Making a start

Frank Kermode

  • Openings: Narrative Beginnings from the Epic to the Novel by A.D. Nuttall
    Oxford, 264 pp, £30.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 19 811741 8

A.D. Nuttall is among the most erudite contemporary academic literary critics, at ease with the Classics, much given to philosophy. He is also disconcertingly bold and curious, and his latest book, like some of its predecessors, is as odd as it is learned. It begins, but by no means ends, with a minute enquiry into the expression in medias res. Horace observed that Homer, instead of starting his poem about the Trojan War from the beginning – ab ovo, Leda’s egg from which was hatched Helen of Troy – chose to rush his listeners ‘into the midst of things’, with a quarrel that occurred when the war had been going on for years.

To begin at the beginning may be thought a sensible and natural way of proceeding – the Red King’s advice to Alice is still quoted with approval; and Nuttall actually calls such beginnings ‘natural’, as opposed to ‘interventionist’ or ‘formal’. Yet our culture encourages us also to find them irritating or infantile. F.C. Bartlett in his book Remembering tells how a Swazi woman, asked in court to describe how she got a knock on the head, began with an account of how she got up that day, whom she met, and so on. When the magistrate interrupted to explain that all he cared about was how she got a knock on the head, she answered, ‘All right, all right. I am coming to that ... I have not got there yet,’ and continued inexorably with the blow-by-blow account of her day. (Children, and some adults, in our own society will tell you the story of a film in similarly tedious detail.)

Bartlett distinguishes between societies or groups which feel that the woman’s is the only way to proceed and smarter ones which understand that it is neither necessary nor desirable – that omissions and analepses can give point to narratives and expedite business. And of course if you do rush your auditor in medias res you have eventually to provide analepses to explain what happened earlier, how the res came to be what they were at the point where you intervened. Moreover there is an impressive model for the ab ovo method. Genesis begins: ‘In the beginning ...’

Homer is where European literature begins for us, so we can’t know whether there was heroic precedent for the in medias res start of the Iliad, though obviously if poets are working on different parts of an epic cycle not all of them can start from the egg. What can be studied is the effect Homer’s device had on later writers, and how they modified it. Nuttall makes much of the point that whereas Homer begins by calling on the Muse to sing, Virgil at once says, Arma virumque cano: that is, he is going to do the singing himself. Here is a postural shift into what used to be called ‘secondary epic’; there will be a formal invocation of the Muse but she has to wait a while, and the song will now come from within. Nuttall identifies this as a shift into psychologism or a new kind of egotism, presumably the sublime variety. Another large difference is that Virgil’s story can be called a Great Story and Homer’s can’t: Aeneas travels in order to found an empire, Odysseus simply goes home. Virgil’s story has manifest political implications – Aeneas is a type of Augustus, Dido a Cleopatra. There is nothing of that sort in Homer. A new, sophisticated kind of history (‘historical spheres within spheres’) replaces ‘the grim unmeaning turbulence’ of the Iliad. And all this is consistent with the shift from ‘Sing, Muse’ to cano, ‘I sing’.

Milton reverted to Homer and so, it is alleged, ‘brought back the Muse from the dead’. The great 16-line sentence that begins Paradise Lost opens with a proposition, ‘Of man’s first disobedience ...’, but it is the Muse who is required to sing of that subject, and she is invoked – it is the first of the four invocations in the poem – in the first main verb, which occurs in the sixth line (‘Sing, heavenly Muse’). Thereafter this Muse, unlike Homer’s, is seemingly identified with the Logos, which is to make a large claim. Milton aspired to achieve ‘things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’; the expression is formulaic, but perhaps that doesn’t make the claim any less egotistical.

Nuttall necessarily discusses the so-called Donatian opening of Virgil’s poem. Suppose that after all Aeneid didn’t originally begin Arma virumque cano, but Ille ego qui quondam ...: with four lines which merge into the opening as we know it, and offer a tiny auto-biography describing the poet’s progress from the writing of eclogues and georgics to the writing of epic; The lines were certainly influential; it came to be thought this was the right way to develop as a poet. Nuttall argues strongly that they are unworthy of Virgil (‘in the entire ensuing poem there is no sentence as ill-formed’ as the one that results from cobbling these four lines onto Arma virumquecano), yet in a way he would like to keep them: they humanise the poet and are ‘essentially Virgilian’, in that Virgil invented the ‘subjective epic’. Putting the two pronouns together – Ille ego. ‘The man I am who ...’ – has the effect of keeping the author in view yet not too closely: ille coming first is ‘distancing’.

Of course to accept the Donatian surplus, generally but not universally assumed to be spurious, as the real beginning, doesn’t alter the fact that ‘I’, not the muse, is going to do the singing. One reason why Nuttall, though deploring the Latin, is unwilling to be too severe on Ille ego qui quondam is that it is a precedent for the ‘retroactive’ quality of a very different epic, Wordsworth’s Prelude, the ille now being the child Wordsworth, the ego the mature poet. This is ingenious, and now the poet’s ego is at the very heart of a poem, which is accordingly, as the author rather characteristically remarks, ‘epistemologically recluded’. (Fortunately there are epigrams, offered in ordinary English, to compensate for such inkhornisms: for instance, he remarks of Wordsworth that ‘the latter end of his commonwealth [unlike Gonzalo’s in The Tempest] does nothing but remember the beginning.’ He often underlines such good things.)

There is an impressive chapter on Dante, who was certainly remembering Horace when he began his poem in the ‘middle way’ of his own life. Dante, like Virgil, had an imperial cause, but unlike Virgil’s it was a lost one. What happens in his poem is that the whole epic is collapsed into what by precedent was but a part of it, the nekuia, the underworld journey of Homer (Odyssey, 11) as imitated by Virgil (Aeneid, 6); and then the nekuia expands to occupy the whole poem. It follows that it is wrong to speak of anagogical effects in Dante, for anagogy, etymologically, has to do with leading upward, figuring the heavenly by the earthly, whereas in the Commedia the effect is the opposite, a leading downward, so it is more properly, though rather inkhornishly, labelled catagogical.

Recognising that an ab ovo opening can lead to some pretty sophisticated narrative and to all manner of formalist tricks and jokes, Nuttall moves back from Wordsworth to Tristram Shandy, himself opening his remarks on that novel with a very apt citation from Plato’s Laws, to the effect that people should be sure not to be drunk or disordered when copulating, lest their offspring be physically or mentally impaired: for ‘the beginning, like a god,’ says Plato, ‘preserves all.’ Sterne’s is described as ‘the most brilliant opening ever written’, though ‘brilliant’, we are cautioned, is an adjective chosen with pusillanimous care’ – the best openings, a very different matter, are those of Nostromo and Bleak House. On Sterne the author is himself brilliant from his opening on, quoting everybody from Epictetus to Derrida, of whom he somewhat disapproves.

Finally there are David Copperfield and Great Expectations. The first words of Copperfield – the chapter-heading ‘I AM BORN’ – are examined with the help of Wittgenstein, Pinget and many others. Here Nuttall valuably returns to a position he has expounded before: ‘literature ... is firmly and unequivocally a part of ordinary reality.’ A final chapter, called ‘The Sense of a Beginning’, puts all the arguments together as far as that is possible.

This, then, is a brilliant book. Is the epithet chosen with pusillanimous care? Perhaps: there is a dazzling digressiveness and expansiveness, lucubrations of a fine critical mind on a subject only apparently rather minute. From moment to moment our attention is directed to some disputed reading in Homer, to Ebenezer Coppe’s Flying Fiery Roll, to the end of the Dunciad, to anything that echoes in the author’s restless and well informed mind. Generous but acute, he pays some compliments, welcome of course, to a book of mine called The Sense of an Ending, but has no difficulty whatever in demonstrating that it is often naive and self-contradictory. In his long struggle for an intelligent view of realism, of language and especially literary language as intimately related to the world we live in, he has developed formidable machinery and uses it with gusto and learning.

Why then a certain discontent? Everywhere this author is saying interesting and remarkable things, yet one feels, rather ungratefully, that he should do more, that the distinguished mind here displayed is not yet fully locked on to an appropriately great subject. He may well have the power to write a book that could transform our critical practices, but Openings is not that book.