First lines

January 30, 2008

If I were writing a book, I am sure that I would take great care with the very first sentence. You never get a second chance, as they say.  I know that authors are aware of this, and so, like many others, I take a special interest in the first sentences of books. I have a few favourites.

Most people know the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, and with good reason:

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

Hardly less famous, and equally fitting, is the opening of Anna Karenina:

Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.

But then I have a few personal favourites that are perhaps less well-known. For instance, I’m partial to the opening of Kafka’s The Trial:

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

In one sentence it not only introduces the main character and sets the narrative tone, but even slips in the central struggle of the novel against an irrational bureaucracy. It’s a marvel of economy. Another personal favourite is Frederick Buechner’s Godric, which begins:

Five friends I had, and three of them snakes.

(Actually, now that I check it, I see that it says, “Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.” That’s good, though I think my version an incremental improvement.)

It’s not only fictional works that have memorable beginnings. The first sentence of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society is wonderfully wry:

Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.

And who could possibly forget the opening sentiment of Burrell’s Nonperturbative Aspects of B Meson Decays?

The Standard Model (SM) of particle physics is a theory of the basic constituents of matter and their interactions.

**

I know that I am not alone in this enthusiasm. If you’ve a favourite first line and would care to share it, please leave a comment!

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5 Responses to “First lines”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Well I am going to state the obvious and say that Dickens was the master at opening lines — Great Expectations and Bleak House come to mind, and of course, my favourite, David Copperfield:

    Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

    Douglas Adams has a good one in The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul:

    It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase, `as pretty as an airport’.

    Finally, about half the books of the Bible have great openers: `Vanity, vanity . . .’, `Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth . . .’, `That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched . . .’ etc., etc.

  2. Christina A. Says:

    Craig, very funny that you mention this business about first lines. I agree that they are of the utmost importance and I’m glad that you included Kafka in here.

    How about this wordsmithing in Gogol’s “The Overcoat”:

    “In the department of—but it is better not to mention the department. There is nothing more irritable than departments, regiments, courts of justice, and, in a word, every branch of public service.”

    He immediately introduces and abandons the context of the story in one sentence.

    And the main character introduction begins in the next paragraph:

    “So, in a certain department there was a certain official—not a very high one, it must be allowed—short of stature, somewhat pock-marked, red-haired, and short-sighted, with a bald forehead, wrinkled cheeks, and a complexion of the kind known as sanguine. ”

    You can just imagine meeting this guy on the streets of St. Petersburg!

    The reason it’s funny you mention this business of first lines is that on Friday evening, at exactly 6:43 pm, I composed the first few lines of the book I would like to write about you. (Jim can confirm this as I told him about it shortly afterward)

    The title of the book: “The Non-Perturbative Tendencies of C. Burrell”

    I’ll have to remember how the beginning went and send it to you in an email.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Adam,

    You are right about Dickens. I had forgotten how Bleak House begins until you reminded me. I suppose we should also throw A Tale of Two Cities into the mix, since its opening is the most famous of all:

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

    As for the Bible, we should not overlook the two great In principio openings of Genesis and St. John’s Gospel.

    The Douglas Adams book is new to me, but the sentiment is not: I don’t think it’s a coincidence either.

    **

    Christina,

    I would not have thought of Gogol, so thank you for bringing him into the conversation. That is a good beginning!

    The prospect of being the subject of a book has a certain appeal, but your title seems somehow less than flattering. Still, send it over if you can remember how it went. I’m intrigued.

    Maybe Jim will chime in to talk about the opening sentence of his Stephen Harper biography?

  4. Christina A Says:

    One more, Craig, that I don’t think should be forgotten is the first line of the Divine Comedy,

    “Midway along the journey of our life
    I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
    for I had wandered off from the straight path.”

    (Mark Musa translation)

  5. cburrell Says:

    Yes! That is a superb example.

    These past few days I’ve also had the opening sentence of The Canterbury Tales running through my mind, and it deserves a place at the table:

    “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
    The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
    And bathed every veyne in swich licour
    Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
    And Zephirus eek, with his sweete breeth…”

    And so on. Wonderful.


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