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Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Just for openers...

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"!


Jena Isle said...

You're right. I don't read the summary at the back of the novels; instead I open the first page and read through it.. If it sounded mysterious or intriguing, then I buy it.

Even the "strange" covers hold an attraction for me. This is because I don't want to read a story which I can predict what would happen in every chapter.

There is one book which I read several years ago that really got me thinking even after I was done reading. It is because of how it ended very unexpectedly.

I had to read some earlier chapters again because I learned in the end that the "story" was supposed to be occurring only in the person's mind. The way the author presented it was very unique. (I forgot the name of the author now.) The book's title is "I Am The Cheese."

Thanks for sharing.

Dave King said...

thanks for stopping by, and welcome. Thanks too for the contribution. I do tend to read the summary, but otherwise I am entirely with you. Interesting, though, to know what others think.

Dave King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Murdoch said...

I have been waiting many years for someone - possibly myself - to come up with a better opening line than the one Iain Banks chose for The Crow Road:

'It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.'

Okay, it's two sentences. The first is the corker but how does one follow a line like that? I think he did fine myself.

Dave King said...

Have to agree. Difficult to see anyone taking the gold medal from him.

Lucy said...

I think I'm rather shallowly drawn by titles, myself. I'd read a few of those you cited, but didn't remember the first lines. With 'The Sea' I realise I barely remembered I'd read the book, though I though ot was good at the time.

Doris Lessing's 'The two women were alone in the London flat' in 'The Golden Notebook' always stays with me, it's very understated but seems to contain so much of the book. Isn't 'Call me Ishmael' the first line too? It's an interesting subject but I'm not sure they're so very important, although a really basd first line would put one off...

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Yes, the first line and page of a novel is important and much better for me than anything else to convince me to read a novel but it often happens that the first page doesn't meet the reader expectations and soon the story becomes weaker and unappealing.
What doesn't happen with some authors I now trust. Joyce Carol Oates for example. I have written about this recently in my blog.
Best wishes, Davide

Dave King said...

Couldn't agree more, either about the disappointment often net or Joyce Carol Oates. Jim mentioned Iain Banks's The Crow Road, a case in point for me. It hadn't occurred to me, I think because I found the novel itself not very memorable.

Dave King said...


I think I am getting too old for this malarkey. Twice in succession now I have missed someone out. Many apologies. It seems the senior moments are stretching to a day or two now!

I agree with you about the Doris Lessing opening. Some of my best liked ones are understated. I must confess that I have read The Golden Notebook, but hadn't remembered the opening.

I also agree that it is not a profound subject to be discussing - just a bit of light relief.