On opening lines

In this post, I consider what makes for good opening lines.

That wasn’t really very good, was it? Not only does that opening line not impart much beyond what the title has already said, it establishes a tone of voice that is unlikely to engage the casual reader. Or even, for that matter, an interested one. It presents a picture of an author who is scrupulous and correct, but also bland and boring; and who – as Wilde said most unfairly about Henry James – sees writing as a “painful duty”. Perhaps it might work better if expressed as a rhetorical question:

What makes for a good opening line?

A bit better, perhaps: it opens the prospect of a discussion that could lead to some sort of answer. But it’s not much better than the first attempt, to be honest. Many of my earlier posts in this blog started in this manner, but once I made the effort to read through some of my older posts in a critical frame of mind – a salutary though frequently dispiriting thing to do – I realised quite soon how irritating a mannerism this is. I take care never to start any post like this nowadays.

For openings are difficult, and also important, especially in our attention-straitened times. If you haven’t captured the reader’s attention within the first few lines – sometimes within the very first line – then the prospective reader has gone: that extra “view” on your blog statistics does not translate to someone who has bothered to read what you’ve written.

This obviously puts at a disadvantage writers such as myself whose natural style tends towards the prolix rather than the snappy. But snappy opening lines are not without their problems either. All too often, they seem designed to capture the reader’s attention: it’s sometimes a sort of metaphorical throat-clearing – a call to attention which, once delivered, clears the way for the piece really to begin with the second sentence. This is not necessarily a shortcoming: one can sometimes find this sort of thing even in very fine works. Take, for instance, the opening of Joseph Heller’s brilliant Catch 22:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

Instantly, the reader (well this reader at any rate) is hooked. But the paragraph that follows has nothing to do with the chaplain: it tells us that Yossarian was in hospital, and explains why. The writing is still brilliant, the reader is still hooked, but that first sentence does not lead to what immediately follows: there is a disjoin.

Of course, that isn’t a problem here – especially as this novel delights in comic artifice, and constantly, and quite deliberately, draws attention to itself. But if that opening line were to be omitted, there would be no hole in the narrative. Writers lesser than Joseph Heller (which is just about all of us, I guess) would, I think, be well-advised to be careful about using this sort of throat-clearing opening gambit. I try not to use it myself: I know my limits, and, badly done, it could become as irritating a mannerism as starting posts with rhetorical questions.

Of course, opening lines don’t have to be snappy to capture the reader’s attention: take for instance the famous openings sentence of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Sixty-three words, by my count, which could easily be cut down dramatically while still retaining its sense; but, as written, it captures the reader’s attention because it establishes a very distinctive tone of voice: the “David Copperfield kind of crap” is a particularly felicitous touch. The model for this sort of thing is, I suppose, the opening of Twain’s 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.

Once again, it captures a very distinctive tone of voice. The “don’t” rather than the grammatically correct “won’t” helps capture the tone, but the real touch of brilliance here is, I think, the word “without”. Most of us would have written something along the lines of “You won’t know about me unless you have…”; or “You won’t know about me if you haven’t…”; but anything along those lines would have disrupted the distinctive rhythm of Huck’s manner of speaking. I don’t know how much time and thought Twain had given to that opening sentence, but I suspect it was the product of hard work rather than a spontaneous effusion. And how he must have rejoiced when he finally came up with “without”, and realised that the opening sentence was now absolutely perfect.

But one can also create arresting openings without being snappy, and without establishing an engaging and distinctive narrative voice: but such openings arrest the attention only of a certain kind of reader. Here, for instance, is the opening sentence of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove:

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass above the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.

Of course, this is unlikely to attract readers who are not prepared to take their time and to engage closely, but James is not writing for such readers anyway. Here, all in one sentence, we are given a sense of the passage of time (Kate Croy is waiting “unconscionably”); the detail of the glass above the mantel gives us a sense of place; the irritation that brings Kate Croy to the point of leaving without seeing her father conveys a sense of her character, and also a sense of tension for reasons as yet unspecified; the face “postively pale” implies a sense of crisis either impending or apparent; and even the four opening words (“She waited, Kate Croy, …” rather than “Kate Croy waited …”) places the emphasis on the act of waiting rather than on the more mundane matter of the naming of the character; while the two commas punctuating these first four words make for a halting, stuttering rhythm that conveys admirably a sense of strain and of unease. All this in a single, harmoniously constructed sentence. Admittedly, this is unlikely to make the Flavorwire or Buzzfeed (or whatever) list of great opening lines, but if ever there were a finer opening to a novel than this, I don’t know it.

And only yesterday, on starting for the first time the essays of Francis Bacon, I came upon this opening line:

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

The essay is entitled “On Truth”. In the gospels, Pilate does indeed ask the captured Jesus this most profound of questions, “What is truth?” (John 18:38); we do not know if Jesus had answered, for no answer is recorded. In Bacon’s version of this story, Pilate did not stay for an answer – either because he did not think there was an answer, or because he did not wish to hear what he thought (or feared) the answer may be. And Pilate, according to Bacon, was “jesting”. Not that he asked the question “in jest”, but that his entire person may be described as “jesting”; that he either refused, or pretended to refuse, to take life too seriously. The two possibilities put forward in this brief sentence are intriguing: either Pilate did not take life seriously, and had asked “What is truth?” fully convinced that no answer was possible; or that he pretended, for reasons we may only guess at, not to take life too seriously, and did not wish even to hear any possible answer to his question.

What wondrous vistas of thought, rich in possibilities, are brought to view by this seemingly simple opening line! It draws me into this meditation on the nature of truth as surely as if it were a thrilling adventure story. Now, that’s how to start an essay, and, to judge by the generally mundane opening lines of my posts here on my blog – the critical reading of which remains, as I said, a frequently dispiriting thing to do – I clearly have some considerable distance yet to go…

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40 responses to this post.

  1. I think that you’re being a bit tough on yourself there. I always keep reading you, anyway. However, there’s no way that you or any other mere mortal is going to rival one of my favourite opening lines:

    ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events…’ — ‘High-Rise’ by Ballard and one of those delicious WTF? moments.

    Then of course there’s ‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderly again’ from ‘Rebecca’. I’ve never been quite sure why that works but it does — brilliantly.

    I’m looking forward to seeing other people’s choices. I have a feeling that this one will run and run. And while I’m on the subject, what was the James Blish novel that ENDED with ‘Creation began’.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Mark on February 6, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    Darn it, Charley, you were in there fast with the opening line from High-Rise. That was my first thought too.

    Another favourite of mine is the opening line of Katherine Dunn’s 1989 cult masterpiece, Geek Love, which captures the grotesque, carny-world of the novel, and language of the freaks that populate it, perfectly:

    “‘When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned towards her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”

    Reply

  3. Posted by Mark on February 6, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    Meant to add that I agree with you, Himadri, about the opening of The Wings of the Dove. I remember reading that sentence over and over again when I was about 17 or 18. I had very little idea, then, why it’s so arresting and absorbing – I just knew it was special. For me, it’s a model of syntactical brilliance.

    Reply

  4. Tristram Shandy, who knew how to begin at the beginning of things: “I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me…”\

    Excellent essay, Himadri. And, I agree, thou doth protest too much… For this essay, how could “In this post, I consider what makes for good opening lines,” not be the perfect opening line for this essay? It gives you meat for your thesis, sits alone with no other sentences hanging upon it, calls irreverent attention to itself, sets tone, without being too stodgy, is neither perfect nor imperfect, — it is I think as fine an opening line as one might find for its subject.

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  5. You know, Mark, I’ve never even HEARD of ‘Geek Love’ but you’ve just sold me on it. I can’t wait to read it now.

    What about the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s ‘Haunting of Hill House’? I can’t recall the whole thing but do have a vivid memory of the part that says: “And whatever walked there, walked alone.’

    One of my favourite openings is H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘Arthur Jermyn’:

    ‘Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with it’s shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our species — if seperate species we be — for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world. If we knew what we are we would do what Arthurt Jermyn did; and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night.”

    You would never guess that I’m a reasonably adjusted and happy individual, would you?

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  6. Posted by Mark on February 7, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    Ha, yes, that’s vintage Lovecraft. And, of course, the opening to “The Call of Cthulhu” is superb too.

    H. G. Wells doesn’t receive much credit as a prose stylist, but the opening sentence of The War of the Worlds is marvellously minatory:

    “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

    And, lastly, from me, I always think the Irish modernists had a way with openings. The immortal beginnings of Joyce’s Portrait and Ulysses hardly need repeating here; but then there’s this from Samuel Beckett’s novel, Murphy: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

    And, as something of a loafer myself, I always appreciate this opener from Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds:

    “Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.”

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  7. Posted by witwoud on February 7, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    I must admit, I can’t stand schlocky first-lines; this sort of thing — “The day after we ate the baby, we learnt that my grandmother had escaped from prison again.” Ooooh, gosh, how intriguing.

    This one is hard to beat, though it never appears in those ‘100 Greatest First Lines’ lists:

    “After the thing was over, when peril had ceased to loom and happy endings had been distributed in heaping handfuls and we were driving home with our hats on the sides of our heads, having shaken the dust of Steeple Bumpleigh from our tyres, I confessed to Jeeves that there had been moments during the recent proceedings when Bertram Wooster, though no weakling, had come very near to despair.”

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  8. Great piece Himadri. No room for ‘Call me Ishmael’? Well, maybe that one’s a bit too predictable. I find I tend not to remember opening lines, and am crushingly envious of those who can quote them at will.

    Liked the passage about Bacon – is that Bacon’s own English or has it been translated from Latin?

    Reply

    • Good to see you here, Bryn! It was that Bacon line that got me thinking about opening lines.

      Bacon’s essays are all written in English, but there are quotes in Latin scattered throughout, and a pleb like myself has to look up the notes!

      Reply

  9. In book blogging, any first line that gets you to move on to the next line and write the dang post is a good opening line.

    I have been tempted to move to a “Today’s book is…” format just to get that stupid opening line problem out of the way.

    A professional fiction writer does not have such an easy way out.

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  10. Good article, as ever. My favourite opening line has to be from Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Translations vary but the a common version is “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

    Kafka states the impossible in such a matter-of-fact way that you don’t for one moment consider the impossibility of the statement, and it doesn’t half grab the reader’s attention. The downside of a great opening line is that follows may not live up to it – not the case with the Kafka, but I can think of several cases where this does happen.

    Than of course there’s “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.” At least this gives you a pretty good indication of what you’re in for…

    Reply

  11. Posted by jacabiya on February 8, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordar­me, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.(“Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.”)

    Call me Ishmael. Moby Dick, Herman Mellville.

    It was a dark and stormy night…Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens.

    It was a pleasure to burn. Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984, George Orwell All this happened, more or less. Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Anna Karenina, Leon Tolstoy. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. The Trial, Kafka. Elmer Gantry was drunk. Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis. I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham. “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” The Satanic Verses, Salomon Rushdie,

    Date: Fri, 6 Feb 2015 15:20:04 +0000 To: jacm1@hotmail.com

    Reply

  12. Great selection of opening lines there. Have to admit, though; I do have a weakness for the ‘schlocky’. Then again, I like comic books as well:

    ‘Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout: “Save us”… And I’ll look down and whisper: “No.” — Watchmen, Alan Moore.

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  13. Posted by jacabiya on February 8, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    Opening lines are fascinating. Like the first shot in a film, good opening lines capture the attention and spur the imagination of the reader. They, as you correctly state, engage the reader. Great opening lines are remembered, or one makes the effort to remember and recite when needed. Some of them have a certain cadence and rythm that lends them to be remembered and repeated. Some encapsulate the theme of the novel.

    In Spanish literature, I’d say the 2 most remembered and famous lines are in the 2 best known Spanish language novels:

    “En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordar­me, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.” (“Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.”) Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote.

    “Muchos anos despues, frente al peloton de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendia habria de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevo a conocer el hielo” (“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “As he faced the firing squad” makes you interested in finding out why he is going to be killed. This novel has also one of the great ending lines: “… porque las estirpes condenadas a cien anos de soledad no tenian una segunda oportunidad sobre la tierra.”) “…because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.” But that should be the theme of another essay.

    In English literature “It was a dark and stormy night…” Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830), might be the most used, often mocked and parodied opening line. It instantly places you in a world of mystery and terror.

    My favorite in English literature: “Call me Ishmael.” Moby Dick, Herman Mellville. This famous line is easily remembered since it is short, but at the same time memorable for its intimacy. One feels like the author is inviting you the reader as a new friend to be comfortable and listen to his story.

    Some are memorable simply because they are the first lines of classic novels. Some of my favorite opening lines of classic 19th century novels:

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens. This line reads like a poem, and immediately piques the interest of the reader to find out the time and place the novel will cover.

    Others of my favorite memorable lines, without pretending to be exhaustive, of course:

    “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina, Leon Tolstoy. The expectation has been created that we will be told a sad story about an unhappy family.

    “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” War of the World, H.G. Wells. A fascinating line for the time when I gather little was said or talked about aliens from other worlds.

    Others from 20th century classics: “It was a pleasure to burn.” Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury. Now we want to know: to burn what? “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov. This captures Humbert Humbert’ lustful passion for a girl named Lolita, therefore quite young.

    Kafka has some memorable intriguing opening lines “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” The Trial. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic vermin.” Metamorphosis.

    “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis. Now we want to know Elmer Gantry, the title character, why is he drunk and if he’s a drunkard.

    “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.” The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham. This line is very interesting since it puts the author right in the novel, including himself as a character.

    “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” The Satanic Verses, Salomon Rushdie. Ominous and relevant.

    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984, George Orwell. We now know we are in a cold world different from ours. “All this happened, more or less.” Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut. Reality and fiction.

    Date: Fri, 6 Feb 2015 15:20:04 +0000 To: jacm1@hotmail.com

    Reply

  14. Lots of great examples here. Murphy by Beckett definitely, High-Rise and Rebecca both absolutely. One of my perennial favourites was always William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which opens:

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

    The famous irony being that when written that meant the colour of grey static, but later of course TVs tuned to a dead channel were bright blue, and now they’re mostly black.

    Not so sure myself about Wings of a Dove. It has a character looking in the mirror and describing themselves, a cardinal sin of fiction as a rule.

    As for blog posts, I agree with Tom. A good first line is one that gets you to the second line.

    Reply

  15. My irritating but I insist not pedantic corrections: “Call me Ishmael” is not the opening line of Moby-Dick. There are almost 4,000 words before that line. Similarly, “Lolita, light” etc. is nowhere near the opening line of Lolita.

    Reply

    • Posted by jacabiya on February 16, 2015 at 4:22 pm

      Greetings. I could not debate this subject with you, since I’m no expert in literature, and probably shouldn’t have posted my comment in the first place. I must have committed literary sacrilege by reading the online or Kindle versions, which also show “En un lugar de la mancha…” as the first line of Chapter 1, not the preface, of Don Quijote, which book I read a long time ago but do not own now. As a matter of fact I own very few books these days. Even my law books are going: most legal research and studies I now do online. Which brings a fascinating subject: how with changes in technology works of all types, in art or entertainment, from popular music to culinary recipes, are transformed or lost forever.

      Jose

      Reply

    • The integrity if electronic texts is a real problem, but the integrity of published texts is a problem, too. I have seen editions of Moby-Dick that excise all of the introductory matter without a hint that it is missing. “Call me Ishmael” then becomes the first line.

      Of course that novel has suffered worse indignities. For 80 years or so, the English edition was missing the last chapter!

      In the early 1990s, the English publisher put out an edition of Lolita which threw out the Foreword by John Ray, Jr. and replaced it with a new one by Martin Amis. Nobody knew that “John Ray, Jr.” was Vladimir Nabokov, that the Foreword was part of the fiction. Apparently no one had read the book. But then I wonder how many readers with the book in their possession skip (“spoilers”) and then forget about that Foreword.

      Reply

      • Hello Jose, I do not claim to be an expert on literature either, whatever that means: merely an enthusiastis layman. Tom, on the other hand, appears extremely well read and perceptive, and (he can correct me if I am wrong on this) describes himself as an amater reader purely because, going by the liiteral meaning of the word, amateurs pursue their interests purely out of love. But that’s enough speculation for one day.

        I too have seen editions of Moby-Dick that excise everything before “Call me Ishmael”. I don’t recall seeing printed editions of Don Quixote (as we Anglophones spell it) that excise the prefaces, but no doubt they exist. I suppose it does raise the question of where the novel actually starts. Henry James, for instance, wrote extremely long prefaces to his novels when editing them for a “Collected Works” edition, and I must confess I have but gingerly dipped into them: can one truly claim to have read, say, The Portrait of a Lady or The Golden Bowl without grappling with those prefaces? I’m not sure.

        The prefaces to Shaw’s plays often seem to me better than the plays themselves.And Wordwworth’s preface to the 2nd edition of Lyrical Ballads is unmissable. I suppose it may be fair to say that some prefaces are more important, and more an integral part of the work, than others.

        I thought, incidentally, that John Ray Jr was very definitely Vivian Darkbloom (or Vladimir Nabokov, or whatever he wants to call himself). Is there any uncertainty about this?

      • Any uncertainty, no, none. This episode was a huge embarrassment for the publisher. They had to withdraw and pulp the edition. It was the UK Everyman hardback from 1994 or so.

      • The internet, the all-mighty, all-inclusive technology which sadly seems destined to dominate truth and history in the future, but which at the same time allows me to have these very interesting and highly educational exchanges from the other side of the world with you, instead of helping clarify, only adds to the confusion many like me may have. See, for example, this video at http://www.openculture.com/2012/03/nabokov_reads_lolita_names_the_great_books_.html

      • Hello Jose, I get the impression that perfect clarity is only possible with very simple writing; any literature that engages seriously with life must be complex, as life itself is complex. After a while, I find myself not trying to clarify the complexity, but, rather, to understand the nature of the complexity.

        Nabokov I find a highly engaging, extremely funny, and often wildly eccentric (I do not use that last word as a pejorative, by the way). His literary criticism is idiosyncratic, to say the least, but he is never bland or dull. I don’t always agree with him, of course: his dismissal of Mann, Faulkner, James, Dostoyevsky, etc. does seem a bit high-handed; his refusal to see any merit in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago seems frankly a bit odd; and I never did find out what it was he objected to the later parts of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Nonetheless, there’s never a dull moment in Nabokov, either in his fiction or in his criticism.

      • Nabokov, of course, is pretending he did not write the execrable Foreword in order to preserve the joke.

        You’ve read the book, right? Little of what I said here will make sense to someone who has not read the book.

      • Yes, I’ve read this book. I remember reading the Penguin edition, which featured a not entirely salubrious cover; and I remember reading it mainly on commuter trains and buses, over a few very rainy days, when I was wearing a rather shabby Colombo-style raincoat. I think I got a few odd looks from other commuters!

      • Sorry, Himadri, I was replying to jacabiya. I swear your comment was not there at the time. In the video jacabiya links, Nabokov reads from “the first lines” – by which he means the usual suspects, not John Ray, Jr., in other words, jacabiya is demonstrating that I am wrong.

        If you don’t know the book, everything I wrote about John Ray, Jr. will sound like gibberish. If you do know the book, it may still sound like gibberish, but if you don’t, I have no chance.

      • No, sir, please, I do not believe I am demonstrating that you’re wrong. The point I was making was about technology, not about literature. I just recently joined you guys in this blog and have no desire or intention to make waves (well, maybe a little bit…). As to your question: I read Lolita I believe in a Kindle version, not an actual book, a few years back, and so I can’t help you.

      • Jose, there really are no waves at all! We do sometimes disagree with each other, true, but that’s only to be expected in discussion. Your contributions here are much valued, and all disagreements here are friendly disagreements!

        Cheers, Himadri

      • Posted by jacabiya on February 18, 2015 at 3:36 am

        Thank you, Himadri!

  16. Can I answer you all in the same message? I’m afraid I didn’t manage to get to this blog over the weekend, and was a bit taken aback to see so many responses!

    Thanks , all of you, for all the various examples you’ve suggested, both famous and not-so-famous – I enjoyed reading through them all. The opening line to Wodehouse’s “Joy in the Morning” is wonderful, and makes me want to go back to the Jeeves & Wooster stories again. I also love the opening line to “The Razor’s Edge”: indeed, that entire opening chapter is unsurpassed when it comes to setting the tone of voice of the narrator. Maugham is not a fashionable writer these days, but at his best he really was, I think, very good indeed. As for “The Haunting of Hill House”, I did write a post about it here some time back – and yes, I couldn’t not comment on that opening.

    Tom – yes, a good opening sentence is whatever will take me along to the next sentence. The question is whether it’ll take the reader to the next sentence. It’s a problem for a professional writer of fiction, but I think it’s a problem for the humble (and not so humble) blogger as well.

    I tend to agree with Witoud that what he describes as the “schlocky opening lines” can get tiresome. I don’t know if your example is a real one or one you have made up (“The day after we ate the baby, we learnt that my grandmother had escaped from prison again”) but it certainly made me laugh, and it would be fun writing a programme to generate opening lines like this. It is a bit like an actor making his entry by somersaulting on to the stage, and then holding his arms out to the audience expecting applause. It may be a spectacular somersault, but you sure as hell hope they won’t be doing that sort of thing throughout the performance.

    I suppose there are some classic openings that approximate to that (“Catch 22”, for instance) but every other book you pick up nowadays in bookshop seems to start with something so deliberately outrageous and unexpected, that one feels that surprise-value of such openings is a bit past its sell-by date.

    The greatest opening line of a play, by the way, is the sentry’s call in “Hamlet” – “who’s there?” It is, literally, a soldier on guard challenging a possible intruder, but the question echoes throughout the rest of the play in all sorts of ways.

    Despite Max’ strictures, I must admit I continue to like the opening line of “The Wings in the Dove”: it does so much, and I find it so elegantly constructed!

    My post was really no more than a few random thoughts on the matter, but if anyone really wants to get to work and classify different types of opening lines, and what makes them work, please do go ahead: I’m far too lazy for that kind of thing.

    Thanks everyone, once again, for all your suggestions – and do please keep them coming!

    Cheers, Himadri

    PS Tom, by your estimation, I guess “Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing” quoted by jacabiya above doesn’t count as an opening line either. Shame to miss it, though!

    Reply

    • Miss it, who misses it? You just read the book and there it is. Anyone who skips Cervantes’s prefaces is making a big mistake. He’s the greatest preface writer in literary history.

      Reply

      • Miss it from the list of great opening lines, that is. It is, one may argue, the opening line of the main body of the text… But yes, I do agree with you: cervantes’ prefaces are just wonderful, and on no account should be ignored.

  17. Posted by alan on February 9, 2015 at 11:47 pm

    “The past is another country, they do things differently there.”
    Opening questions do have their place, and I am sure you would not begrudge:
    “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?”

    Reply

  18. ‘FEW THINGS HAVE BEEN MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN MY NOTEBOOK ON THE
    DEIST CONTROVERSY AS IT FELL DOWNWARD THROUGH THE WATERS OF THE
    MEDITERRANEAN.’ E..M FORSTER. HOW’S THAT ? I DON’T HAVE THE TITLE OF
    THE SHORT STORY, SORRY.

    Reply

  19. Although I’ve only got time to skim this for this morning, I must say that I’m thoroughly enjoying everybody’s contributions, as well as the sheer diversity! Thanks in particular to Max who reminds me that I’ve yet to read anything by William Gibson and can’t now recall why.

    The opening line of ‘Hamlet’ — that brings back memories of how a good teacher could really open up a whole new world to a young person. All these decades later I can remember listening to a taped discussion on the opening that was played to us. One of the contributors gave his opinion that in a very morbid sense the appearance of the ghost completed the family unit. I was thrilled and not a little appalled by this — and it was also the first time that I’d heard the expression ‘family unit’.

    On a totally different level -and probably my fare thee well here — I’ve always loved the opening to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 ‘Tarzan of the Apes’:

    “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. I may credit the seductive influence of an old vintage upon the narrator for the beginning of it, and my own skeptical incredulity during the days that followed for the balance of the strange tale.

    “When my convivial host discovered that he had told me so much, and that I was prone to doubtfulness, his foolish pride assumed the task the old vintage had commenced, and so he unearthed written evidence in the form of musty manuscript, and dry official records of the British Colonial Office to support many of the salient features of his remarkable narrative.”

    And since he then goes on to say that he has changed some names, we are set up not only for a bloody good read but also for the fact that it may not be entirely true.

    I’ve just gone back to your ‘Hill House’ article and that’s the one, all right. I think she also closed with the same paragraph, giving it all a very eerie circular quality.

    Reply

  20. I was thinking today about Call me Ishmael. Is that really a great opening line, as I’ve always thought, or is it great because we know what follows? I’m not absolutely sure, in fact I’m not even sure it’s possible now to be sure.

    Another very obvious one of course is:

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

    Much quoted and paraphrased, but I actually do think it’s brilliant.

    Reply

  21. Posted by David Barnard on February 12, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” Concise, intriguing. (The late Iain Banks’ opening to The Crow Road.)

    Reply

  22. I do love it when I’m right! I knew that this post would grow a hell of a pair of legs and run. Everyone loves opening lines.

    Jose, no one is an expert on literature: we’re all a work in progress and one man’s etc. As to our new electronic age, what people will miss in fifty years’ time is that they won’t be reading any ‘collected letters’ — and ‘collected emails’ just doesn’t appeal to me so much.

    My favourite film director, Sam Peckinpah, had some prophetic things to say on the Shape of Things to Come as far back as 1973 in an interview:

    “The country has no attention span. We’re TV oriented now. We’d better wake up to the fact that Big Brother is already here. And now, with cable TV and video cassettes coming in, no one will ever have to get up off their ass, even to go to the corner for a movie. It’s awful. One of the great things about going to a movie or the theatre is the act itself — the getting out, the buying of the tickets, the sharing of the experience with a lot of people…

    “Most of the people who watch TV watch it in groups of three or less; and one of them is half stoned. Most people come home at night after work and have a couple of knocks before dinner and settle down in their living death rooms.

    “The way our society is evolving has been carefully thought out. It’s not accidental. We’re all being programmed, and I bitterly resent it.”

    Me too, Sam; me too.

    Reply

    • Scary, and very true, this ice age of electronics we live these days. I do miss the old days and the socializing, family, concerts, live bands, cinemas, theater, walking, etc., instead of the gated communities and malls we currently inhabit with their alarms, locks and bottled water. At the same time, the internet and all its gadgets are wonders to behold, which 30 years ago no one would have dreamed of, not I at least, and which allows us these days to conduct this conversation miles apart. But that just proves your point, doesn’t it? I don’t know 50 years from now but let me tell you Charley that right now I miss many things I enjoyed in my younger years, and that I never imagined I would lose, like recorded music that got lost in the transferring from LPs to 8 tracks to cassettes to DVDs to digital and Itunes. I’m also concerned about books and movies, of course. Who knows if Peckinpah’s rarely seen “Cross of Iron”, which I saw in DVD format a couple of years ago, will get lost in the translation? Netflix’s DVD inventory of old, classic movies still vastly outnumbers its download offer. At the same time, I have to admit with Netflix (and other providers, Hulu, etc.) I had the opportunity I never dreamed of watching almost every film I wished to watch, keeping my butt on the recliner for quite some time. As for the future, Big Brother i.e. Big Business will decide what is kept and what remains while keeping us in the couch, as you and Sam correctly predict.

      Reply

      • Nice to electronically meet you, Jose! I once had an editor who joked that I would be happier with a quill and ink pot. At least I think the was joking. And there’s the contradiction for a lot of people over the age of say, 40. We moan about new technology whilst grudgingly embracing it. Ergo this missive between two strangers possibly thousands of miles apart; but yes, i miss many of the things that you do.

        Ah, ‘Cross of Iron’, eh? Ii first saw it in around 1976-7 in the town of Troon in Scotland. I still think that it is one of his most underrated films. Mind you, a couple of new generations have rediscovered him since back in the day and now even ‘Convoy’ and ‘The Osterman Weekend’ have come up for re-evaluation. Mind you, in the ghastly age of reality TV that one was overdue!

        Then again, when it comes to Peckinpah I’m a bit biased.

        When I saw your comment the other day on opening shots in films I was tempted to quote another favourite of mine, Ken Russell. I don’t have it to hand but he said, regarding his opening images, something like: “This isn’t the age of tapping someone politely on the shoulder and asking them to listen. This is the age of grabbing them by the lapels, kicking them in the nuts and forcing them to listen.”

        Paraphrased, to be sure; but sentiments that he lived up to quite admirably!

        Again, nice to meet you. Have a good evening!

      • Posted by jacabiya on February 18, 2015 at 10:33 pm

        It is a pleasure to meet you too.

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