More opening lines (or more of my favorite literary classics)

Continuing on last night’s theme, I thought I’d share a few more opening lines with you. Actually, two are reminders from a friend that said I skipped two good ones – and he was right because they are probably two of the most recognized ones ever – and one is a repeat author, but the line is so good I can’t resist. So, first the two I left out and then the repeat author and then two more.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.”

This line has been the subject of countless highschool essays (I remember one at least in my byegone days) and college theses. The egotistical opening foreshadows the megalomaniac character of Ahab. The name Ishmael reminds us of the Bible and thus foreshadows the Leviathan which is the nemesis of our protagonist. Our narrator is clearly in the first person and is yet passive as he is asking us to name him. The terseness of the phrase is ironic in that this is a huge book – worth reading in all its detail [NOTE: one day I promise myself to go see the whaling museum in Nantucket]. In every way, this short phrase opens our appetite to the literary feast that awaits us.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina:“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy draws us into the tragedy by looking down in disdain at boring, happy families (the Brady family always comes to my mind) and sells his book by deciding that unhappy families provide more variety and thus entertainment, however tragic. From the start, we know that things will end badly, so later when we are introduced to Anna and Vronsky, we are more fascinated by the details on how things will unravel than being surprised at the outcome. The phrase itself is perfectly balanced and stands alone in a separate paragraph – as if he was giving us the moral from the outset. A perfect start to one of the most technically perfect novels of all time – as a matter of fact, Tolstoy considered this to be his true first novel (he considered War and Peace (also an extraordinary read) to be more than just a novel).

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.”

This long phrase is so full of life and humor that although I mentioned Márquez yesterday, I couldn’t help but mention it again. First off, to start off the novel with a firing squad on the subject of the sentence, time is thrown into a loop which winds and weaves its way through generations of Buendías throughout the novel. The magic of discovering ice is also one of the fine touches that Márquez is so known for: taking the ordinary and turning into something spectacular. The fact that the character and his father are both mentioned here foreshadows the complex and rambling family tree that the reader will get intimately familiar with (and confused by) throughout the book. I read this one in high school (kind of a jab at the anti-Columbian attitude of Cuban Miami by my forward thinking AP English teacher – the best professor or teacher that I ever had) and have probably re-read it about eight or nine times, each being more enjoyable than the last.

Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums: “Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara.”

Kerouac gives us the rambling masterpiece of a sentence with no punctuation and yet chock-full of description and character. The poverty/liberty of “hopping a freight”, the locale firmly rooted in hippy California (Los Angeles, Santa Barbara), the laziness of contemplating the clouds: all of these are central to the narrator’s character and his attitude. He is one with the road (“we rolled north”) and in a meditative mood and this feeling saturates every page of this rollicking, humorous, orgasmic Beat classic. Just reading the phrase makes me want to throw off all the yokes of society and…ok enough of that…and on to the last one.

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning.”

I have read Zen probably four or five times. The clinical precision of the author is apparent in all the detail here (“left grip”, “eight-thirty”). The self-reference of the author looking at his own watch will become a leitmotif as the entire book is about the author looking deep into his own soul (so deep in fact that the real author became temporarily insane between finishing Zen and starting the sequel Lila.) The author is definitely a morning kind of a guy, already rolling down the highway early in the morning. The fact that he looks without taking his hand of the grip, gives us a very cinematic presentation of this otherwise banal scene. Also, the mundane nature of riding a motorcycle and looking at a watch and finding the even important enough to write about centers us on the cycle itself and foreshadows the many allusions and allegories that will come between philosophy and cycling.


About mfinocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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One Response to More opening lines (or more of my favorite literary classics)

  1. Pingback: More opening lines (or more of my favorite literary classics) | Translogistics

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