In marketing and advertising, there is an adage about the first 30 seconds being critical to grabbing people’s attention. I have found that in literature, this same rule applies to some of my favorite books. Truly great authors have the gift of summarizing their characters and the atmosphere of their entire book just in the first sentence. Let me go through a few examples.
Gunter Grass, The Tin Drummer: “Granted, I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.”
Here, we are introduced to the twisted protagonist of this masterpiece, Oskar Matzerath. In this one phrase, we know that he is mentally imbalanced (mental hospital), paranoid (my keeper is watching me), perverted (peephole), and very observant (eye is the shade of brown). Also the perspective of the two characters watching each other mirrors the book structure which is told from several first-person perspectives. As the second book in Grass’ Danzig trilogy, The Tin Drummer is incredibly readable and this first phrase for me captures the essence of both the personality and the plot structure.
This delightful sentence throws the reader immediately into the strange and frightening world of Kafka (serendipitously hiding behind the K in his main character) of random arrests and opaque justice. The sentence is short and terse, like the book, and yet contains the leimotif of paranoia (someone must have been telling lies) that underlies most of Kafka’s work and especially The Trial.
Here Faulker presents Lena who has a passive role in Light in August as this phrase (sitting, watching, thinking) points out – she is not actually doing an action here other than a purely mental one. There is a lonely, languid feeling imparted by “watching the wagon mount the hill” that is shared with the wonderful title of the book. The southern drawl in “fur” and the reference to being far from Alabama, mark this book as one of the deep South, just as Faulkner himself. The phrase is slow and takes its time to build up, just as the structure of the book for which it is the opening phrase. There are a multitude of verbs in the phrase, but as I pointed out earlier, they are passive – in the book, there is actually quite a lot of action and violence, but it is described at a slow, deliberate pace throughout.
Here Dante shows that the book is autobiographical (“I went astray”) and at the same time universal (“our life’s journey”). It also moves between dreaming and reality (“I went astray…and work”) which characterizes his depictions of hell, purgatory, and paradise that follow. The forboding of the “dark wood” is a perfect introduction to the description of hell that awaits us. Even the fact that he strayed from the “straight road” seems to presage the curvy, circular path he will take through hell’s many circles. This is one of my favorite openings and chills me a bit whenever I reread it.
This phrase sums up the relationship between the narrator and his subject, Mr. Cohn quite perfectly. He shows the Robert’s glory was pretty mediocre (“middleweight”) and a long time ago (“once”) and not actual. It also shows the pretentiousness of the character through the association with Princeton. It is almost the prototypical Hemmingway prose as well being dry and direct and to the point. The reference to boxing which is a violent, masculine sport, gives us an inkling of the bull fighting that will become the center of this early 20th century masterpiece.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain: “An ordinary young man was on his way from his hometown Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the canton of Graubünden. It was the height of summer, and he planned to stay for three weeks.”
Here we are introduced to Hans Castorp (one of my all-time favorite bumbling protagonists) with a load of telling adjectives. Mann insists that he is a young man (although he will act like an old man in many ways) and ordinary (and we will see that this was probably a fatal flaw in being too ordinary). I intentionally left the second phrase about the fact that it was summer time and yet he was heading to a place (Davos) that folks usually frequent in the wintertime. This adds a bit of mystery which is cleared up in the following chapter. The detail that Davoid was in a particular canton is typical of Mann’s style of including sometimes useless details just to ensure that the photo he is painting is as realistic as possible. This book in general is one of the funniest that I have ever read (with Natsume Soseki’s I am a Cat (吾輩は猫である)) and, if you haven’t had the pleasure yet, you will not regret either.
Cervantes, Don Quixote. “In a certain corner of la Mancha, the name of which I do not choose to remember, there lately lived one of those country gentleman, who adorn their halls with rusty lace and worm-eaten target, and ride forth on the skeleton of a horse, to course with a sort of a starved greyhound.”
I take back what I said in the previous paragraph, Don Quixote would also need to be added to my favorite comedies of all time. This phrase is steeped with irony and sarcasm. We are introduced to the loser town which the author is obviously embarrased to have known and a out of date (rusty) and poor (worm-eaten) country gentleman (read “redneck”) and given a less than complimentary portrait of his magnificent steed, Rocinante (starved greyhound). Cervantes chooses to reveal himself from the get-go (“I”) and stays with us during the entire two volumes of time-enduring text that is his literary legacy to us. This is also evident from the long and rambling sentence form. There is galantry (ride forth) and pretention (adorn their halls) and yet a sort of hopelessless (skeleton of a horse) that infuses this sentence with a life of its own. And, the rest only gets better.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Karamazov Brothers: “Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of a landowner from our district, Fyodor Pavlovish Karamazov, well known in his day (and still remembered among us) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago and which I will speak of in its proper place.”
Our protagonist is immediately identified as the third son which begs the question (to be answered during the next 770 pages) of who the other sons were (also referred to by the title, of course). The violent death of the father is also immediately apparent and our attention is drawn to this and at the same time frustrated by the narrators delaying of its telling until he sees fit. The narrator here is placed firmly in time (thirteen years ago) and as an observer of the story (among us) and having personally known the characters (still remembered among us). The novel is neatly summarized here in terms of a fundamental conflict between generations and a narrative style that is both arrogant and deeply, personally involved in the story. This book features the greatest single chapter of any book I have ever read (The Grand Inquisitor) and is definitely in my top 2 or 3 favorites of all time.
I saved my favorite opening phrase for my last. When we realize that cyanide smells like bitter almonds, this phrase opens like a lotus flower revealing an amazing amount of depth, sensuality, and irony. The entire book is going to be about unrequited love as we as told here. The reader’s curiosity is also piqued by the questioning of where the smell of cyanide could be coming from. I have always found that this apparently simple phrase was plump with meaning and perfectly suited to the book it introduces – perhaps the most perfect opening line I have ever found.
So, dear reader, what are your favorite opening lines?