The link below is to an article that takes a look at the German Nonfiction Prize, which will be awarded for the first time in 2020.
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A dense work of early English prose, strewn throughout with serious and teasing marginalia from its author, might not be the most likely candidate for stage adaptation – but this project has just been undertaken by a team of artists and academics in Sheffield. William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, written in 1553, will be performed in September as part of the university’s 2018 Festival of the Mind.
As a literary form, the novel is usually thought to have developed in the 18th century with the mighty classics Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. But researchers believe we should be looking back to the relatively neglected prose fictions of the Tudor era to find the earliest English examples. Beware the Cat, an ecclesiastical satire about talking cats, is a prime candidate and is now thought to be the earliest example of the novel form in the English language.
Baldwin is barely known outside the circles of Renaissance literature, but he was highly celebrated and widely read in Tudor England. In the mid-16th century, he was earning an inky-fingered living as a printer’s assistant in and around the central London bookmaking and bookselling area of St Paul’s Cathedral. As well as writing fiction, he produced A Mirror for Magistrates, the co-written collection of gruesome historical poetry that was highly influential on Shakespeare’s history plays. He also compiled a bestselling handbook of philosophy, and translated the controversial Song of Songs, the sexy book of the Bible.
Beware the Cat tells the tale of a talkative priest, Gregory Streamer, who determines to understand the language of cats after he is kept awake by a feline rabble on the rooftops. Turning for guidance to Albertus Magnus, a medieval alchemist and natural scientist roundly mocked in the Renaissance for his quackery, Streamer finds the spell he needs. Then, using various stomach-churning ingredients, including hedgehog’s fat and cat excrement, he cooks up the right potion.
And it turns out that cats don’t merely talk – they have a social hierarchy, a judicial system and carefully regulated laws governing sexual relations. With his witty beast fable, Baldwin is analysing an ancient question, and one in which the philosophical field of posthumanism still shows a keen interest: do birds and beasts have reason?
But rights and wrongs of a different order coloured Baldwin’s book release. He self-censored for several years before making the work public. Beware the Cat was written in 1553, months before the untimely death of the young Protestant king, Edward VI. Next on the throne (if you disregard the turbulent nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey) was the first Tudor queen, Mary I. Her Catholicism was fervent and these were terrifying days. By the mid-1550s, Mary was burning Protestant martyrs. One of her less alarming, but still consequential, decisions was to reverse the freedoms accorded the press under her brother Edward.
At the height of his power during the 1540s, the Lord Protector during the young Edward’s reign, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, had relied on particular printers to spread the regime’s reformist message. Men such as John Day (printer of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) and Edward Whitchurch – Baldwin’s employer – printed and circulated anti-Catholic polemic on behalf of the state. Not content to persecute these men by denying them the pardon she accorded other Protestant printers, Mary I banned the discussion of religion in print unless it was specifically authorised by her officials.
As a print trade insider, Baldwin was intimately connected with the close community of this radical Protestant printing milieu – and Beware the Cat is deliberately set at John Day’s printing shop. Having written a book that parodies the Mass, depicts priests in some very undignified positions and points the finger at Catholic idolatry, Baldwin thought better of releasing it in the oppressive religious climate of Mary’s reign. But by 1561, Elizabeth I was on the throne and constraints on the press were less severe – despite the infamous case of John Stubbs, the writer who in 1579 lost his hand for criticising her marriage plans.
Baldwin, now in his 30s, had become a church deacon. He was still active as a writer and public figure, working on his second edition of A Mirror for Magistrates and preaching at Paul’s Cross in London, a venue that could attract a 6,000-strong congregation.
Once it was released, Beware the Cat went through several editions. It was not recognised for the comic gem that it is until scholars such as Evelyn Feasey started studying Baldwin in the early 20th century and the novel was later championed by American scholars William A. Ringler and Michael Flachmann.
Now, it has been adapted for performance for the first time and is being presented as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. This stage version of Beware the Cat has been created by the authors with Terry O’Connor (member of renowned performance ensemble Forced Entertainment) and the artist Penny McCarthy.
Baldwin’s techniques of embedded storytelling, argument and satirical marginalia are all features that have been incorporated into this interpretation of the text. The production also includes an array of original drawings (which the cast of four display by using an onstage camera connected to a projector), but none of the cast pretends to be a cat. Instead, it is left to the audience to imagine the world Baldwin’s novel describes, in which cats can talk and – even if just for one night – humans can understand them.
In the years after Jesus was crucified at Calvary, the story of his life, death and resurrection was not immediately written down. The experiences of disciples like Matthew and John would have been told and retold at many dinner tables and firesides, perhaps for decades, before anyone recorded them for posterity. St Paul, whose writings are equally central to the New Testament, was not even present among the early believers until a few years after Jesus’ execution.
But if many people will have an idea of this gap between the events of the New Testament and the book that emerged, few probably appreciate how little we know about the first Christian Bible. The oldest complete New Testament that survives today is from the fourth century, but it had predecessors which have long since turned to dust.
So what did the original Christian Bible look like? How and where did it emerge? And why are we scholars still arguing about this some 1,800 years after the event?
From oral to written
Historical accuracy is central to the New Testament. The issues at stake were pondered in the book itself by Luke the Evangelist as he discusses the reasons for writing what became his eponymous Gospel. He writes: “I too decided to write an orderly account … so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
In the second century, church father Irenaeus of Lyons argued for the validity of the Gospels by claiming that what the authors first preached, after receiving “perfect knowledge” from God, they later put down in writing. Today, scholars differ on these issues – from the American writer Bart Ehrman stressing how much accounts would be changed by the oral tradition; to his Australian counterpart Michael Bird’s argument that historical ambiguities must be tempered by the fact that the books are the word of God; or the British scholar Richard Bauckham’s emphasis on eye-witnesses as guarantors behind the oral and written gospel.
The first New Testament books to be written down are reckoned to be the 13 that comprise Paul’s letters (circa 48-64 CE), probably beginning with 1 Thessalonians or Galatians. Then comes the Gospel of Mark (circa 60-75 CE). The remaining books – the other three Gospels, letters of Peter, John and others as well as Revelation – were all added before or around the end of the first century. By the mid-to-late hundreds CE, major church libraries would have had copies of these, sometimes alongside other manuscripts later deemed apocrypha.
The point at which the books come to be seen as actual scripture and canon is a matter of debate. Some point to when they came to be used in weekly worship services, circa 100 CE and in some cases earlier. Here they were treated on a par with the old Jewish Scriptures that would become the Old Testament, which for centuries had been taking pride of place in synagogues all over latter-day Israel and the wider Middle East.
Others emphasise the moment before or around 200 CE when the titles “Old” and “New Testament” were introduced by the church. This dramatic shift clearly acknowledges two major collections with scriptural status making up the Christian Bible – relating to one another as old and new covenant, prophecy and fulfilment. This reveals that the first Christian two-testament bible was by now in place.
This is not official or precise enough for another group of scholars, however. They prefer to focus on the late fourth century, when the so-called canon lists entered the scene – such as the one laid down by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in 367 CE, which acknowledges 22 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books.
The oldest surviving full text of the New Testament is the beautifully written Codex Sinaiticus, which was “discovered” at the St Catherine monastery at the base of Mt Sinai in Egypt in the 1840s and 1850s. Dating from circa 325-360 CE, it is not known where it was scribed – perhaps Rome or Egypt. It is made from parchment of animal hides, with text on both sides of the page, written in continuous Greek script. It combines the entire New and Old Testaments, though only about half of the old survives (the New Testament has some fairly minor defects).
Sinaiticus may not be the oldest extant bible, however. Another compendium of Old and New Testaments is the Codex Vaticanus, which is from around 300-350 CE, though substantial amounts of both testaments are missing. These bibles differ from one another in some respects, and also from modern bibles – after the 27 New Testament books, for example, Sinaiticus includes as an appendix the two popular Christian edifying writings Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas. Both bibles also have a different running order – placing Paul’s letters after the Gospels (Sinaiticus), or after Acts and the Catholic Epistles (Vaticanus).
They both contain interesting features such as special devotional or creedal demarcations of sacred names, known as nomina sacra. These shorten words like “Jesus”, “Christ”, “God”, “Lord”, “Spirit”, “cross” and “crucify”, to their first and last letters, highlighted with a horizontal overbar. For example, the Greek name for Jesus, Ἰησοῦς, is written as ⲓ̅ⲥ̅; while God, θεός, is ⲑ̅ⲥ̅. Later bibles sometimes presented these in gold letters or render them bigger or more ornamental, and the practice endured until bible printing began around the time of the Reformation.
Though Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are both thought to have been copied from long-lost predecessors, in one format or the other, previous and later standardised New Testaments consisted of a four-volume collection of individual codices – the fourfold Gospel; Acts and seven Catholic Epistles; Paul’s 14 letters (including Hebrews); and the Book of Revelation. They were effectively collections of collections.
But in the absence of a single book prior to the fourth century, we have to content ourselves with the many surviving older fragments sensationally found during the 20th century. We now have some 50 fragmentary New Testament manuscripts written on papyrus that date from the second and third centuries – including the valuable Papyrus 45 (fourfold Gospel and Acts), and Papyrus 46 (a collection of Pauline letters). In all, these comprise almost complete or partial versions of 20 of the 27 books in the New Testament.
The quest will likely continue for additional sources of the original books of the New Testament. Since it is somewhat unlikely anyone will ever find an older Bible comparable with Sinaiticus or Vaticanus, we will have to keep piecing together what we have, which is already quite a lot. It’s a fascinating story which will no doubt continue to provoke arguments between scholars and enthusiasts for many years into the future.
In Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947), an epidemic spreads across Oran, a town on Africa’s north coast, as Joseph Grand attempts to write a novel. Grand dreams of writing a book that will cause his publisher to leap up from his desk (the publishers in this world are men), and gasp in wonder.
But he can’t get the first sentence right. He worries at every detail, frets over meaning and rhythm. He arranges and rearranges it. There is no possibility of a second sentence. Without the first line, the novel is obstructed.
Camus had a blackly comic sense of humour. And so he causes Grand to go on scribbling through the night, parsing his phrases as the town around him is laid waste. Grand continues to write even as he succumbs to the disease himself. And after he is miraculously cured (the local doctor having burnt the offending manuscript), Grand returns to his sentence once again. He has, he tells the doctor, got the sentence by heart.
Like Hemingway in search of the “one true sentence” he needed for a story to begin – or Flaubert in his excruciating search for “Le Mot Juste” – Grand is convinced that a novel begins with its opening line, and by following that line the writer – no less than the reader – travels along a path to the novel’s final destination.
Camus is keenly alive to the absurdity of Grand’s conviction – the strange futility of his endeavours – but there is perhaps a subtler irony in the fact that he was equally alive to the formal requirements of a good opening sentence. Of course, he also knew that opening sentences are seldom written first, but somewhere in the muddle of the middle, or more often last, and as an afterthought.
An ‘angle of lean’
First sentences do a special kind of work. They have, as critic Stanley Fish once said, an “angle of lean”. They establish a contract with the reader about what is to come; they may sketch in a character, establish a mood, foreshadow a plot, or set out an argument. They seem to set the direction for every other sentence. The first words are also, in this sense, the last words.
Take, for example, Tolstoy’s famous opening from Anna Karenina (1873-77),
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The sentence not only sets up one of Tolstoy’s key themes – the struggle between happiness and freedom, or, more broadly, between living for oneself and living for others. But it also throws up a series of questions or contradictions that will rule the lives of his characters until the very last page.
It is, of course, far from true that all happy families are alike. The idea is no more plausible than Jane Austen’s equally famous assertion in the opening of Pride and Prejudice (1813) that, “a man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” But the sentence is true for the world of the novel.
Most opening lines are a little less tyrannical, in the sense of being less overarching or all encompassing.
George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (1939), for example, starts out with the oddly disturbing sentence,
The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.
Here it is less the idea as such, and more the odd proximity of ideas and false teeth that the reader finds intriguing.
Oddity is also the principle characteristic of that other famous Orwellian first line of his dystopian novel 1984 (1949),
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.
Here, the 13th strike indicates that things in Orwell’s world are deeply and desperately wrong, but nobody questions them – and, indeed, the reader at this stage is prepared to go along with it too.
It is the task of an opening sentence to pull the reader over the threshold into the world of a book. But the way they do this is often unexpected. They can start with an action, or better still, the dramatic foreshadowing of action.
Graham Greene’s “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him,” which begins Brighton Rock (1938), is difficult to beat.
Or they can start with a minor action that reveals something about a character. “They threw me off the hay truck about noon” tells us much about the dissolute protagonist of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). Why, we ask, was he thrown off the hay truck? Was it something that he did?
Modern writers have become very adept at throwing out these kinds of narrative hooks – often in multiples.
Elmore Leonard begins The Big Bounce (1969) like this,
They were watching Ryan beat up the Mexican crew leader on 16mm Commercial Ektachrome.
Who is Ryan, we ask. Why is he beating up the Mexican crew leader? Why are they watching him? Who are they? And how on earth did all this make it onto 16mm Commercial Ektachrome?
These sentences are successful in luring the reader because they are plucked from the midst of events. Margaret Atwood starts her dystopic The Handmaiden’s Tale (1985) in much the same way:
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
Why, we ask, are they sleeping in the gymnasium? Why is the gymnasium no longer a gymnasium? And, indeed, who are we?
Not always so showy
Modern writers have become particularly adept at composing first sentences. They are – admittedly – the first line of defence against rejection by a publisher, or indeed, by an increasingly impatient and time poor reader.
But, in the history of the novel form, first sentences weren’t always so showy.
Jane Austen might be known for the words “It was a truth generally acknowledged …” but among the many first sentences that she wrote is the comparatively prosaic “The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex”, which opens Sense and Sensibility (1811).
And, of course, early novels like those of Defoe or Richardson, for example, were so hemmed in by short and long titles, prefaces, prologues and epigraphs that it often becomes difficult to decide – in a purely formal sense – where the novel begins.
One of the opening lines I regularly set my students is the simple ten-word sentence that opens a novel that was sent unsolicited and under a pseudonym to a London publisher late in August, 1847. It reads,
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
The simplicity of the sentence is deceptive. Why do they walk, we ask, and where do they walk? Why was there “no possibility”? In just a few words the reader knows a lot. We know that the characters have a routine; that the routine occurs daily. It is therefore perhaps more than a routine but a custom or indeed an obligation tied to a set of social norms or a way of life.
We know this – innocuously enough – from the use of the relative pronoun “that”, which restricts the meaning or application of the action to “that day”, as opposed to all the other days. But it is perhaps the words “no possibility” that stay with us.
These words tell us that had there been the remotest chance then the characters would certainly have gone. In searching among the possible reasons – the inference of windy weather or wild woodlands – the reader might even presume that there is something a little harsh in it. In which case they would be right. It is the opening sentence of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847).
The end of the beginning
Camus’ The Plague (1947) describes a pestilence that is both literal and allegorical. It is a story about Fascism, which might well be read as parable about hyper-capitalism in our own time. Of all Camus’ novels, none describes humanity’s coexistence with death on such an epic scale. Yet Camus opens The Plague with a sentence that is deliberately plain and detached:
The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- at Oran.
In an article about first sentences the better example would be Camus’ The Stranger (1942), which begins,
Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.
The Stranger possesses the more alluring opening. But a reader would be hard pressed to tell which is the better book.
Which just goes to show that a first sentence – however dazzling – only gets you so far.
Tell us your favourite first lines in the comments, or tweet them to @ConversationEDU.
The link below is to an article that looks at the first ever ebook.
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