Monday, April 30, 2012

Not with a shout but a whisper

Do great books by their very nature come with great first lines? Or do we only memorialize the opening sentence of a novel in retrospect, after the impact and notoriety of the book as a whole has prompted us to remark upon the opening line—or even take the time to reread it.
     The opening words of The Magus by John Fowles have always struck me as an outstanding first sentence: "I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria."
     Whereas the first words of Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion seem palid and unrepresentative of the depth and beauty of the work as a whole: "If he is awake early enough the boy sees the men walk down First Lake Road. Then he stands at the bedroom window and watches: he can see two or three lanterns between the soft maple and the walnut tree."
     In the next paragraph there's a breathtaking sentence (about the lantern-carriers, loggers, standing aside to let cows pass by) that to me is the "flagship" if you will, of the whole novel: "Sometimes the men put their hands on the warm flanks of these animals and receive their heat as they pass."
     It seems to be the rule of thumb these days, even for the gatekeepers of the publishing world (see a related post here...) to judge a book, not by its cover, but by its opening sentence. Novels demand patience; we need to sidle up to longer works, get acclimatized to them.
     But text, by its very nature, is linear information and, for better or worse, first impressions do count.
— Michael Hale

Here's a link to an article in The Guardian: "The 10 best first lines in fiction"

Buy books by John Fowles and Michael Ondaatje here...

No comments:

Post a Comment