Earlier this year I was back in Achill for my favourite arts festival, the Heinrich Boll Memorial Weekend where one of the themes was the Achill Mission Colony and I was delighted to give a talk on the role of women at the Colony. A version of this paper has now been published in the online publication Irish Story.
Literary readings, three book launches, an illustrated lecture on ‘Women Artists on Achill’ by Catherine Marshall, and a guided walk on the nearby Clare Island, all feature in this year’s Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend on the May bank-holiday weekend. The book launches include Gisela Holfter’s Heinrich Böll and Ireland, which charts the Nobel Prize winning author’s connections with Ireland. Eoin Bourke’s Poor Green Erin is a compilation of travel writings about Ireland written by German and Austrian authors in the 18th and 19th centuries. And I will read from my own book, The Veiled Woman of Achill, on Saturday, 5 May at the Valley House – the scene of the crime which I narrate in my book.
Melville House included Heinrich Boll’s Irish Journal in their book bundle for Saint Patrick’s Day. Boll’s book includes a wonderful sentence about Irish rain: ‘The rain here is absolute, magnificent, and frightening. To call this rain bad weather is as inappropriate as to call scorching sunshine fine weather.’
Irish Journal covers many places, including my current home place in Limerick where Boll described the Shannon rushing along under old bridges: ‘this river was too big, too wide, too wild for this gloomy little town’. Along with the river Shannon, the image of the ‘snow white milk bottle’ throughout the city lingered with Boll after he left Limerick.
But it was in Achill that Heinrich Boll would make his Irish home in 1950s Ireland, in a cottage not far from the Deserted Village where he once visited for five hours and where ‘in ossified hedges fuchsia hung blood-red blossoms’. He was mesmerised by the ‘skeleton of a village’ that seemed to him like a body without hair, eyes, or flesh or blood.
‘A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.’ This is how Graham Greene started his novel The End of the Affair – a book that was published sixty years ago, in 1951.
The event was marked in Achill this weekend at the Heinrich Boll Memorial Weekend where visitors could view the house in Dooagh, at the Atlantic’s edge, where Graham Greene and Catherine Walston carried on the affair that inspired the novel.
William Cash, author of The Third Woman: The Secret Passion that Inspired The End of The Affair was a guest speaker and fascinated the audience with excerpts from a taped interview with Vivien Greene, the author’s former wife, as she popped open a bottle of champagne. William Cash spoke on the evening of the day that Prince William married Kate Middleton in Westminster Cathedral. Intriguingly, he said, it was on the day of Elizabeth’s wedding to Philip in 1947 that Graham Greene told Vivien that he was leaving her for Catherine Walston.
The moment Greene choose to start his story was ‘that black wet January night on the Common,’ when he met Henry Miles, his lover’s husband. It is also the moment that Neil Jordan choose as the starting point for his film adaptation of The End of the Affair. We were treated to the movie in the Cyril Gray Memorial Hall, Dugort, at the foot of Slievemore – Achill’s Black Mountain.
This is the first sentence of a new short story: ‘Her eyes were not exactly blue or grey.’ Alisa Cox – she who wrote the writer guide Writing Short Stories – has recently posted this (and three more sentences) of a new story on her blog. It whets the appetite and leaves me frustrated since I’ll have to buy the journal where the complete story is published if I want to know what happened next.
It got me thinking about opening lines in short stories and how they can entice, tease, coax, plunge you in until you are propelled into the yarn. So I thought I’d have a bit of fun with story first lines. I gathered a bundle of my favourite short story collections, flicked through each and picked the opening line that grabbed me most. Here they are …
‘At seventeen, Jack Snyder’s daughter is slender-faced and long of limb and still able to startle her father with her seeming certainty about everything she thinks.’ (First sentence in the first story of Robin Black’s if i loved you, i would tell you this.)
‘Hollis was in the back at a table piled with books and a space among them where he was writing when Carol came in.’ James Salter, ‘Bangkok’ in Last Night.
‘Deegan, the forester, is not the type of man to remember his children’s birthdays, least likely that of his youngest, who bears a strong, witch-like resemblance to her mother.’ Claire Keegan, ‘The Forester’s Daughter’ in Walk the Blue Fields.
”The story I want to tell you has no particular point to it, maybe it isn’t really a story at all, but I must tell you about it.’ Heinrich Boll, ‘Across the Bridge’ in Children are Civilians Too.
‘It was among the last bucolic fantasies of the village that Mr Delahunty, the blind shopkeeper, was secure against chancers and thieves.’ Kevin Barry, ‘Ideal Homes’ in There ae Little Kingdoms.
‘About half-past five one afternoon at the end of June when the sun was shining warm and bright into the large courtyard, an elegant victoria with two beautiful horses drew up in front of the mansion.’ Guy de Maupassant, ‘Useless Beauty’ in The Best Short Stories.
They do not disappoint, these opening lines. I still have the problem of the woman whose eyes are not exactly blue or grey, a line that is followed by ‘They were the colour of the sea, the sea on a dull morning without sunlight.’ Where is it all leading? What’s going on? Maybe I should just go and write my own story using this great first line?