Saturday, 23 January 2016

Once Upon A Land In A Time Far, Far Away

What makes the best first sentence for a novel?

Authors and publishers strive for openings that hook the reader and start reeling them in: the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page... all the way through to the last line.  But while there are many ways of casting that first sentence, it isn't unusual for an author to start a story by acknowledging there is no such place as a beginning.

George Eliot does precisely this with the opening motto to Daniel Deronda (1876): 'Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning.'

And Graham Greene has his narrator, Maurice Bendrix, begin The End of the Affair (1951) with the observation: 'A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look forward.' 

Such statements might be seen as leaning towards the Dear Reader equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, but Italo Calvino embraces this element of metafiction with the decisiveness of a sledge hammer in his opening sentence to If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (1979): 'You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler.'  Smash!

Alexandre Dumas, père, knew how to string out a sentence, and though it may well have appealed to a nineteenth century reader, at 148 words, the opening to The Black Tulip [La Tulipe Noir] (1850) may feel torturous to modern readers: 'On the 20th August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cuppolas are reflected, - the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting and  restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.'

Charles Dickens was no slack when it came to long sentences either, but at least the opening of A Tale of Two Cities (1859) draws on rhetoric and rhythm as bait for the hook: '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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.'

Of course, art borrows from art, builds on it, gives the occasional nod to what's come before, and Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956) appears to doff its hat to A Tale of Two Cities with its first paragraph: 'This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying... but nobody thought so.  This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice... but nobody admitted it.  This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks... but nobody loved it.'

The Bible has provided one or two memorable lines across the centuries, but the opening of the Book of John (New Testament) builds on a sentence stem that remains popular to this day: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’  Literature offers many variations of this simple opening (From the very beginning... Ever since the beginning... It began with...), although Hermann Hesse directly references the Bible (and possibly takes a stab at it) in opening Peter Camenzind (1904) with: 'In the beginning was the myth.'

Articles about first lines in novels are not uncommon, although most of these tend to draw their examples from such a limited pool of classics that it’s now possible to recognise where they originate without ever having read the novel in question.  For example, few people would fail to recognise the source of 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife' or 'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.'

On the whole, novelists seem to favour first sentences that establish either a sense of place, situation and character, or that create intrigue through ambiguity.  John Fowles chooses the former in The Magus (1966/1977): 'I was born in 1927, the only child of middle class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.'  As does Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner (2003): 'I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.'  It can also be seen in Nick Hornby's How to be Good (2001): 'I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don't want to be married to him anymore.'  And in Sarah Waters' Fingersmith (2002): 'My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder.' While in Tirra Lirra by the River (1978), Jessica Anderson establishes the particular, if only to dismiss it: 'I arrive at the house wearing a suit - greyish, it doesn't matter.' 

It would be a surprise if Kurt Vonnegut's  Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) began in any other way than with an ambiguity: 'All this happened, more or less.'  And the first line to The Go-Between (1953) by L.P.Hartley remains a favourite in this category: 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.'  But perhaps the most effective first lines are those which both establish a sense of place, situation and character at the same time as creating a keen intrigue.

Mark Haddon achieves this in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003), not so much with the opening sentence ('It was 7 minutes after midnight.'), but by choosing to begin the novel with Chapter 2 rather than Chapter 1. 

Ralph Ellison's opening 'I am an invisible man' is powerful, except the impact on the reader is somewhat diminished for this information having already been revealed in the book's title: Invisible Man (1952).

But one of the most effective opening sentences of all time, as far as using a range of strategies to hook the reader, still belongs to Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis [Die Verwandlung] (1915): 'When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.'

While Charles Bukowski creates a memorable first line in Post Office (1971) with 'It began as a mistake', it is the final paragraph of this novel that remains one of my favourites, and although final paragraphs don't generate as much publicity as first lines - after all, the reader has been well and truly reeled in by that point - it seems an appropriate, Happy Ever After place to end this particular piece: 'In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.  Maybe I'll write a novel, I thought.  And then I did.' 

Happy reading!