Tuesday, 2 March 2010

First Lines

First lines are overrated things. There's a lovely character in Camus' The Plague who's trying to write a novel but is so obsessed with getting the opening line right that he dies (of plague) without having finished the first page.

Imagine a joke writer who begins by saying "An Irishman a rabbi and a flamingo walk into a bar" and then paces about his room trying to think of a punchline. Mickey Spillane, a pulp writer, put it best:

The biggest part of the joke is the punch line, so the biggest part of a book should be the punch line, the ending. People don't read a book to get to the middle, they read a book to get to the end and hope that the ending justifies all the time they spent reading it. So what I do is, I get my ending and, knowing what my ending is going to be, then I write to the end and have the fun of knowing where I'm going but not how I'm going to get there.

Once you have decided that Othello kills his wife and then himself, the rest of the play is getting to that point by the most efficient and convincing route.

Yet first lines can be fun, and fun is more important than importance. Here are my two favourites that I doubt you know.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
   - Murphy by Samuel Beckett

I was an infinitely hot and dense dot.
   - My Cousin My Gastroenterologist by Mark Leyner

You are invited, dear reader, to post the best first line that I haven't heard of in the comments below. But no universally acknowledged truths called Ishmael striking thirteen.

Oh, and: An Irishman, a rabbi and a flamingo walk into a bar and the barman asks "Is this some kind of bloody joke?"


  1. As he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

  2. It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business.
    Malice Aforethought, Francis Iles

  3. What about great middle lines?

    Here's a great one from Flaubert's Sentimental education, which describes what the protagonist gets up to in the middle of the narrative:

    “He experienced the melancholy of boats, the cold dawns beneath the tent, the giddiness of scenery and ruins, the bitterness of interrupted friendships.”

    If you include the lines preceding and following it, it's a mini novel right there:

    Il voyagea.

    Il connut la mélancolie des paquebots, les froids réveils sous la tente, l'étourdissement des paysages et des ruines, l'amertume des sympathies interrompues.

    Il revint.

  4. Good choices (although Everet I think you could have gone with something slightly more obscure).

  5. Oh dear reader with that positive attitude I like, happily I would lead you beneath the dark plane trees where I for the first time sat and read the bizarre story of Brother Medardus.

    The Devils Elixir, ETA Hoffmann

    The holy city appeared, violet, within a golden fog; it was upon an evening in a distant age; the dying of Sourya, the phoenix-like star of this ancient world, extinguished myriads of jewels on the glittering domes of Benares.

    Akedysseril, Queen of India. Villiers de l’Isle Adam

  6. "The night fled, carrying in its rich, grotesquely smiling bosom a confusion of black deeds, secrets and undeveloped events."

    The Book of Thorns, by the experimental school Swedish school teacher C.J.L. Almqvist

  7. "I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl's underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child."

    Second Skin, John Hawkes

  8. The first line of Leyner's "My Cousin..." goes like this:

    "I was driving to Las Vegas to tell my sister that I'd had Mother's respirator unplugged."

    "I was an infinitely hot and dense dot" is technically the title of the first chapter.

    I'm currently into objectively verifiable literature, like the novel "Paulina" by Pierre Jean Jouve. The first chapter, called "Blue Room", begins:

    "The blue room is seven meters long, six meters wide and close to five meters high."

    Fabricio Del Dongo

  9. How about third lines?

    I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

  10. That's rather lovely. Have you ever noticed that in renaissance paintings the big toe is always shorter than its neighbour?

  11. Your bit about the Camus character reminded me of Hugh Rowe in Michael Frayn's first novel The Tin Men (1965). Rowe is writing a novel -in office time, of course-the desk and floor are littered with rejected drafts. He has started by writing the blurb for the cover-"Hugh Rowe is a brilliant new arrival on the literary scene..."'R'is the story of a whisky priest...'R' is the story of four men marooned...'R' is the odyssey of a disillusioned writer...God he groaned perhaps it was easier to writie the book first and the jacket afterwards...he wondered which way round other writers did it"

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