[Home] [Weblog] [The Bibliothecary] [Driving the Quill] [Library][Bookmarks]

Friday, February 17, 2006

Chapter Ninety-Five, in which opening Lines are celebrated

Ella recently reached into the Box of Books and brought out a few favorite opening lines. (See also Pantagraph for the American Book Review list of 100 best first lines from novels.) Your Bibliothecary thought it would be interesting to share some lines that have touched us. We can, in fact, often be lured into a book by an opening line that has a lot happening:
In the prime assurance of his youth, in the fresh arrogance of his wisdom, and power in wisdom, with a sense of his extreme handsomeness, if not indeed beauty (for Gerta had said more than once that he was beautiful, and his own mirror had pleasantly corroborated this) Jasper Ammen leaned from the sixth floor window and projected his own image upon the world. --Conrad Aiken, King Coffin

At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe. --John Cowper Powys, A Glastonbury Romance

It was many years ago in that dark, chaotic, unfathomable pool of time before Germaine's birth (nearly twelve months before her birth), on a night in late September stirred by innumerable frenzied winds, like spirits contending with one another--now plaintively, now angrily now with a subtle cellolike delicacy capable of making the flesh rise on one's arms and neck--a night so sulfurous, so restless, so swollen with inarticulate longing that Leah and Gideon Bellefleur in their enormous bed quarreled once again, brought to tears because their love was too ravenous to be contained by their mere mortal bodies; and their groping, careless, anguished words were like strips of raw silk rubbed violently together (for each was convinced that the other did not, could not, be equal to his love--Leah doubted that any man was capable of a love so profound it could lie silent, like a forest pond; Gideon doubted that any woman was capable of comprehending the nature of a man's passion, which might tear through him, rendering him broken and exhausted, as vulnerable as a small child): it was on this tumultuous rain-lashed night that Mahalallel came to Bellefleur Manor on the western shore of the great Lake Noir, where he was to stay for nearly five years. --Joyce Carol Oates, Bellefleur

A sense of doom is always intriguing:

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. --John Irving, A Prayer For Owen Meany

On an April night almost midpoint in the Eighteenth Century, in the county of Orange in the colony of Virginia, Jacob Pollroot tasted his death a moment before swallowing it. --Steve Erickson, Arc d'X

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow. --Francoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. --John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. --H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

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

A philosophical beginning brings the question to be answered by the book immediately to the reader:

Why is the measure of love loss? --Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! --Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

And there is our favorite, that we read as conveying a sense of majesty, or grandness:

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. --Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

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. --Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Strong openings are good, but simple openings do not prevent one from reading on:

The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry. --Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure

A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him. --Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ

Many are the fine lines to be found deep within those books, and others, instead of at either end. The strength of D.H. Lawrence may not be in his opening or closing, but his middles are wonderful. So, too, Shakespeare.

What really enshrines a book for us is the ending. We most enjoy those that seem to collect everything that has gone before and boil it down to one final sentence, that send the reader both backward and forward in time, that echo and resonate through us and beyond:

And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistance of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain. --Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

And what, Stefanie has recently wondered, makes The Great Gatsby, by Scott Fitzgerald, so great? It is in no small part the brilliant ending that transcends the book and its protagonist, to touch us all:

     Gastby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run fasterm stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning---
     So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

We have a book by Georgianne Ensign titled Great Beginnings: Opening Lines of Great Novels which we would like to give away today. The contest, to be judged again by our Dramatis Personae, involves first and last lines. Entries must be received before Monday 20 February. Contestants are asked to identify the book and the author from which the following opening line is taken:
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

As a tie-breaker, please identify the book and the author from which the following closing line is taken:
There was no priest in attendance.


  1. I HATED "Bonjour, Tristesse", but the opening line is lovely, isn't it? I have no idea on your quiz lines, but I think I'd like to read whatever begins with "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." So I will look on with great interest.

  2. Scaramouche by Raphael Sabatini

    Die Leiden des Jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  3. It's a promising ending for Gatsby, but then there's all that stuff that came before the final sentence ;)

  4. Two of my favorite opening lines:

    "When I was seventeen and in full obedience to my heart's most urgent commands,
    I stepped far from the pathway of normal life
    and in a moment's time ruined everything I loved - I loved so deeply,
    and when the love was interrupted, when the incorporeal body of love shrank back in terror
    and my own body was locked away, it was hard for others to believe that a life so new
    could suffer so irrevocably. But now, years have passed and the night of August 12, 1967, still divides my life. "

    "In the middle of my marriage, when I was above all Hugh's wife and Dee's mother,
    one of those unambiguous women with no desire to disturb the universe,
    I fell in love with a Benedictine monk."

  5. Congratulations to Jester, who answered both questions correctly. Please send us your mailing address to receive your prize by post.

  6. I think you must have it on file. : ) Thanks----Jester