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.

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