The Story Begins by Amoz Oz: Review by Darrell Epp

     Upon completing this short but densely-packed book, I was filled with a desire to recommend it to others with an embarrassingly evangelical fervour. The Story Begins is a series of lectures on the subject of literary beginnings. As Aristotle so helpfully pointed out in his Poetics, every story ‘has a beginning, middle and end.’ Oz joyfully catalogues the various ways in which stories begin, and in so doing shows how stories beguile us. This book should give great pleasure to anyone who’s ever tried to write or tell a story, or who’s ever been swept away by a well-told tale and meditated on the mechanics of it, wondered, “How did the storyteller do that?” I think that’s pretty much everybody.

     For Oz, the “beginning of a story is always a kind of contract between writer and reader.” The first sentence of 1984, for example, tells us the clocks were striking 13. You can reject the contract, say “Clocks don’t strike 13” and throw the book in the trash. Or is your curiosity aroused enough to read more? Do you accept the contract?

     But, as Oz rightly points out, ‘there are all sorts of contracts, including those that are insincere.’ There are fraudulent contracts, where the reader is promised one thing, only to find by the last page he or she has fallen victim to the classic ‘bait-and-switch’ con: what’s received is something different from what was promised. The reader who thought he was being invited inside a conspiracy realizes that instead he’s the victim of another, subtler conspiracy.

     More provocatively, Oz compares a story’s opening to a flirtation. Look at Chekhov’s masterful “The Lady with the Dog.” The protagonist, Gurov, desires the lady, a total stranger. He starts playing with the lady’s dog, until the lady is compelled to speak to him. Gurov then responds by asking if he can give her dog a bone. Gurov and Chekhov both now have the green light: Gurov begins his seduction, Chekhov begins his story, and away we go. The opening of a story is like Gurov’s bone: something which will get you close to the dog, and which will hopefully also bring you close to the lady.

     Or it can be a con. The author and his fictional characters can conspire against the reader, luring him into their fictional world under false pretenses, withholding vital information from the reader or even lying to him. To see the reader fall victim to a con, look at 2 Samuel 9. After subduing all his enemies, ruthless King David, rhetorically and very publicly, asks, “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul (the previous king) to whom I can show kindness?” It turns out there is one grandson left (who, significantly, is lame and thus poses no threat to David’s grip on power) and the reader sees David invite the guy to permanently eat at the king’s table. The reader is left thinking well of King David, impressed by the magnanimous gesture. It isn’t until the very end of the story that we are told of David making amends to the Gibeonite tribe; temporal markers tell us this story must have taken place before 2 Samuel 9. In this piece of delayed exposition, David manufactures a reason to execute all the men left from the house of Saul, except for lame Mephobisheth. We are now jarringly forced to re-read the beginning of the 2 Samuel 9 story in the light of this new information. David already knew the answer to his question, since he himself had killed the whole house of Saul except for one! The whole scene that so impressed is now revealed as PR, spin, propaganda. The point of this piece of analepsis is clear: we must be more careful in trusting the words and actions of this guy; things are not always what they seem.

     Oz examines the beginnings of a handful of stories, a few of which, like ‘The Nose’ and ‘Rothschild’s Fiddle’ rank as some of the very best ever written. Any excuse to re-read these classics through a fresh lens is something to be grateful for. His observations on Chekhov’s ‘Rothschild’s Fiddle’ were particularly exciting. He notes that the con, the disingenuous seduction, begins even in the title itself: the story’s Rothschild ‘is not the famed philanthropist; he is not a fiddler; the fiddle does not belong to him until near the end of the story; he is not even the protagonist but merely a supporting character, a poor wedding piper, an impoverished Jew.’ Our tale actually concerns the fiddle’s previous owner, Yakov, a cruel, Jew-hating old man who sometimes plays with Jewish musicians at weddings. What’s astonishing is how the germ of everything that happens in the story is contained in the story’s opening paragraphs. The tender precision with which Chekhov lists the details of Yakov’s environment, instead of bathing the scene with sentimental gauze, feels a little bit too cold, too much like an accountant’s ledger. It turns out this genius is revealing character before the character even appears: Yakov has a mean, businesslike take on every aspect of life, which has of course determined what sort of life he, and his poor wife, have led. Look how the narrator gets our attention right from the start by saying that people in Yakov’s town died ‘so seldom it was annoying.’ This seemingly bizarre line compels us to dig further until we find out the sad truth: Yakov is a coffin-maker in love with money, and human life is bad for his business. It takes the death of his longsuffering wife to jolt Yakov out of his small and selfish life, to even remember they had had a child whose tragic death had permanently traumatized them both, but all that, the whole of a life, is there in embryonic form in Chekhov’s masterful opening.

     Oz’ observations about the mechanics of literary beginnings inspired me to take down and re-read my collections of Chekhov, of Gogol, of Carver with new eyes that could discover new marvels, new tricks, reaffirming my awe at the supernatural genius of the very best writers, reaffirming my belief that a well-told tale is one of the most important things in the world.

— Darrell Epp