My 21-month-old grandson and I like to play a game we call “Ada” (because the first book he selects, by tradition, is a handsome if somewhat beat-up hardcover edition of that Nabokov novel): he points to, or pulls off the shelf, a book from my poetry and literature collection and I read a few lines. (He has his favorites—Jonathan Williams, Yeats, Flann O’Brien, Richard Powers—and sometimes pretends to read aloud from his very favorite, a garish paperback Bustan of Sadi.) Today he pulled out The English Patient, and I opened it to a fine bit of Ondaatje prose I thought I’d share:
Many books open with an author’s assurance of order. One slipped into their waters with a silent paddle.
I begin my work at the time when Servius Galba was Consul…. The histories of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, while they were a power, were falsified through terror and after their death were written under a fresh hatred.
So Tacitus began his Annals.
But novels commenced with hesitation or chaos. Readers were never fully in balance. A door a lock a weir opened and they rushed through, one hand holding a gunnel, the other a hat.