It Was a Dark and Stormy Opening

Guy Dammann has an article up over at the Guardian Book Blog about his favorite first lines (but since he is British, he spells it “favourite”). This is something I’ve always thought about. For many, the first line is the most important part of a novel. It’s the hook that has to make people want to keep reading. I have often stared at the open white space on the screen and watched my cursor blink as I tried and tried to come up with a poetic, resonant opening.

“Some openers are so prescient that they seem to burn a hole through the rest of the book, the semantic resonance recurring with the persistence of the first theme in Beethoven’s fifth symphony. The effervescent, pitiless bleakness of Camus’ The Stranger is like that: “My mother died today, or perhaps it was yesterday.” Others ease you effortlessly into their world: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing,” begins A River Runs Through It. Like a trout, you’re hooked.”

The Stranger is one that has always stuck with me. I’ve read many novels in my time on this earth. Even keeping with a conservative estimate of three books a month, that’s 36 books a year for, let’s say, 15 years. That’s 540 books so far (and that is a definite lowball). Of those, I can remember maybe handful of opening lines. The above-mentioned Camus is one. The rest? I’m glad you asked:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”- Stephen King, The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, Book 1)

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowel of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.” -James Joyce, Ulysses

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. —John Barth, The End of the Road

“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobit.”- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

“Call me Ishmael.”- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” —William Gibson, Neuromancer

“It was love at first sight.” —Joseph Heller, Catch-22

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”- George Orwell, 1984

The American Book Review has their list of the top 100, which I only consulted after compiling my list. Most of mine were on there, at least the big canonical ones. I must confess that A Tale of Two Cities is there chiefly through cultural osmosis, since I have never read it. I also see that I got Slaughterhouse-Five wrong. Now that I look, I see that I was mentally skipping over the preamble of the first chapter and jumping right into the narrative.

What does this mean? What is it about these first lines that made them stick in my consciousness while the other 531 or so have slipped through like sand in a sieve? They are poetic, to be sure. But is that all it takes? The list has many equally poetic openings that I have read but that just didn’t resonate with me. These lines not only roll off the tongue with an impressive artistry, but they plant you within the narrative immediately. They incite curiosity as much as they inspire repetition. In what sense is he not Jacob Horner? Who is Ishmael? Why was it love at first sight? Striking thirteen? WTF?

But that can’t be all it takes, either. I don’t necessarily care about Buck Mulligan, no matter how plump or stately he happens to be, and his progress down the stairs is none of my business. But Joyce’s way with language keeps me reading. It’s a mystery, an alchemy that I am still trying to understand.

3 Comments on "It Was a Dark and Stormy Opening"

  • Here’s a few that have always stuck with me.

    -This first one isn’t a novel but I’ll be damned if it ain’t the perfect summation of everything that comes after.

    -Hamlet-

    Barnardo: Who’s there?

    -Don Quixote-

    Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and an ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.

    -The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn-

    You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

    -Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness In The West-

    See the child.

    -The Divine Comedy-

    When I had journeyed half our life’s way,
    I found myself within a dark jungle,
    for I had lost the path that does not stray.

    -The Trial-

    Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

    -Notes From Underground-

    I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.

    -The Adventures of Augie March-

    I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted, sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.

    -Native Son-

    BRRRRRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNG!!!!

    -Anna Karenina-

    All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

    -Pride and Prejudice-

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

    -Iliad-

    Anger be now your song, immortal one,
    Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
    that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
    and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
    leaving so many dead men – carrion
    for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

  • Translation of the first sentence ‘The Outsider’ (my preferred translation) raises an interesting issue. Should the translation be faithful to the words, or to the content of the words seen in the context of the work as a whole, where this is important.

    Camus appears to have attributed considerable importance to the first sentence of a work. One of his characters in La Peste cannot get past the first sentence of his novel.

    For myself I would have done small violence to the French words and translated as: “I heard today. Mother is dead.”

    It retains the impersonality of the telegram, retains the cadence of the French, the rhythm of the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, and the four shots that seal his fate at the end of the first Part.

    I did get the Beethoven from Guy Damman. This is how I began my first lecture teaching the work at the University of Western Ontario nearly fifty years ago.

  • Should be: ‘did not get’.

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