Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Good beginnings

San Francisco literary agent Nathan Bransford (a blog I discovered through the indispensable Moonrat) was running a competition last week for opening paragraphs for a novel.  I had been thinking I might have a go myself, but was caught out by the very brief window for entries. 
It may be just as well.  The event was really intended for people who already have a completed novel to peddle - rather than for dilettantes like me who just knock off isolated first paragraphs for fun once in a while.  [I have, in fact, been toying for a while with an idea for a 'novel' to be called An Anthology Of First Paragraphs.  Don't tell me someone's already done it!  Borges, maybe?]
Also, I'm afraid, Mr B's tastes seem to be not at all in tune with my own.  Frankly, I thought his 10 'winners' were 10 of the least engaging that I'd read.  Not badly written, but trying just a tad too hard; not naturally winning of reader involvement. There were many, many more that I personally preferred, from the couple of hundred submissions I glanced through (but christ, he had over 2,500 entries!  Respect for wading through that lot!).  His choices, I felt, were all a little bit too self-consciously 'literary' (a common vice, I find, in 'creative writing group'-crazy America), a bit over-elaborate, straining too much for descriptive effects or distinctive quirkiness.  Not one of them gave me much idea what the rest of the novel would be about.  And not one of them really inspired me to want to find out.
It's a fascinating exercise, though.  Do check out as many of the entries as you can.  Then compare with Nathan's top ten.  You can also read his comments on his selection process, and the opinions of his blog readers on what makes a good first paragraph.
Pondering this last question myself, I feel it's too complicated an issue - and with too diverse a range of possible 'answers' - for it to be worth trying to formulate any set rules.  But I know a good one when I see one.  Or, I know what I like.
I had a quick look through the books I have in my apartment (not that many, alas) to try to find an example or two.  Breakfast at Tiffany's might have been a contender, I thought; but when I dipped in to remind myself, I found the first paragraph (establishing the setting of the narrator's first apartment in New York) to be just a bit too leisurely, almost ponderous.  I much prefer the brisk immediacy of the second paragraph (but perhaps that's partly because we all know Holly Golightly now?):
It never occurred to me in those days to write about Holly Golightly, and probably it would not now except for a conversation I had with Joe Bell that set the whole memory of her in motion again.

One of my absolute favourite opening paragraphs is this, in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman:

Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.  Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded.  He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place.  It was he who told me to bring my spade.  He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.


Amongst the Chinese novels I have, only Zhou Weihui's Shanghai Baby stands out as immediately arresting.  The book overall is a disappointment: it uses sex too cheaply for titillation (well, don't we all...?), there's no real plot to speak of, and the narrator is too shrill and self-centred to be good company for long.  But there's a wonderful verve and self-assurance about this first paragraph (and credit, too, to the translator Bruce Humes for capturing this voice):

My name is Nikki but my friends all call me Coco after Coco Chanel, a French lady who lived to be almost ninety.  She's my idol, after Henry Miller.  Every morning when I open my eyes I wonder what I can do to make myself famous.  It's become my ambition, almost my raison d'être, to burst upon the city like fireworks.



Any recommendations, readers?



JES said...

This is a difficult challenge, depending on how neurotically you're inclined to address it.

Skipping over a narrative of how I chose this one... I grabbed a book I've read only once, World's End by T. Coraghessan (later just "T.C.") Boyle. I remembered it as a complex story, well written, but couldn't remember anything at all about how it opened -- except that however it opened, it was good enough to rope me in.

Here goes:

On the day he lost his right foot, Walter Van Brunt had been haunted, however haphazardly, by ghosts of the past. It began in the morning, when he woke to the smell of potato pancakes, a smell that reminded him of his mother, dead of sorrow after the Peekskill riots of 1949, and it carried through the miserable lunch break he divided between nostalgic recollections of his paternal grandmother and a liverwurst sandwich that tasted of dead flesh and chemicals. Over the whine of the lathe that afternoon he was surprised by a waking dream of his grandfather, a morose, big-bellied man so covered with hair he could have been an ogre out of a children's tale, and then, just before five, he had a vague rippling vision of a leering Dutchman in sugarloaf hat and pantaloons.

The bit about Walter's having "lost his right foot" verges on a shock sort of opening. For that reason, re-reading it now, I almost regret having chosen this paragraph (however randomly).

But the sensory catalogue which follows I find hard to resist. And the specificity of that final image makes me think (correctly, if I recall) that it's more than just a meaningless daydream.

Good challenge.

Froog said...

I like that one.

Possibly falling into the 'trying too hard' category again. As you say, the shock opening; and then the rather finely wrought catalogue of oddities and lush description. Just a bit to heavy-handedly 'literary'.

But it's so well done, that I'm at least curious enough to try one or two more paragraphs.

And at least it's got 'handles'. We know the protagonist's name. We know what kind of work he does. We glimpse something of his family history and his temporal setting.

Most of Nathan's winners were just fancy writing that didn't tell us anything about who we were going to be reading about. I have a low tolerance of fancy writing for its own sake.

Froog said...

Actually, my outrageous concept for a novel is A Catalogue Of First Chapters - but I suppose it could work as well (not at all??) with first paragraphs.

Froog said...

I can't now recall - and I don't have a copy available - but I rather think The Butcher Boy (which were chatting about the other day over at your place) must have a rather striking opening.

JES said...

At one time, The Missus was a remarkable poet. (She left it behind for reasons having nothing to do with poetry.) In that phase of her life, she administered the annual contest for a small poetry press -- a contest which, each year, attracted around 600 entries: full manuscripts, with a cash-and-publication prize. Her contribution on this was to organize them as they arrived in the mail over the course of several months: numbering them, logging them in, removing identifying information so the judge(s) wouldn't know who they were from, distributing them to the first-phase readers, and so on.

After a few weeks of this she started practically to dream in poetry-manuscript titles.

And when it was all done, still haunted by all those (mostly never-to-be-)book titles, she crafted a lovely cycle of long found poems. Grueling but creatively exciting work to stitch it all together. I (maybe even we) still think it was the best thing she created during that time. We (I) really need to dig that out again.

Here's The Butcher Boy's opener:

When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent. I was hiding out by the river in a hole under a tangle of briars. It was a hide me and Joe made. Death to all dogs who enter here, we said. Except us of course.

It all seems nice and quaint at the outset, but even before the surprise at the end of the first sentence there's a disturbing bit: 20 or 30 or 40?!? That's a heck of a long stretch of vagueness in its own right. Especially coupled with "what I done on Mrs Nugent" -- whatever the "what" was, this pretty much lays out that he had to have been damned young when he done it on her.

The Catalogue of First Chapters reminds me -- but only a little -- of a book which came out... umm... 20 years ago? It was a dictionary of a language spoken only in a fictitious country -- and so the book itself was presented as fiction. I also seem to remember it came in two versions, red and blue, but I can't remember the difference otherwise. Called something like A Dictionary of the Kazakhs (it wasn't "Kazakhs," I'm pretty sure).

Froog said...

Thanks for The Butcher Boy opening, JES. That is indeed a pretty good job of drawing the reader in, and establishing the voice of an unusual narrator - somewhat simple-minded and/or divorced from reality, still viewing the world through a child's eyes in middle age. A trio of great teasers too. Who is Joe? Where is our narrator now? And what exactly was "done on Mrs Nugent" (we imagine - hope - at first that it's just some childish prank; but of course we discover it is something far, far worse)?

I loved the early image in this of the narrator as a young boy teasing at a frozen puddle with a stick, and this being the one moment of perfect contentment he could recall in his life. It brought back a number of similar early childhood memories for me (one of the earliest, and happiest, of mine is sitting on the stoop outside my grandmother's kitchen helping my mum to shell freshly picked peas). In the film they changed it to an odd job for the local priest, keeping the outdoor font clear of ice in winter. I suppose Neil Jordan wanted to underline the dominant position of the Church in rural Irish life; but, since I was so attached to this part of the book, I resented this change.

Have you ever seen the film version? I feel it's not great, but perhaps deserves a second viewing - as a brave attempt to film something unfilmable. I think the 'unfilmable' tag is often applied to novels that would merely be difficult to film, or that we are reluctant or afraid to see filmed because we love them so much and feel that they wouldn't quite work in another medium. But, for me, The Butcher's Boy really is unfilmable, because it's entirely about the voice rather than the action.

JES said...

No, never saw the film -- in fact, until looking around online for that first paragraph, I hadn't known there was a film. I see that it came out in 1997 -- a period when I entered a sort of movie-awareness darkness -- but am pretty sure it had to be one of those "here this weekend, gone the next" films at the local art cinema in just about any town in the US.

You're right about a strong, idiosyncratic voice (in Butcher Boy or many other books) -- the filter that it applies to the action.

Likewise, I think just about anything by JP Donleavy must fall into the "unfilmable because of voice" category. I keep waiting for word that someone has embarked on a screenplay of The Ginger Man. A quick check of Wikipedia tells me that Johnny Depp had optioned it, but lost interest after the first Pirates movie's success. To which I say, hurrah for distraction.

Tthe Nag said...

This set me off thinking about first lines and a round of questions I set in a quiz in the Jazz cellar another life ago. Rather than first lines it was actually the first ten words and the one that I thought was most difficult was something like the following:

"Last night I went down to D company lines. I"

Any ideas?

Froog said...

No, not ringing any bells, JimBob. A war novel, presumably; but I don't recognise it as being from the Sword of Honour trilogy, or All Quiet On The Western Front.

I have been thinking of a follow-up post on great first sentences. Unfortunately, I have very limited resources to draw on here - apart from the Internet. And the Internet isn't a great place for finding complete novels, or the first lines thereof.

The Nag said...

That was the first ten words of the Prologue. The first ten words of Chapter 1 are something like "I had been there before. I first went there with..." .

Froog said...

The Prologue to what, Nags?

The Canterbury Tales??

All Quiet, I assume. I didn't remember it had a prologue; but I haven't read it since I was a kid.

The Weeble said...

A novel assembled of first chapters sounds dangerously like 'If On A Winter's Night A Traveler' by Italo Calvino. A good read - can lend it to you if you like.

JES -- I think you're thinking of 'Dictionary of the Khazars.' Haven't read it, but am looking forward to borrowing a friend's copy once he finishes it.

One of my favorite openings in recent memory is 'Soon I Will Be Invincible.' It's available in Amazon's preview for the book. 'Snow Crash,' by Neal Stephenson, has got one of my all-time favorite openings -- full-on, balls-out adrenaline rush.

The Weeble said...

Can't believe I forgot Riddley Walker -- a great book, a great opening, and absolutely unfilmable, as the opening below should make clear:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn’t ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the ground shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, ‘Your tern now my tern later.’ The other spears gone in then and he wer dead and the steam coming up off him in the rain and we all yelt, ‘Offert!’

The woal thing fealt jus that little bit stupid. Us running that boar thru that las little scrump of woodling with the forms all roun. Cows mooing sheap baaing cocks crowing and us foraging our las boar in a thin grey girzel on the day I come a man. The Bernt Arse pack ben follering jus out of bow shot. When the shout gone up ther ears all prickt up. Ther leader he wer a big black and red spottit dog he come forit a little like he ben going to make a speach or some thing til 1 or 2 bloaks uppit bow then he slumpt back agen and kep his farness follering us back. I took noatis of that leader tho. He wernt close a nuff for me to see his eyes but I thot his eye ben on me.

Coming back with the boar on a poal we come a long by the rivver it wer hevvyer woodit in there. Thru the girzel you cud see blue smoak hanging in be twean the black trees and the stumps pink and red where they ben loppt off. Aulder trees in there and chard coal berners in amongst them working ther harts. You cud see 1 of them in there with his red jumper what thay all ways wear. Making chard coal for the iron reddy at Widders Dump. Every 1 made the Bad Luck go a way syn when we past him.

Froog said...

Unfilmable indeed. Although.... you could represent much of this distinctive language in the dialogue; and, if the first person worldview is really essential, in some voiceover narration. Provided there's some action in a book, it's filmable.

I'd never heard of Russell Hoban or this book before. Thirty years old next year?? No, never heard of it.

I fear I would find it almost unreadable. I'm not a great fan of fantasy anyway, and am also a bit sceptical about invented languages. If you are going to do this, I think you have to restrict the number of unfamiliar usages, in order to give some accessibility to your readers. Although I'm not overall a great fan of David Mitchell, I thought he did this superbly in the middle two sci-fi episodes of Cloud Atlas. I also read an excellent opening to a fantasy novel quoted (in the comments, I think) on JES's blog a while back, but I can't now remember the name, and have just spent nearly two hours skimming through the old comments in a vain attempt to find it. Like the Mitchell, it created a believable and distinctive language that was strange and charming but fairly straightforward to read: it took existing English and just twisted it a little, a few archaic turns of phrase, a few oddities of grammar, a little new-word formation (but using recognisable building blocks of real words).

Also, as a curmudgeonly former English teacher, I am violently averse to deviant spelling. I don't find it clever. I don't find it funny. It just bugs the crap out of me.

Thus, I found these three paragraphs very heavy going, and I'm not sure I'd make it as far as the end of the first chapter.

Froog said...

This is the opening you recommended from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, Weeble.

Again, unknown to me - though I do find this opening appealing: establishes the humour, the authorial tone very well. A little reminiscent of Iain Banks (or is he Iain M. Banks when he's doing sci-fi/fantasy?).

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachno-fiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armor-gel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

Froog said...

And this is the opening from Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible. (Great title!)

This one I didn't like so much. Well, to be frank (the pernickety teacher in me coming to the fore again) he nearly lost in the very first line with the unnecessary commas breaking up his first number. Also, that list threatened to go on too long, and got a bit too silly - more Terry Pratchett than Iain Banks? Fine, it's supposed to be a comedy; but I get the impression that it's essentially a serious book, with a few rather 'out there' elements.

I had to include the first three paragraphs to get the full effect. It's the third that's the 'money paragraph' for me.

This morning on planet Earth, there are one thousand, six hundred, and eighty-six enhanced, gifted or otherwise-superpowered persons. Of these, one hundred and twenty-six are civilians leading normal lives. Thirty-eight are kept in research facilities funded by the Department of Defense, or foreign equivalents. Two hundred and twenty-six are aquatic, confined to the oceans. Twenty-nine are strictly localized – powerful trees and genii loci, the Great Sphinx, and the Pyramid of Giza. Twenty-five are microscopic (including the Infinitesimal Seven). Three are dogs; four are cats; one is a bird. Six are made of gas. One is a mobile electrical effect, more of a weather pattern than a person. Seventy-seven are alien visitors. Thirty-eight are missing. Forty-one are off-continuity, permanent émigrés to Earth’s alternate realities and branching timestreams.

Six hundred and seventy-eight use their powers to fight crime, while four hundred and forty-one use their powers to commit crime. Forty-four are currently confined in Special Containment Facilities for enhanced criminals. Of these last, it is interesting to note than an unusually high proportion have IQs of 300 or more – eighteen to be exact. Including me.

I don’t know why it makes you evil. It’s just what you find at the extreme right edge of the bell curve, the one you’d get if six billion minds took an intelligence test and you looked at the dozen highest scores. Picture yourself on that graph, sliding rightwards and downslope toward the very brightest, down that gradually gentler slope, out over the top million, the top ten thousand – all far smarter than anyone most people ever meet – out to the top thousand – and now things are getting sparser – the last hundred, and it’s not a slope at all now, just a dot every once in a while. Go out to the last few grains of sand, the smartest of the smartest of the smartest, times a thousand. It makes sense that people would be a little odd out here. But you really have to wonder why we all end up in jail.

That last point is, of course, the great implausibility in the 'master criminal/evil genius' cliché. Lex Luthor is a dunce. People with off-the-scale IQs wouldn't become criminals; or, if they did, they wouldn't get caught.

Froog said...

And The Nags' cryptic quotation appears not to be from All Quiet On The Western Front after all. I must follow up with him to find out what on earth he was talking about.

And I do hope someone reads these now that I've posted them. Took me bloody ages! Blogger is being very, very pernickety this afternoon.

Froog said...

This - retrieved with the kind assistance of the fantabulous JES - is the one I was fretting about earlier: a fantasy novel called Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan.

I am usually - usually, but not invariably - fantasy-averse, but the writing in this opening is so gorgeous that I'm really tempted to splash out on Amazon.

There are plenty would call her a slut for it. Me, I was just glad she had shown me. Now I could get this embarrassment off me. Now I knew what to do when it stuck out its dim one-eyed head.

She were a revelation, Hottie Annie. I had not know a girl could feel this too. Lucky girls; they can feel it and feel it and nothing need show on the outside; they have to act all hot like Annie did, and talk smut and offer herself to the lads, before anyone can tell.

Well, we lay there in the remains of the hay cave that we had collapsed around us with our energetics. We looked both of us like an unholy marriage of hedgehogs and goldilockses. I laughed and laughed with the relief of it, and she laughed at me and my laughter.

“By the Leddy,” she said, “you have the kitment of a full man, you have, however short a stump you are the rest of you.”

“I’m not so much shorter than you,” I said, perfectly happy. She could not annoy me; no one could, this night. Shakestick might come along and stripe our bums and fill our ears with shame and still I would be swimming in air. Let him try.

Froog said...

My friend Brendan O'Kane has, at my request, kindly supplied this, his own translation of the opening of a speculative fiction novel in Chinese called 2010 by Wang Xiaobo (when was this written?).

This is a pretty good opening all round, though it uses a lot of very short paragraphs. It was the fifth paragraph that I first saw, and that I still like best.

Every morning as he lay in bed, Wang Er would count from one to ten to see how the rest of the day was going to go. If the numbers came out in their natural order, it meant he’d better get up and go to work. If, however, the numbers came out at random, it meant he wouldn’t have to go to work and he could lie back down and go back to sleep. You might do the same if you’d spent years in the tech department and were hitting middle age.

Because you would have seen it before: You get to the office and someone isn’t there. After work you all stop by his house but he’s not there either. You ask his family and friends, but nobody’s seen him anywhere. You’re his superior, and you start worrying he’ll turn up floating on the surface of a canal somewhere with his skull bashed in – it happens every now and then.

After a few days, you get a notice: Comrade So-and-so, after a protracted period of habitual overwork, has contracted number blindness, for which he is currently receiving treatment. You exhale, relax, scratch his name off the roll sheet, find a witness, crack open his filing cabinet, go through his drawers, assign any left-over work to your other coworkers. A few days later he turns up – not in a canal – and then there he is on TV, in the papers, and up into a new job upstairs. Wouldn’t recognize you if he passed you in the street. And the crux of all of this, what it all hinged on, was the number-blindness.

The condition infuriated you, unbalanced you – but never deigned to pay you a visit. You hated number-blindness, worried you might get it, so you started trying to imagine what it would be like if it ever did happen. Before we got divorced, my ex-wife said I was like a girl who was always worrying about getting raped, the way I kept twisting myself into knots about it. This seemed a potentially profitable new avenue of consideration, but having regrettably never been a girl myself, I didn’t know what that kind of fear was like, and when I asked she wouldn’t tell me. She wouldn’t even tell me whether the number-blindness was like the man, or like the man’s thing.

In 2010 I lived in the seaside town of Beidaihe under a blanket of diesel smoke. In winter when the sun came out it revealed a sweeping vista of beige. You wouldn’t see this in pictures or on TV, of course, because every lens had a blue filter in front of it. Orders from the top. It was a view you could only get with the naked eye. If one day the order came down for everybody to wear blue-tinted glasses, then there’d be nobody at all to see it. The sky would look just as blue as it had during the last century. It seemed likely that they would come out with a rule like that any day now, so that all the air pollution we’d been complaining about would simply cease to exist.

The morning of my 48th birthday I went to work, just like any other day. Not particularly good, not particularly bad. This was the day I chose to begin my diary – for no particular reason, or at least not to begin with. It wasn’t until half a year later, when I was organizing my entries, that I realized this was when all the changes began. So I’m afraid my choice of days to begin writing a diary was not entirely meaningless after all.

Froog said...

Mr O'K also asks me to mention that his favourite opening line is from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Cien Años de Soledad: "Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo."

["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."]

The Nag said...

Sorry I haven't been on for a few days. Interested that you haven't got it yet. The first line carries on "I had been there before. I first went there with Sebastian..."

JES said...

The Nag: Oh, that would be Brideshead, right?

You might like Riddley Walker more than that opener would lead you to believe, Froog. I too had a hard time wading into it. The trick is to remember that the action occurs many many years -- centuries? -- in the future. English hasn't stood still in that time, of course, so what you're reading is a deftly imagined first-hand account by someone whose English sounds as bizarre to us as something by, say, Cormac McCarthy or Nabokov (in his more sprightly moments) would sound to the Elizabethans. You find yourself stopping and thinking, I wonder what that word/phrase/metaphor might have morphed from? -- and then being strangely pleased when you come to an answer. So it's stop-and-go at first, but even that has its rewards.

Hoban created one phrase, used often, which I could never figure out though. It was something like "So-and-so got his fit up." As I recall, it had something to do with... puppetry? a Punch-and-Judy show? Very odd.

Weeble: Right -- the Khazars.

A chapter I read recently in a SF book called Roderick, by John Sladek, began in a mesmerizing page-and-a-half of the wind moving through a college campus or office park. But it wasn't the opening chapter, alas.

Maybe there's another idea for a post: books which should have started with a chapter other than the first, because some later chapter was just so much better.

The Weeble said...

@JES - My impression was that "fit up" described the mobile cloth and framework "stage" worn by Punch and Judy puppeteers, but I could be wrong about that.

Froog - Hoban isn't just dicking around -- the writing is the way it is for a good reason, and he uses it to wonderful and (for me at least) very disquieting effect throughout the book. It looks difficult to start with, but after a few pages it starts to disappear and be replaced by the voice of the child narrating the story. It's not for everyone, I suppose, but I'd rate it as one of my top ten books.

JES said...

Weeble: right, that's what I thought I remembered, and thanks for confirming. What stopped me was, I couldn't imagine where the phrase "get one's fit up" came from. In other cases, I could glean the contemporary English phrase which must have become -- through centuries of elision, mis-hearing, whatever -- the phrase common in Riddley's time.

Froog said...

Weebs, I only play the dyspeptic English teacher to make fun of myself. Well, most of the time...

I do appreciate the reasons for Hoban's invented language here; but I still think it's possible to do an effective job of this kind of thing without going that far (and without relying so heavily on phonetic spelling): this create a very considerable 'barrier to entry' for the poor reader. However, with two such heavyweight recommendations behind the book, I may have to give it a try.

Nags, I had sussed that it was Brideshead quite early on, before you threw us Sebastian; I was just waiting for you drop in again to confirm the fact.

Froog said...

It's a long time since I read Salinger's Catcher In The Rye, but I remember having rather mixed feelings about it. It carries you along very effectively, but ultimately feels a bit slight and pointless. I suppose both the book and its opening paragraph are widely considered 'classics', though, so I'll add it here, for reference purposes.

This opening does tend to go on too long, and ramble all over the place. It's good for establishing the voice of Holden Caulfield, I suppose; even though that voice isn't necessarily easy to like or admire - not especially articulate, lacking in self-awareness or self-restraint, a teenage egomanic.

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. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all – I’m not say thing – but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. I mean that’s all I told D.B. about, and he’s my brother and all. He’s in Hollywood. That isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every weekend. He’s going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe. He just got a Jaguar. One of those little English jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour. It cost him damn near four thousand bucks. He’s got a lot of dough, now. He didn’t use to. He used to be just a regular writer, when he was home. He wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Secret Goldfish, in case you never heard of him. The best one in it was “The Secret Goldfish.” It was about this little kid that wouldn’t let anybody look at his goldfish because he’d bought it with his own money. It killed me. Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.

I have to say, I prefer the opening of 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. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

Froog said...

Another classic we can't ignore, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. People usually only remember the zinging one-line aphorism (beginning novels with a single sentence... how many other great examples are there of that?), but I really love the follow-up, the zestful social satire of his dissection of the unhappiness of the Oblonsky household.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky household. The wife had found out that the husband had had an affair with their French governess and had told him that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This situation had now gone on for three days and was felt acutely by the husband and wife themselves, by all the members of the family, and by their servants. All the members of the family and the servants felt that there was no sense in them living under the same roof and that people who happened to meet at any country inn had more in common than they, the members of the Oblonsky family and their servants. The wife did not leave her own rooms, and the husband had not been home for three days. The children ran about all over the house, looking lost; the English governess had quarrelled with the housekeeper and had written to a friend asking her to find her a new place; the chef had left the house the day before, at dinnertime; the under-cook and the driver had given notice.

Froog said...

And amongst the more modern canon, this opening to L’Étranger by Albert Camus is hard to beat.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, 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.

Anonymous said...

How about this one?

Already he had a reputation. Even those unschooled in the finer points of his art would have realised that he was something out of the ordinary. The people here, schooled by painful experience, were all connoisseurs. And they knew he was the best of the best. There was something else, though, beyond his technical skills. He excited a superstitious awe. You needed exceptional eyesight to do what he did; but they were starting to say he had a ‘second sight’ as well, the he could see inside people’s bodies, perhaps even look into their souls – and that was how he made his choices.

Froog said...

I generally disapprove of 'Anonymous' commenting, but I'll let this stand because of its intriguingness. What book, who by, what's it all about? Anybody know? Any guesses??