August 14, 2014

Openings

“All children, except one, grow up.”

This is the opening line of Peter Pan. It’s a killer opening line, one that any author would stay up nights trying to invent. Not only does it lure us with its provocative oddness, demanding an immediate explanation, but without the first-time reader quite knowing it, this single line encapsulates the novel entire, hinting at its theme, a secret wish in every reader, a battle with time in which this once, youth will triumph, fly to the top of the ship’s mast, crow over the defeated Captain Hook, trumpeting its own protean power to never grow up, never surrender, never succumb to age, responsibility, or, in the book’s most wistful passages, the temporality of death-haunted existence.

None of this is quite clear to the reader yet, or more likely the child being read to. Whether we make it to the end of the book will depend on verbal slights of hand, not slow-dawning meta-analysis. How well the author can sustain the magic of that first line is the only important thing here. Because we are children when we first hear the line, and in a sense always children suspending out belief when we begin a story, the author must satisfy us right now, keep the promise of that first line on the first page. J.M. Barrie does it — and this is the mark of a literay master — in the first paragraph:

All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

The narrating voice charms us with its mild whimsy. This is not the high paradoxical nonsense of Lewis Carroll, overwhelming us with seven impossible things before breakfast. These are not the Carrollingian proclamations of high Empire, nor is Wendy, like Alice, the self-confident Victorian child, upon whom the sun never sets. This is the easy, bedside voice of the good parent, engaging the reading child in a mental conversation with offhand phrases like “I suppose she must have looked rather delightful” and “You always know after you are two.”

The child in us is being invited to play; the adult usually needs stronger stuff. For this we turn to an ascended master of verbal hocus-pocus, Vladimir Nabokov, who makes no bones about what he’s up to and literally chants the opening paragraphs of his most famous novel. The chant is hypnotic (that is the point of a chant); its purpose, to make us forget that the eye is tasked with the tedium of scanning line after line. Instead we begin to hear the words in our head.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

By the time we realize a spell is being cast, it’s too late. The well-mannered cadences, the lilt and rest stops have rendered us passive and so we follow the author effortlessly through the leafy precincts of his outlaw American landscape, lulled into a romance with a 12-year-old, which only upon our release, at the end of a very long car trip in search of lost love, murder, and doppelgangers, might we reflect was truly outrageous.

 

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