To Begin at the Beginning

Classics Fiction
As I've written before, I choose books to read based on how attention-grabbing and/or well-written the first two pages are. I'm not sure if I mentioned this part before, but the book that made me decide that two pages was all I needed was Nelson Algren's A Walk on the Wild Side. I wasn't sure what I was expecting when I pulled it off the shelf at a bookstore and skimmed the back cover before opening the book and being instantly amazed by Algren's prose. I got to the bottom of the second page and thought to myself, "Self, you must read this entire book!" So I bought it and read it and liked it and from then on, I've found my two page test to be pretty reliable.

So there's that story, anyway.

Of course, there are other books that take considerably less than two pages to capture me entirely. A perfect example of this is Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita which pretty much had me from the first line and then only got better from there. Now, it's difficult to come at a novel as famous as Lolita these days without having at least a passing knowledge of what the book is about, and I knew that it was about an older man getting it on with a young teenage girl which is totally sick and wrong, and I had opinions about what I was going to think about the book before I even started reading, which is, I'm reasonably certain, why it managed to blow me away like it did. Now, don't get me wrong: fictional character or no, I'm never forgiving ol' Humbert H. for getting his perv on, but the thing is, the opening lines of Lolita are, well... they're sexy:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
See what I mean? Best opening lines ever. But then, as he says at the end of the following paragraph, "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style."

The thing about great opening lines is that not only do they make you smile or frown or think (or a combination thereof) when you encounter them, but the really good ones sneak into the popular consciousness somehow and we know them without being familiar with where they originally came from, or at least sometimes without having read the source material. For example, even though I have made a completely pointless vow never to read Moby-Dick, I still know the opening line. So, I've compiled a list of what I think are some really good openers, and I will kick it off with the aforementioned line from that book about the whale, because it is the least I can do for Melville, since I am seriously never ever reading that book even though I will admit I have enjoyed several -- okay, two -- of his shorter works. And without further ado, here it is:

-- "Call me Ishmael." (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick)

-- "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." (Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca)

-- "Now is the winter of our discontent" (William Shakespeare, Richard III)

-- "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina -- just because I didn't finish it, it doesn't mean I can't be impressed with the first sentence)

-- "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." (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, showing how to rock a really long sentence)

-- "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)

-- "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." (Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway)

43 Responses to "To Begin at the Beginning"

by brooklyn on

metamorphosisHere's another first line that I think is pretty impressive:"One morning, after an evening of unsettling dreams, Gregor Samsa woke up in his bed and discovered that he had been changed into a monstrous vermin."-- Kafka, The Metamorphosis

by drplacebo on

Openers1.Longtemps je me suis couche de bonne heure. The first line of A La Recherche de Temps Perdu by Proust. In French it's a good opening line. In the English translation it's For a long time I used to go to bed early. Doesn't have quite the same ring. Then Proust launches into a monumental riff about falling asleep. This usually separates the Proust fan from the person that says three pages about falling asleep!!!2. I awoke from The Sickness at the age of forty-five, calm and sane, and in reasonably good health except for a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh common to all who survive The Sickness. . .. The introduction to Naked Lunch, almost as good as:3. I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train. . . The opening line of Naked Lunch.Two authors, two different visions of the world (or is it different?). Both put you squarely in their world from the first sentence, and from then on you never leave.

by Billectric on

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegasby Hunter S. Thompson:We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . ."And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. "What the hell are you yelling about?" he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. "Never mind," I said. "It's your turn to drive." I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.

by Billectric on

Oh, yeah! The Naked Lunch opening is classic. One of my favorites, now that I think about it.Is it possible for you to explain the nuances of the French line from Proust in such a way as to convey why it's so good?

by fumb on

neuromancer"The sky above the port was the color of television, tunedto a dead channel."William Gibson is the best stylist sci-fi has to offer and that first line of his first novel is just a taste.

by Billectric on

I like it. Instead of giving us blue or gray, Gibson evokes a charged, otherworldly atmosphere.

by Milton on

two from Italo CalvinoYou are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the other room. Tell the others right away: No, I don't want to watch TV! Raise your voice, they'll never hear you otherwise: Im reading! I don't want to be disturbed! Maybe they haven't heard you with all the racket; speak louder, yell: I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel! Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.-If on a winter's night a traveler(And it's true: the TV is ALWAYS on in the other room.)Oaxaca is pronounced wahaka.- Under the Jaguar Sun(Mostly just because I've actually used the first page of this book to settle an argument in my favor.)

by mileage on

howbout...a screaming across the sky!

by R. W. Watkins on

sick and wrong?Levi writes: "...I knew that it [Lolita] was about an older man getting it on with a young teenage girl which is totally sick and wrong...."Oh my God. For all these months, I've been sending my poems and comments to a sexual conservative. I'm floored. I thought this site was in the hands of a truly bohemian and socially libertarian lot--hence all the references to the beatnik '50s and '60s. Turns out Levi has very little in common with the sexual spirit of the beats, more resembling Jerry Falwell or George W. Bush in his romantic repression and prudishness. Oh well, another myth shattered, I guess. It seems like puritanical Christian fundamentalism on the right hand and Oprah-style political correctness on the left are hellbent on ruining North America altogether, gradually rendering everyone so sexually paranoid and guilty that they soon won't be able to change a baby's diaper or peak at their own crotch. Just a few weeks ago, I described Robert Pomerhn's latest book of whiney, self-righteous garbage ('Abuse Art, Not Children'--google for my review) as the work of an "undereducated...implicitly envious" little schmo "who never got shagged often enough as an adolescent." It seems there are a helluva lot of Pomerhns out there these days--people who think in black and white terms, and don't realise that the dogmas of the Left can be just as restrictive and stifling as those of the Right. (Newsflash: Left does not automatically equal Liberal anymore than what Right automatically equals Conservative--I don't recall seeing any photos of Joseph Stalin dressed as a flower child.) Make no wonder Ginsberg joined NAMBLA just for spite in his declining years. On a personal note, all of this ridiculous sexual conservatism and extreme paranoia makes me rather proud to have attempted to write my first porno novel around age 8--something which has made me somewhat infamous since the story first broke in RAW NerVZ Haiku in 2001. Judging from her defense of 'Lolita' on various occasions, I think Camille Paglia would understand where I'm coming from. At least there are a few out there who can still think for themselves, rather than buy into the ill-conceived dogmas of folks like Oprah Winfrey and Pat Robertson.

by jamelah on

Yes, If on a winter's night a traveler has a great beginning. In fact, the whole first chapter is aces.That's right. Aces.

by brooklyn on

Hold on there, cowboy! First of all, that article was written by Jamelah, not me. Don't you see where it says "by Jamelah Earle" ...?Second, I really think (though Jamelah would have to speak for herself on this) that she was being somewhat playful in her choice of the words "sick and wrong". She is praising the book, after all.

by Billectric on

Yes, Jamelah, I was going to take you to task for your uncharitable comment as well. What are you saying about us old geezers?

by jamelah on

Uh, wow. First of all, yeah. If anybody's gonna be accused of being a sexually-conservative prude around here, it had better be me. Because I wrote the post. Don't let Levi have all the sexually-conservative fun.Second of all, uh, hey. Relax. Lolita is actually one of my all-time favorite books. When people ask me "Hey, what should I read?" I ask them "Have you ever read Lolita?" And if they haven't, I loan them my copy, saying, "You have to return this to me or I will kill you." Such is my devotion.Be that as it may, while yes, I was being a bit light in tone (as I typically am, just for the record), I actually do not believe that grown ups having sex with teenagers is that great of an idea, and if that makes me a puritan unable to say the word "penis" out loud for fear of going directly to hell, or something like that, then so be it. Getting lectured about how uncool I am by people on the internet pretty much stopped being effective for me at least five years ago, but thanks for playing.

by R. W. Watkins on

Wow! It actually WAS Jamelah! I guess I'm so used to hearing this sort of bull from idiotic Gen.X and Gen.Y men trying to sound liberated and "in touch with their feminine side" (Ha!) that I automatically assumed it had to be Levi who was making such bold, black and white statements--sorry, man. Actually, I think the persecution of 'intergenerational' relationships, sexually active teenagers, and the occasional sexually active prepubescent has more to do with envy ("Lucky bastard! Charlie has a 15-year old girlfriend, while I'm still stuck with Bernice!"), resentment based on memories of an unhappy youth ("I wasn't gettin' any when I was 12!!!"), and the need for new societal scapegoats in an age when racism, sexism and even homophobia are simply too taboo to carry on with (in this regard, such sexual persecution is in the same category with antismoking lobbying, pit bull hatred, 'bad parent' designation, etc.--it seems there's a certain percentage of the population who must have a group or groups to mark and ostracise, otherwise they feel insignificant and not-alive). One can easily identify such persecutors by their constant and inappropriate usage of 'paedophile'--a word they don't even know how to spell and pronounce properly ("ped-do-file" rather than the correct "pee-do-file"), let alone know the precise meaning of. As for the male tendency to pursue the youngest menstruating women available, I think it's somehow tied in with biological evolution and the survival instinct, considering how females hit menopause much earlier than males. (I love discussing this with fundamentalist Christians, pointing out Biblical passages about how ol' Zebbadiahkaneezer [or whoever] was extremely pissed because he "was without son," so he "lay with his daughter, who had reached her thirteenth year, and she bore him many sons. And in total, Zebbadiahkaneezer's ancestors numbered ten-thousand, and the years of his life were seven-hundred and fifty; etc., etc.") Again, my apologies, Levi. And as for Jamelah, I can't wait to see you guest-hosting The Oprah Winfrey Show or praying with Pat Robertson on The 700 Club!

by jamelah on

Oh, I can't wait either. Pat Robertson is my favorite.

by shamatha on

GaboNot "Gabbo" from The Simpsons, but:"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 SolitudeCamus:"Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: 'Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.' That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday."-The StrangerNon-fiction:"Ever since childhood, When I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wish I was on it."-Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar"Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren't turned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote of sources. Take the idea of February 17th, a day of cancelled expectations, the day I learned my job teaching English was finished because of declining enrollment at the college, the day I called my wife from whom I'd been separated for nine months to give her the news, the day she let slip about her 'friend' - Rick or Dick or Chick. Something like that.That morning before all the news started hitting the fan, Eddie Short Leaf, who worked a bottomland section of the Missouri River and plowed snow off campus sidewalks, to me if the deep cold didn't break soon the trees would freeze straight through and explode. Indeed.That night, as I lay wondering whether I would get sleep or explosion, I got the idea instead. A man who couldn't make things go right could at least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine. Live the real jeopardy of circumstance. It was a question of dignity."-William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways

by R. W. Watkins on

Favourite Openers--Name the SourcesRecognise any of these openers?"What's it going to be then, eh?""Marley was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.""It was the kind of evening the little girl liked best.She stood at the window on this last night of October and looked out on the world shivering on the edge of winter.""A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY and CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State's motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.""Apocalypse. A disquieting feature of this annual exhibition--to which the patients themselves were not invited--was the marked preoccupation of the paintings with the theme of world cataclysm, as if these long incarcerated patients had sensed some seismic upheaval within the minds of their doctors and nurses."I haven't read THAT many novels, but there are still many other openers that I could list here....

by Milton on

I think "Pat Robertson is my favorite" would be an excellent opening line for a novel of some sort. Non?

by jamelah on

My memoirs, Milton. My memoirs.

by drplacebo on

To me the French line says:A long time ago, I used to lie down for bed at an early hour. It seems less final than "I went to bed". And as the chapter unfolds, we find out that he didn't fall asleep right away, that he thought about things as he lay in bed. This leads into the fact that he can't go to sleep without his mother coming upstairs and kissing him goodnight, and builds into a whole episode where he creates a ploy to interrupt his mother when Swann is at their house so she will kiss him goodnight. So right off the bat, we know that the main character is very sensitive and kind of neurotic, even as a little kid. Also, which is even more interesting, is that the narrator and the little kid he is describing both have an adult sensiblity. One of the raps against Proust is that he spends pages and pages describing things that seem trivial. However, I find the descriptions fascinating. His power of description is quite uncanny sometimes. So, I don't know if that helps, but to me the original text flows into the story better than the translation. And the Hunter Thompson intro - giant bats, 'nuff said.

by drplacebo on

Where does Jerry Lee Lewis fit into all of this? If you recall, the "Killer" married his 13 year old cousin. I don't remember that being a big deal in the US, but there was rioting in England over the Humbertian proclivities of Jerry Lee.

by drplacebo on

Top of my head- "Marley's dead" A Christmas Carol by Dickens"A squat grey building" I want to say is 1984 by Orwell. The others I would have to look in the book.I think you should have to come up with the source off the top of your head with no looking.

by danjazz on

Just to be a pedant (again) -- Lolita was not a teenager (in the book). She was a 12-year-old, which is a whole different ball game. And Nabokov makes it clear that Humbert Humbert is a monster.Of course there is no sex in the book."Let us skip sex." -- Nabokov, Playboy Interview.It's on my list of best books of all time.

by Billectric on

I agree, Doc. No fair cheating.Ok, I believe the Central London Hatchery is from Brave New World.The kind of evening the little girl liked best? I'm going to say Madeline.Marley - It almost sound like the beginning of an Agatha Christie novel, but...Marley...I'll have to go with A Christmas Carol.I really like the "apocalypse" quote. Wild guess: One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. It also sounds like something Chuck Palahniuk would write.

by jamelah on

Hey shamatha -- always good to see you post. Good picks, too. I almost put The Stranger on the list and then for some reason didn't. I think I forgot. So I'm glad someone did. Thanks.

by R. W. Watkins on

Hints:"What's it going to be then, eh?" (1962; film, 1971)"Marley was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that." (1843; most critically acclaimed film version: 1951)"It was the kind of evening the little girl liked best.She stood at the window on this last night of October and looked out on the world shivering on the edge of winter." (1974; film, 1976)"A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY and CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State's motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY." (1932; film, 1980)"Apocalypse. A disquieting feature of this annual exhibition--to which the patients themselves were not invited--was the marked preoccupation of the paintings with the theme of world cataclysm, as if these long incarcerated patients had sensed some seismic upheaval within the minds of their doctors and nurses." (1968; controversial theme revisited by the same author in a 1971 novel, which was filmed in 1996; when publisher Nelson Doubleday read a test copy of this novel, he ordered the initial press run shredded, and announced that the author "may indeed be beyond the help of psychiatry.")

by Billectric on

Ok, I still haven't viddied the web for answers, but your hints gave me some ideas."What's it going to be then, eh?" A Clockwork Orange, right? It still amazes me that, in my small podunk town, my high school English teacher assigned this book to our class, just after the movie came out."Marley was dead, to begin with."1843? Has to be Dickens' Christmas Carol. The 1950's version had to be better than the Jean Luc Picard version."It was the kind of evening the little girl liked best."Well, it's not old enough to be Madeline. I give up on this one."A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY..."Now I KNOW this is Brave New World by that old tripper Huxley."Apocalypse... " (1968; controversial theme revisited by the same author in a 1971 novel, which was filmed in 1996...) All I can think of is...Kurt Vonnegut?

by Stokey on

How to Read and WriteI fully agree with Jamelah's principle - in theory. The only proper way to judge a book is to read the opening paragraph, page; and see if that merits continued reading. That's proper. But I'm old school (yeah, and old too). You read Asimov, Dostoyevsky, Camus, etc., because you're supposed to. And you don't really judge till you're done with the book. That's maybe not proper, but I dare anyone to read the NYTBR first chapters - and tell me they'd continue reading based on the opening paragraph, page. The only opening line I've ever remembered is Green Mansions - now that we are cool again. Well maybe Schlachthof Fonf - Billy Pilgrim is becoming unstuck in time.

by drplacebo on

Good one Bill for "what's it going to be then" - makes me want to nip out for a bit of the old malako with knives, with maybe a bit of the old ultraviolence later.2. confirmed3 "it was the kind of evening" don't know4."she stood at the window" don't know5."a squat grey building", now that you mention it, it is indeed Huxley, Brave New World (1984 was close)6."Apocalypse..." I think this is from a book by J.G. Ballard, called Apocolypse Gallery or Apocolypse ExhibitAlright you other Lit-Heads - what's the answer to the one's we didn't get?

by jota on

Teen Angst"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.""Chris's summer so far had consisted of wandering around the house with nothing to do, listening to records that he'd heard too many times, sitting in the kitchen eating snacks he wasn't hungry for, staring at books, and, more than anything else, watching TV."

by MichaelAMichael on

BukowskiI always liked:"It began as a mistake."From Post Office.

by eli on

What the heck . . .I can't believe that, with all these reponses,nobody has yet mentioned "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed."

by drplacebo on

Here's some more vintage HST:California, Labor Day weekend . . . early, with ocean fog still in the streets, outlaw motorcyclists wearing chains, shades and greasy Levis roll out from damp garages, all-night diners and cast-off one-night pads in Frisco, Hollywood, Berdoo and East Oakland, heading for the Monterey peninsula, north of Big Sur. . . The Menace is loose again.From Hell's Angels - A Strange and Terrible SagaThis book gave me nightmares.

by Material on

I don't know the second one, but the first is Catcher in the Rye.

by brooklyn on

Hah! I thought of posting that one, I really did. It was a close call, but I decided to give props to Franz Kafka instead. Good choice.

by Stokey on

The second one sounds like Summer of the Mets. But I thought it started at the ball park.

by jota on

ah ha! I am busted as a sharp eyed reader catches on. The original opening line:"It was only the first inning, and Chris's parents were already getting on his nerves."

by R. W. Watkins on

1. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (Quite possibly the only novel ever published that a feminist reader might find herself laughing at a sadistic rape scene in; ditto for Kubrick's excellent film take.)2. A Christmas Carol by Dickens (I'm certainly too much of a Leavisite to truly love Dickens and all that he stood for; so this is probably my favourite work of his, mainly because he's taking Scrooge's side--somthing most readers don't realise.)3. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane by Laird Koenig (Great overlooked gem from the '70s; bonus points for all the World War II and Biblical symbolism; Jodie Foster did a great job on the film version, too; I liked both so much, I based a chapbook of haiku--New England Country Farmhouse (2005)--on them; a forgotten little classic that's worth checking out.)4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (Arguably, the greatest novel of the 20th Centruy on every level. Like Kafka, without Huxley, there could not have been any Gysin, Burroughs, Burgess or Ballard as we know them; check out the great section of cut-up/juxtaposed quotations from Chapter 3--it could have fit in quite nicely in Naked Lunch or The Atrocity Exhibition.)5. The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard (Like Brave New World, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, Make Room! Make Room!, and the more experimental aspects of early Burroughs, this futuristic novel has all the right elements. Why don't people write great futuristic novels like this anymore? If they're being published, they're certainly not being promoted properly.)This was fun. We need more discussive threads like this.

by bluefire on

A few I like..'Sixteen years old. My first porno. Pornos, really. There were three: The blue Balloon, something starring Clint Westwood, and another one whose name I can never remember. Cut together. Continuous. From noon to midnight. Seven days a week.''Five hours' New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.''DURING THE WHOLE of a dull, dark, and soundless day in autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.''They'er out there.Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.''THE event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence.'

by Billectric on

I agree, that was fun.

by Billectric on

Did you actually read all of Ulysses? Did you ever do any cartoons inspired by it?

by R. W. Watkins on

"Sixteen years old. My first porno...."--Christ, I was around 7 or 8; I made my first attempt at actually WRITING a porno novel sometime during the summer between second and third grade, if I recall correctly.... I'm not sure where this opening quote is taken from, but it's reminiscent of Canadian comics author Chester Brown (Ed the Happy Clown, I Never Liked You, The Playboy, etc.)"During the whole...."--Poe's The House of Usher, right...?"They're out there...."--Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Owes a lot to Burroughs's opening passage in Naked Lunch, don't you think?)"The event on which this fiction...."--Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde...?I can't be sure at all in regards to the second quote, but it's vaguely reminiscent of Katherine Harrison in terms of style....