Certain Things Beginning to Arise

I like slow-reading the first few lines of books that I find on popular lists. The less I know about the book when I start reading the better. No author bio, no summaries, no reviews. My notes and questions represent a first, raw reading and may therefore be misguided and misleading. Because I am a pedant I often get stuck on details a few sentences in. For example, here:



It was the year the sow eradicated2 her piglets.3 It was a swift and menacing time.4 One of the local dogs was having a phantom pregnancy5.6 Things were leaving one place and showing up in another.7 It was springtime when I arrived in the country, an east wind blowing, an uncanny wind as it turned out8. Certain things began to arise.9 The pigs came later though not much, and even if I had only recently arrived, had no livestock-caretaking responsibilities10, had only been in to look11, safely12 on one side of the electric fence, I knew they were right to hold me responsible13. But all that as I said came later.1415

If there’s two features that reliably get me hooked on a text it’s a) a distinct narrator’s voice and a) the impression that every word matters. This opening has got both of them, and in more than sufficient measure. So after reading this, I immediately bought the book from my local-ish bookstore, 99% sure the rest of the book would not disappoint either. I haven’t read more of it yet but can’t wait to. So here’s my rushed notes on the first few lines:

  1. What a curious chapter title – who could get away with this? (=Who’s speaking?) ↩︎
  2. “eradicated” – Is eradicate piglets something people say? If not, what a choice. (Even if so, actually.) ↩︎
  3. “the year the sow eradicated her piglets”. Glad this happened only that one year. More importantly, who would be able to translate this into a date? (They must know about the event.) (=Who’s the addressee?) ↩︎
  4. A notable implicit transfer or reflection here: does the “swift and menacing time” relate to the – implicitly – swift and menacing “sow” from just before? Was is somehow spawned by it? Have we entered a world of magical thinking? ↩︎
  5. “phantom pregnancy” – is this a thing? Also, what a curious reflection of what we just saw happen to the piglets. ↩︎
  6. We move from death to abstraction to unreal birth in three short sentences: this seems like swift (and possibly menacing) story-telling indeed. ↩︎
  7. There’s a peculiar lack of concrete images here – if it’s intriguing anyway, that’s possibly because
    a) it follows two strong images (sow, dog) that have already promised us that there’s astonishing things to see in this book, so it seems probable that these unspecificed “things” will play in the same league even though they’re far less concrete right now.
    b) this sentence makes visible a possible mini-structure of the opening – image, abstraction, image, abstraction – and thus seems to have purpose in a structural sense. ↩︎
  8. “an uncanny wind as it turned out” – explicit foreboding, told in a relaxed mood. ↩︎
  9. Again with the “things”! Perhaps someone doesn’t want to speak about something but can’t stop themselves from doing it, and this conspicuous vagueness is their compromise? ↩︎
  10. “livestock-caretaking responsibilities” – this is a perfect choice if you wanted to give a narrator more weirdness, or, if this isn’t actually the narrator’s word choice, to plant them firmly into a world in which such expressions are being used. ↩︎
  11. “who had only been in to look” – this promises hidden, unclear motives: Who is this mysterious character/narrator who “had only been in to look” (i.e. a bystander)? ↩︎
  12. I’m already certain there’s going to be unsafe positions later, an assumption to which this contrary assessment only gives more force. ↩︎
  13. “I knew they were right to hold me responsible” – And there you go: Something was indeed afoot here. My guess is that knowing who and what you are responsible for will be important in this story. ↩︎
  14. And then this plain sentence apparently reassures us that the narrator knows what the plot behind the story is. ↩︎
  15. It’s here that I realize that each of the sentences of this first paragraph (except this last one) could be used as a first sentence (borderline but still: the last but one): Very cool. ↩︎

Update, two weeks later: I’ve finished the book yesterday, and I think it’s one of the most astonishing, most hilarious, most painful reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. The sentences get longer after the opening, so the main sound is perhaps a bit different than it seemed in the beginning (to my ears, it’s often a blend of Kafka and Thomas Bernhard). You probably won’t get all the answers you’d like to get, and you’ll also probably encounter a few insights about human life on earth which are probably best not to entertain too long during sleepless nights. You can also be sure that both a sow and her piglets and one, or rather two, dogs are exactly as important as the opening promised.

First few lines read from:Sarah Bernstein, Study for Obedience (Granta)
Found on this list:Booker Prize 2023 (Longlist)


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.