The Art of the Opening

Monsignor QuixoteI know what’s been on your mind this last week, “Did Frank read Foucault’s Pendulum last weekend like he said he would?”

Alas, no. Well, a little. I read the first 15 pages. Twice! Let me explain.

I don’t have a copy of The Name of the Rose, but as I recall, it started well. William and Adso are walking to the monastery and William does his 14th century imitation of Sherlock Holmes. I was hooked. As I recall, in two pages, I knew not only that William was brilliant, but also that he was vain about his intellect. It was a great opening — the kind that makes you want to read more.

Such was not the case with Foucault’s Pendulum. The first time through, I was confused. This is not really uncommon for me. The first time I read Catch-22, I read the first 60 odd pages three times before I finished the book. In that case, I was just trying to get a handle on all of the characters. In Eco’s book, I was just trying to figure out what the hell was going on. There was a lot of stuff about a museum and odd comments about this or that character being dead and all that, “Who would think it would lead here?”

The second time through, I realized that the writer is on the run — or so it seems, I didn’t get a good feeling about his mental stability. He has decided to hide in the museum where the bad guys will not be able to get at him — maybe, because he’s not really sure of anything at this point. This kind of mysterious opening can work. In fact, Eco uses it to some extent in The Name of the Rose. The problem here is that after 15 pages, I didn’t know who the main character was and I didn’t care. The question I asked myself was, “Do I really want to spend another 600 pages with this guy?” And my answer was no. So I spent the weekend reading more Slavoj Žižek.

Yesterday, I got a book that is a masterclass on how to writing a first chapter: one of Graham Greene’s later novels, Monsignor Quixote. Wow. I had wanted to quote the first part of the book, but I wouldn’t know where to stop. Admittedly, I am a fan of Don Quixote. And this book has lots of sly and not so sly references to Cervante’s classic. And it is funny. But the main thing about it is that the main character is rendered on the page with great skill at the same time that all the preparations for the story are set up.

I’m sad that Eco let me down last weekend. I may someday give the novel another try. I suspect that if I had gotten to page 100, it would have been really good. But openings like Foucault’s Pendulum shows a certain writer’s arrogance, that is understandable after the success of The Name of the Rose. Or maybe he just forgot his art. He ought to have read Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

Afterword

You should need no encouragement to read any Graham Greene novel. But Monsignor Quixote is a fast, funny, thoughtful read. And I’ll bet your local bookstore has it in stock.

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