The other day I picked up my copy of "Lempriere's Dictionary" by Lawrence Norfolk, with the intention of re-reading it. The opening sentence read "The young man dropped the book.". Nothing to write home about there, you might think, except that it reminded me of a talk at the local library that I and the rest of my class were taken to in my youth. It was given by a novelist whose name and details I have long since forgotten. I have forgotten most of the talk as well, and remember only that it was a tips-for-wannabe-writers sort of talk. What I do very vividly recall, though, is the bit about the absolutely primary importance of the opening sentence (or two). He told us he had written his first novel as a youth of about our age, and that its opening sentence had been: "Crash, the captain's head struck the deck!" It was, he assured us, still the best opening he had ever written. He could, he further assured us, tick all the criteria boxes for it: it made the reader want to read on because something was happening from the very first word; it set the tone for the writer to follow, making it that much easier for the story to unfold. There were other plusses, but they, too, have been lost to fading memory.
I suppose that "The young man dropped the book." might seem a little tame beside "Crash, the captain's head struck the deck!", but the one reminded me of the other and furthermore, it started me thinking about opening sentences that have struck me as being among the best, and why that was. We would all produce a different list, of course, and a thought that occurs to me is that I probably remember best the openings to those books that I enjoyed the most. Maybe there are great openings I have forgotten along with the forgettable novels they opened. Another caveat would be that they do not necessarily strike me now as they did then, when I first came to them. I have tried, therefore, to recall what were my feelings then. With that in mind, then, here, in no particular order, are the selections I remember thinking great when I first read them:
"They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide." : "The Sea" by John Banville : A story is all the better, to my way of thinking, for a touch of mystery or a hint of the supernatural. Both are here in the same sentence.
"A war ends in rags and dust." : "A Dance Between Flames" by Anton Gill : Succinct, and at the same time intruiging
"He appeared on the hill at first light. The scarp was dark against a greening sky and there was the bump of the barrow and then the figure, and it shocked." : "Ulverton" by Adam Thorpe : Once again, a touch of mystery in the description, deepening towards the end of the sentence - why the shock?
"Dr Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse." : "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" by Louis de Bernieres : Here it was the humour that got me - what else?
"I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the bike that it is eight-thirty in the morning." : "Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance" by Robert M Pirsig : Unnecessary and apparently inconsequential information from a narrator who yet presents as someone with no time for such frills. Needs resolving.
Rattisbon Arno Domini mense decembri mclv Cronicle of Baudolino of the family of Aulario" : "Baudolino" by Umberto Eco : Well, 'sobvious, innit?
"STATELY, PLUMP, BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed." : "Ulysses" by James Joyce : A touch of humour - and a hint perhaps of something darker. Will there prove to be any significance to the crossed mirror and razor?
"That was when I saw the pendulum." : "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco : We know it is Foucault's pendulum from the book's title, so the question arises: So?
"Up above the wagon rolling along a stony road, big thick clouds were hurrying East through the dusk." : "The First Man" by Albert Camus : Just a workman-like bit of scene-setting which does its job well and leads you to think the rest of the book might be as well written.
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad,Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." : "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez : A rather refined version of "Crash. The Captain's head struck the deck"!
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