Thursday, 24 March 2011

Great first sentences

Let me be honest with you for once. Almost nothing in the world gives me greater joy than a book with a good first sentence. I was discussing this with my eight-year-old daughter tonight, and we started rummaging among our bookshelves, looking for our favourite first sentences. For my money, the best first sentence ever written is the opening of Melville’s Moby-Dick. ‘Call me Ishmael.’

Here are some of my other favourites from fiction:
  • Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’
  • Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
  • Charles Dickens, 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.’
  • J. D. Salinger, 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.’
  • Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude: ‘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.’
  • Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’
  • Peter Carey, Bliss: ‘Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it is this first death which we shall now witness.’
  • James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: ‘Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….’
  • James Joyce, ‘A Painful Case’ (in Dubliners): ‘He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.’ (OK, I’m cheating: that is actually from the second paragraph of the story – but it’s one my favourite sentences of all time, so I couldn’t help including it.)
  • Jorge Luis Borges is a great first-sentence writer. His story ‘The Library of Babel’ starts like this: ‘The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries.’ And another story, ‘The Lottery in Babylon’, begins: ‘Like all men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave.’
  • Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear it Away: ‘Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.’
  • Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories: ‘There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.’
  • Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: ‘Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and reach other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.’ (I know, it's two sentences – but it's damn good!)
  • David Lodge, Changing Places: ‘High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.’
  • Anita Brookner, The Debut: ‘Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.’
Scholars are not usually very good at giving their books a delightful first sentence (since most scholars believe boredom is a sign of intellectual seriousness). But there are some notable exceptions – for instance, C. S. Lewis begins his great book A Preface to Paradise Lost with these words: ‘The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.’ And another literary critic, James Wood, begins The Broken Estate: ‘The real is the atlas of fiction, over which all novelists thirst.’

As a rule, theologians are hopeless at this sort of thing (as James K. A. Smith observes in a recent post). But again there are, thank God, some exceptions. I’m thinking for instance of John Milbank, who has some artful and memorable opening sentences. Theology and Social Theory famously begins: ‘Once, there was no secular.’ And The Word Made Strange: ‘Today, theology is tragically too important.’ Stanley Hauerwas also has a good opening line to his recent memoir, Hannah's Child – evoking the tradition of the novel, he begins: ‘I did not intend to be “Stanley Hauerwas”.’

Karl Barth is of course legendary for his artful prefaces (he is, as a matter of fact, one of the real masters of the preface genre). His finest moments always come later in the prefaces, but he still has some cracking good first lines:
  • CD I/2: 'It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendants.'
  • CD IV/2: 'I am sorry to have disappointed those (perhaps not a few) who had counted on taking this continuation of the Church Dogmatics with them on their summer or autumn holidays.'
And then there is the incomparable G. K. Chesterton, who begins his autobiography with this marvellous sentence: ‘Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgement, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.’ (OK, technically that was two sentences: but who’s counting?)

Anyway, my daughter also chose her own favourites from various children’s novels:
  • J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’
  • Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol: ‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’
  • Kate Forsyth, The Puzzle Ring: ‘Hannah Rose Brown was not quite thirteen years old when she discovered her family was cursed.’
  • Tony Davis, Roland Wright, Future Knight: ‘These days it is considered rude to chop a man’s arm off with a battleaxe, even when you don’t like him.’
  • J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’
  • C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: ‘There was a boy called Eustance Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.’
Which makes me think that we theologians could learn quite a lot from children's fiction.

39 Comments:

David said...

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

Anna Blanch said...

Sheer wonderfulness Ben!

roger flyer said...

I like "Let me be honest with you for once."

Peter Kline said...

We can't leave out Kierkegaard:

From Philosophical Crumbs:

"What is offered here is just a little piece, proprio Marte, propriis auspiciis, proprio stipendio [By one's one effort, at one's own expense], without any pretension to participation in the scholarly striving wherewith one acquires the right to exposition, to transitions, such as concluding and preliminary, to participation as a colleague or simply an enthusiast, as a hero, a relative hero, or at least an absolute trumpeter."

From The Concept of Anxiety:

"In my opinion, one who intends to write a book ought to consider carefully the subject about which he wishes to write."

From Three Upbuilding Discourses (two sentences):

"Although this little book...knows quite well what its author knows even better--that is is a trifle that could easily be trampled underfoot or killed as it ventures out into the great world or snatched up by a bird of prey and never reach its destination--I nevertheless cheerfully, without fear, without anxious agitation, shut my door at the time of its departure. Small as it is, it probably will slip through, since it shifts for itself and goes its way and tends to its errand and discerns its own enigmatic path--until it finds that single individual whom I with joy and gratitude call my reader--until it finds what it is seeking, that favorably disposed person who reads aloud to himself what I write in stillness, who with his voice breaks the spell on the letters, with his voice summons forth what the mute letters have on their lips, as it were, but are unable to express without great effort, stammering and stuttering, who in his mood rescues the captive thoughts that long for release--that favorably disposed person whom I with joy and gratitude call my refuge, who by making my thoughts his own does more for me than I do for him."

kim fabricius said...

Great "Great first sentences" list, several of which, I confess, I don't know. I'm with you on Moby-Dick. Here a few more that come to mind.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground: "I'm a sick man ... a mean man."

Franz Kafka, The Trial: "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning."

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea: "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

James Morrow, Towing Jehovah: "The irreducible strangeness of the universe was first made manifest to Anthony Van Horne on his fiftieth birthday, when a despondent angel named Raphael, a being with luminous white wings and a halo that blinked on and off like a neon quoit, appeared and told him of the days to come."

Jarrod M. Longbons said...

great lines, and great comments. have you ever thought that the bible has been, for many of us, overheard, so much so that we miss the power of some of its good lines? "In the beginning, God.."

pretty chilling line, wouldn't you say?

Dan Holloway said...

Brett Easton Ellis' Less Thank Zero:

"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles"

Josephine Hart's Damage

"There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives"

Pamela said...

"1801. I have just returned from a visit to my landlord - the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with." Emily Bronte, "Wuthering Heights".

"The primary defining context for those who live in Australia is invasion."
Chris Budden, "Following Jesus in Invaded Space".

Anonymous said...

“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers

tortoise said...

Many years ago I met a guy who mentioned in passing that he'd begun an undergraduate NT essay with the killer sentence: "If Matthew had been Harold Robbins, he'd have skipped the genealogy." Genius.

Mich said...

Just about ANY opening line from Pope.
Try the epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot:

Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu'd, I said,
Tie up the knocker, say I'm sick, I'm dead.

Derek said...

Your daughter is right about the opening sentence of "The Hobbit." A masterful sentence, and one without which, as the well-known legend goes, we would have never had the great Lord of the Rings.

Anonymous said...

Philip Reeve, "Mortal Engines"

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

Steve Wright said...

I think Lonergan will suffice as representative of the tradition of terrible opening lines in theology. From The Triune God:

"It is hardly surprising that we introduce our speculative inquiry with a few notes on method."

To be fair, it sounded much more profound in its original Latin: "Mirari neminem arbitramur quod, quaestionem speculativam aggredientes, notulas quasdam quae methodum respiciant praemittere decreverimus."

Pamela said...

Forgot to mention.
Re: children's stories I remember the opening sentence of Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" roped me in:

"When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen."
And rather than your first sentence in the post, I prefer your last!

Included said...

I think it's hard to go past Bonhoeffer in'Ethics'.

"The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics id to invalidate this knowledge."

GOLD!

My vote for number 1.

Included said...

grrrr.......is

Carl Gregg said...

I've always loved the long opening salvo from William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" -- “From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that sight and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dad old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.”

Marc said...

It's perhaps not as classic as the others you have listed, but how about John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice--not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

Anonymous said...

I love Ursula Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" opening:

"There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on."

Cheers - Nick Ingram

John said...

Adi Da - the first part of the first paragraph of his first book.

Death is utterly acceptable to consciousness and life. There has been endless time of numberless deaths, but neither consciousness nor life has ceased to arise. The felt quality and cycle to death has not modified the fragility of flowers, even the flowers within the human body. Therefore, one's understanding of consciousness and life must be turned to That Utter, Inclusive Truth, That Clarity and Wisdom, That Power and Untouchable Gracefulness, that One and Only Reality, this evidence suggests.

Ed Gentry said...

"The Bible does not constitute and ideological monolith." Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis.

Jeremy said...

I don't see this one yet, so I'll go ahead and throw it out there:

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

It goes on, of course, but that is the opening salvo of an amazing opening sentence/paragraph.

Megan DeWald Kline said...

It wasn't your first, but my favorite of your above sentences was this:

"Scholars are not usually very good at giving their books a delightful first sentence (since most scholars believe boredom is a sign of intellectual seriousness)."

I have high hopes in you to remedy the situation.

Anonymous said...

Tolstoy's first sentence in Anna Karenina really is great, however, it is not a psychologically true statement (and he may have understood this).
Actually, all families, including "happy families" (or, perhaps), "happier families") are different. That is, all families are idiosyncratic, each in their own way. DWLindeman

Anonymous said...

Faith & Theology seems to have started like this:

"Some excellent blogs for New Testament studies have inspired me to start this new blog for theological studies."

Perhaps you should go back and edit that post, adding in a much saucier first line! Something like: "Get ready for some good s***" or maybe something more cryptic and meaningful like, "There used to be theologians."

celucienjoseph said...

How about this one:
"The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."--
(Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 3)

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for all these fabulous comments. I've enjoyed these immensely — so many delightful first sentences!

And I was appalled to discover that the first sentence of this blog was so unbelievably dull. At least that increases the likelihood that F&T has improved over time...

Eclipse Now said...

I'll try again ...

The book we discussed this morning at church was 'the little red writing book' by Mark Tredinnick, well worth reading.

Now, in all trepidation, I contribute my own first sentence from the children's 'Mad Max meets Harry Potter' project I'm working on.

This is the draft I'm working on at the moment. (Clears throat).

"The problem with the end of the world was that it just didn’t feel like it, not to Zac, not today — a Friday — and not a mere ten minutes before the end of school."

Eclipse Now said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben Myers said...

I like it — with a sentence like that, you've definitely got me hooked! I can't quite decide about "not to Zac" — though even if you omitted that phrase, the sentence would still have introduced your character, since the whole sentence reflects that character's perspective. In any case, it sounds great!

Eclipse Now said...

Having trouble with my new google account, hence all the post & deletes... apologies.

First sentences have so much pressure on them! Sometimes including too much detail can conflict the sentence and rob it of its honesty and clarity and music.

So I'm now trying to un-clutter Zac Steampunk's first sentence as...
"The problem with the end of the world was that it just didn’t feel like it, not on a Friday afternoon just ten minutes before the end of school."

Ryan Gustason said...

And what was your daughter's favorite?

Ryan Gustason said...

Belay my last! Just read them at the bottom of the post! :)

John Hartley said...

I think the opening line of Galatians takes a lot of beating. Of course, we need to subtract the standard opening formula to get to the meat, but to begin a letter with:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel which really isn't a gospel at all ...

... is a real eye-catcher in my view.

Mind you, I also think "Eclipse Now's" ...

This post has been removed by the author

is perhaps one of the best one-liners I have ever read. It teems with hidden meaning!

Finally, I think Nicky Gumbel was onto a winner when he wrote:

For many years I had three objections to the Christian faith: first, I thought it was boring; second, untrue; and third, irrelevant. Questions of Life.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY

a Certain Man said...

Agreed with Jarrod above, let us not forget, "In the beginning, God created ..." while we look at our many human writings. The first line of the beginning of NT is equally stunning too. It is tedious to read for the Gentile reader but not for the Jewish audience intended for by Matthew.

Eclipse Now said...

For all who are tempted to love reading maybe a little *too* much? ;-)

(It's a classic; my 12 year old son is going to act this one at the school talent quest. Turn it up LOUD!)


I'm reading a book!

septian said...

I smiled when I read the first sentence of CD §18:

"We have come a long way." (I/2, 362)

davidalantorrance said...

"My God, in my thanksgiving I want to recall and confess your mercies over me." (Augustine, Confessions, first sentence of book 8).

In a book called "Confessions", Augustine could more naturally have confessed "sins" but instead confesses "mercies". It is only in the light of God's forgiveness that Augustine's dark past is revealed for what it is.

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