Monday, December 17, 2007

Great first lines

did a great post listing some of her favorite opening lines in literature, and I just had to steal her idea and give you a few of my own. One of my favorite parts of The Hours is the portrayal of just how freakin' long it takes Virginia Woolf to write the first line of Mrs. Dalloway; I can imagine that the first line of any literary work would probably be the hardest to write.

Her post is well-stocked with some of my favorites (Melville, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Homer, to name a few), so count those among my favorites. You're probably guessing the Melville ("Call me Ishmael") and the Kafka ("As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect"), but you may be wondering about the Homer. As an English major, I read a lot of the classics, and I even taught a course in Early World Literature way back when, and Homer's The Odyssey opens with a line containing a beautiful epithet, "rosy-fingered dawn," which has long been one of my favorite literary phrases. My photo at the top of the post is a decent example of "rosy-fingered dawn," but I've seen better.

Some of my other favorites:
"124 was spiteful." The Great Toni Morrison, Beloved -- one of the best books ever written by an American, period.

"When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun. " Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd -- is there any better description of a smile? Hardy could be rather verbose, but he really nailed it on this one.

"None of them knew the color of the sky." Steven Crane, "The Open Boat" -- not really a novel, more like a very long short story, but a beautiful piece of writing. There are so many phrases that I love in this story: "appropos of nothing" (nope, Sheryl Crow didn't write that one), "It was precisely like the point of a pin," (that's tiny!) and "It was less to him than the breaking of a pencil's point" (ouch!).

"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." J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye -- Salinger obviously remembered what it was like to be a teenage boy, full of pepper and sarcasm, and unable to understand the world around him.

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York." Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar -- In high school, when I read this book the first time, I felt incredibly depressed for about two solid weeks. It just killed me knowing that the protagonist in the book got better, but Plath never did. I also have remembered that phrase about electrocuting the Rosenbergs since then.

What are some of your favorite opening lines?


Sorghum Crow said...

Anthony Burgess starts "Earthly Powers" with this:

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."

dguzman said...

That's pretty ballsy, eh, Crow?

Sorghum Crow said...

It opens so many plot possibilities, and Burgess manages to cover quite a few of them.

GETkristiLOVE said...

"All children, except one, grow up." Peter Pan (evidently, my theme lately)

Anonymous said...

Great post. Lovely ideas. I wish I could remember opening lines to books.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

The opening line from "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

Mary Ellen said...

Here ya go...

The Great Gatsby

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since."Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."


Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each, under direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires. The Official Rules of Baseball

...I'm a baseball freak, can't help it. ;-)

Matty Boy said...

My friend Mina was keen on the first line from Carrie Fisher's Postcards From The Edge.

Maybe I shouldn't have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares? My life is over anyway.

I didn't love the book the way I was supposed to, but Leo Tolstoy still deserves a nod for a great first line from Anna Karenina.

All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

There are many others, but duty calls.

dguzman said...

Nice one, GKL! I'll have to remember that one.

DCup--it's the dorky English major nerd in me, what can I say?

Dr M--I've never read it--I'll see if I can find it online, or please post the line. I'm eager to see it!

ME-Oh, Gatsby. Swoon. I love that novel. The last lines are beautiful as well, ending with "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (thank god for e-books online)

MattyBoy--that Carrie Fisher opener is priceless. And so is the Tolstoy--so true.

FranIAm said...

Here I sit, in my Nyack house, which being for sale and hardly lived in, has none of my books. At 7am, my mind can not pluck a great first line out of any of my favorites!

Anyway this is beautiful post and my day is lifted up by it.

Thanks Delia!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

What a great post idea!

At the risk of being verbose, can I tell you my all-time favourite opening paragraph (cannot stop at one line), which I read every Hallowe'en?

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I also rather like this opening line from Bridget Jones' Diary:
I will not drink more than 14 alcohol units per week.

Sorghum Crow said...

I'm thinking Fran has a good start here: "Here I sit, in my Nyack house, which being for sale and hardly lived in, has none of my books." A plot, some characters, and a few hundred more pages and she'll be done.

Distributorcap said...

The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day . . .

dguzman said...

I think Fran's got herself a great beginning for a novel too--how about it, Fran?

D-cap, is that from Cat in the Hat?

Whiskeymarie said...

Great post. I have lots of favorite lines/passages, but none of my favorites has a very memorable first line.

Here, I'll give you the first line to my unwritten novel:
"She couldn't remember where she had put her keys, but then again she couldn't remember why she wasn't wearing any pants, either."
Brilliant, I know.

(and I haven't forgotten my tag- I'll be on it next week...)