Friday, July 15, 2005
Charlie Harris, professor emeritus of English at Illinois State University, contemporary literature reader/critic extraordinaire (secretary of the Center for Book Culture.org and former director of the Unit for Contemporary Literature), and all-around fine fellow, informs me that a bunch of literary-minded folk are putting together a list of Great First Lines in Novels, as an arbitrary-but-fun counterpart to the American Film Institute’s 100 great movie lines.
So far they have over 150 nominations, and many of them are what you’d expect:
Call me Ishmael.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
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.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.
But there are a few surprises and flights of whimsy, as well: “It was a pleasure to burn,” from Fahrenheit 451; “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new,” from Beckett’s Murphy (a personal fave—the line, and the novel); and even, from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford, the immortal
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
So, then, today’s Arbitrary but Fun game is this: suggest more Great First Sentences for the list. I offered them “A screaming comes across the sky” and “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting,” but they already had ‘em. When Charlie emailed me the full list-in-progress, however, I realized that they had overlooked one of the greatest lines of the late twentieth century:
There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads.
Was there ever a more devastating opening than this gem from Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County? “But it sucks,” you say. “It’s just hideously godawful. It doesn’t make any damn sense, either—it’s like ‘there are musical compositions for which you do not have to pay royalties, and they come from this really bizarre kind of plant that has eyes.’” But that’s the point, of course. It is a great first line in that it not only encapsulates everything that Waller is about to inflict on his readers, but serves as its own best parody as well. (Try to outdo it. Try again. See, I told you.)
In Swann’s Way, Proust writes that Swann had “a sort of taste, of tact, so automatic in its operation that . . . if he read in a newspaper the names of the people who had been at a dinner-party, [he] could tell at once its exact degree of smartness, just as a man of letters, simply by reading a sentence, can estimate exactly the literary merit of its author.” Wow! You think. That must have been back in the days when literary critics were really good, back before all this Theory gunk got into the evaluative machinery! But sometimes it works, you know . . . when you’re reading a truly Great First Line.