Friday, January 13, 2006

First sentences

There's a running joke among English professors, of the (hypothetical!) class you have not only not prepared for, you haven't even read the text in question. The solution? "We can learn a lot from a close reading of this novel's opening paragraph ..."

All joking aside though, I do rather love looking at opening sentences. In my first-year course this week, that's what we're doing -- looking at a selection of opening passages from a variety of novels and considering how the tone and voice set the stage for the story to come.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a master of the opening sentence:

"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."
--One Hundred Years of Solitude

"On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on."
--Chronicle of a Death Foretold

"Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through screens on the balcony and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur."
--The Autumn of the Patriarch

A great opening sentence is one you can roll over in your mouth like a slowly melting candy. They are even better upon returning to them after having read the book in question: seeing the groundwork they lay, appreciating what the author is doing right out of the gate. Some of my favourites:

"He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful."
--Don DeLillo, Underworld

"With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far–reaching visions of the past."
--George Eliot, Adam Bede

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler."
--Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

"One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job sorting it out more than honorary."
--Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Then of course, there are the classics:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
--Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

"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 Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

"Call me Ishmael."
--Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Or the simple and chilling:

"They shoot the white girl first."
--Toni Morrison, Paradise

Or the comical:

"Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into a privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant an preoccupied expression."
--Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
"I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead."
--Robertson Davies, Murther and Walking Spirits
OK, enough. I could do this all day -- how geeky is that?


Lesley said...

You know, I was just thinking that last sentence there. BUT, I have to agree, some books just draw you in with the first sentence or paragraph and it's hard to resist sitting and reading the entire thing in one sitting. I love books, I love good books, I love books that flow so well that you feel like there's no other way to describe a situation than through that particular author's prose. And it's always the first sentence that gets me. I wish I could remember a few of the greats. But most of my books are packed up. My favourite opening has got to be from The Lovely Bones. I believe (and I'm going from memory here) that she starts with "I was 14 when I was murdered". How can the book not be good after that? Even Shakespeare started out grand.

I don't believe a word of the thing at the beginning about the English professors who haven't read their books for class. Not one bit! A PhD who hasn't read the subjects on their syllabus??? NEVER!

jo said...

I also like closing sentences; here's one of my favourites, the last sentence of Lucky Jim:

The whinnying and clanging of Welch's self-starter began behind them, growing fainter and fainter as they walked on until it was altogether overlaid by the other noises of the town and by their own voices.

And, of course, there's the great ending of Joyce's Ulysses, which space won't permit quoting here!

Anonymous said...

"They threw me off the hay truck about noon."

- James M. Cain, "The Postman Always Rings Twice"


Laura Harris said...

Okay so it took me a year to figure out this blog thing but heh, I've been busy! Just wanted to stop by to say, Checked the polls lately? ha ha ha ha!! You know I'm loving it --- right wing domination is within sight! Needless to say, yes, everything here is really wonderful. Only a few more months of my Masters and I'm home free! I'm glad to see you still like Lost, I love it. And know that you're far enough away not to rub my face it in, U2 is okay. But the Hip?! Never! Take care. Laura Harris

Paige said...

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."

My fave.

Or there is always the first sentence of The Rules of Attraction, which actually begins in the middle of a sentence and runs on for about 15 lines.

I also do like the last sentences too, I sometimes read them before I start a book and then curse myself when I get to the point of the novel when I can piece the meaning together. Sigh.

Paige said...

I just saw this and it reminded me of this post:
NY Mag Culture Awards Best 5 Book Opening Lines

FanglyFish said...

NEW POST!!!!!!

viagra online said...

man are you talking about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, chronicle of a death foretold is like the DaVince's Mona Lisa, one of the best book that I readed in my life.

Generic Viagra said...

OMG to much technical terms in this jokes... anyway i really like to hear teachers stories, sometimes they are boring but they are experiences that happened to them in life and when you have a conversations with them are really funny.