed in life, you have to be able to read from start to finish,’ he acknowledged. ‘You might be an average person, but you can be successful if you can do that. I can’t.’
This is one among various traits we share – a restiveness to do with narrative, a short attention span. It’s why I’ve always preferred reading poems to novels. I remember when I first became an ‘avid reader’. It was in school, in the fourth standard. I was miserable and alienated. During lunch break, I sometimes stayed on in class. I became curious about the library that occupied a small bookshelf on the right. I recall looking at illustrations on the pages of a book – pictures of animals – and reading from somewhere in the middle. The teacher, a young woman who’d lately grown kindly towards me, said, ‘Why don’t you start at the beginning? You’ll be able to enjoy the story.’ I complied, and learnt how to read books.
Notwithstanding this advice from school, which I inadvertently repeated to my friend the day after the launch, I’m still easily distracted. A sound will take me away from a book; a thought might come to me. My wife tells me that it’s because I’m more interested in life than in stories – in comparison, say, to her. This may be true. I probably find life, when I become aware of it, unpredictable in a way that I don’t narratives. Storylines tend to fatigue me. While watching TV, my mind will wander, making associations from the way a street looks. A scene in which nothing is ostensibly happening will absorb me; so will a paragraph that contains no vital piece of information.
When I described Ramu’s manner of reading my novel to the journalist I’ve mentioned above, by choosing random paragraphs and admitting to his failure to start at the beginning, she said, ‘But is it possible that the book can be read in that way – that one can start at a point of one’s choosing, and then move to another?’ She was echoing Ted Scott, the student from Yale. I admitted that there was probably something in my writing – given how I’d been first drawn to novels, through singular, free-standing paragraphs – that was conducive to Ramu’s approach.
Photograph © Pixel Mark, Taj Hotel, Mumbai, November 2008