On Beginnings and Endings

A lot of advice to beginning novelists hoping to sell their work emphasizes the importance of a beginning that grabs the reader by the throat and makes he or she compelled to keep reading. And that, at the same time, sets the tone of the novel and provides accurate cues as to what it will be about.  In this respect, one cannot outdo Jane Austen’s opening sentence in Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

This is so well known and so often cited that it is easy to forget what a thing of beauty it really is. What it accomplishes, in less than 25 words, is nothing less than to set out the major themes of P&P: money and marriage, to be sure, but also the power of public opinion, which functions as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the work. In addition, it establishes, in this single, masterful sentence (which pays homage to her favorite Dr. Johnson at the same time it subtly mocks him), the prevailing tone of P&P, which is a relentless, though good-humored, irony. In fact, the sentence means the very opposite of what it seems to be saying. (Single men in possession of good fortunes, whom the reader meets two excellent examples of shortly in the persons of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, seem in no hurry at all to find wives and settle down. They are enjoying the social round, shooting, riding around the country, managing their estates & etc., thank you very much.)

The first sentence. The first page. The first chapter. The first three chapters. Everyone agrees, you have to keep people turning those pages.  But there is an unfortunate lack of attention paid to something equally important, with regrettable results that are visible everywhere one turns: the need for a good ending to a novel.

The list of good books that fall apart at the end is a long and melancholy one, but time grows short and I can bear to mention only a few. (Spoiler alert)  Think of The Mill on the Floss, in which George Eliot, no slouch in the plot game, apparently decided she simply could not  get Maggie Tulliver out of the impossible situation she had gotten her into. So she drowned her!  Along with her brother, who was a bit annoying, but not worthy of death. Yes, we started with a mill, it’s in the title, there are foreshadowings of the flood, but it’s still ridiculous.

Think of The Emperor’s Children, which masterfully evokes a particular time and world (late 20th century, privileged New Yorkers), creates a very complicated and rich plot tending toward a really rockin’ conflict… and then, whoops, deus ex machina alert: The airplanes fly into the Twin Towers. But that actually happened, one might object. And people were really surprised! And it did change everything! All true. But this only points out how different fiction and real life really are. Because fictionally, it was totally unsatisfying. It was not integrated into all the things that had  happened up until that point.

A good ending has to be both inevitable and surprising. History can do the heavy lifting, as in War and Peace or  The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, but history has to fit into the plot in a logical way, not be shoehorned in as in The Emperor’s Children.

I find very few good endings. Perhaps I expect too much. Or perhaps people spend too much time polishing those first three chapters and think the ending will take care of itself.

Here are a few books with endings that did not let me down:

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

I am struggling with my own ending right now. I know what has to happen but exactly how I get there is not yet clear. Though this post may not seem to drip it,  I feel great sympathy for writers who write otherwise lovely books and blow the ending, because I see,  now, how narrow and steep the way is, how easy it is to go wrong.

Time Travel and the Novel

In a sense, we are all time travelers, though it’s generally a one-way trip, and goes way too fast (unless you are stuck in a boring meeting or in traffic or waiting for a subway that doesn’t come, in which case the opposite applies).

One of the most poignant aspects of the novel is its ability, more than the short story, the movie, the opera, is to show change over time. It is an ability perhaps rivaled only by the TV series and miniseries, the novel’s flickery spiritual cousins. I found myself thinking about War and Peace this morning as I washed the breakfast dishes (why? I do not know): how young they all were at the beginning: Pierre with his social awkwardness, Prince Andrei full of ennui and filtering French phrases through his teeth, Natasha and her passionate yearning for meaning. And all the things that happened to them — war and peace, love and death — and how they are changed forever by these things, and most of all by the simple (!) passage through time.  I have always found this passage near the end extremely moving for some reason:

Natasha had married in the early spring of 1813, and in 1820 already had three daughters besides a son for whom she had longed and whom she was now nursing. She had grown stouter and broader, so that it was difficult to recognize in this robust, motherly woman the slim, lively Natasha of former days. Her features were more defined and had a calm, soft, and serene expression. In her face there was none of the ever-glowing animation that had formerly burned there and constituted its charm. Now her face and body were of all that one saw, and her soul was not visible at all.

Yes, I remember thinking when I read this first as a teenager. That’s exactly how it happens, when you get older! I don’t know where I got this conviction, but Tolstoy had me sure he was right. Now, well past the motherly end-of-book Natasha’s age, I am more conscious of his godlike perspective in this novel, the way he moves his characters around like chess pieces and his ability to look, like a merciful god,  into the hearts of each of one and see what is there, judging it kindly, if at all.

And also of the power of time in narrative.

A novel about time travel back to meet Jane Austen is about wish fulfillment, to be certain, but is also — in the way that everything is itself and also, mysteriously, something else — about the possibilities and the abuses of technology; about what we are put on Earth for; about the meaning of time itself. No, that’s not it. I am not explaining it well at all.

The appeal of time travel is that we can triumph over time; we can reverse its direction, we can go back and fix things. That is also the appeal of the novel. When you finish with War and Peace, you can, if you desire, go back to the start and read it again, when they are all young and unformed once more, untouched, like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn.