Tuesday, January 31, 2006

First lines

Via Aditya, a link to this list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels”. Contains some undisputed classics as well as many I hadn’t heard of before. I’d also mention the following:

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold” – Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Wicked understatement, given what is to follow)

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” – The Metamorphosis, Kafka (No understatement here, pretty much sums up the situation)

“When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta” - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

“My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me” - The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis

“I get the willies when I see closed doors” - Something Happened, Joseph Heller

And some classics from Poe:

“There are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction” – The Premature Burial

“For the most wild yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief” – The Black Cat

“During the whole of a dull, dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher” – The Fall of the House of Usher

Poe is also responsible for one of my favourite last lines, this one from The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar:

“Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome – of detestable putrescence.” (I love the shocked conservatism Poe brings to phrases like "too entirely horrible" and "detestable putrescence" - you know he relishes the macabre but he keeps his enjoyment hidden beneath a layer of Victorian propriety.)

Zillions more I’m sure, in both categories. Name your own.


  1. "On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on."
    - Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

  2. Oh yes, should have thought of that one. Have thought of a few more, but I think I'll resist the temptation to keep adding to this post!

    Okay, just two more:

    "The Swede." (American Pastoral, Philip Roth)

    "She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise." (Portnoy's Complaint, Roth)

  3. Marquez yes, but surely "One Hundred Years" -

    "Many years later, before the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembered that distant afternoon his father took him to see the ice."

    And of course that half-page sentence / paragraph from Dickens -

    "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

    And spare a thought for Bulwer-Lytton, who gave us "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents .. "(and goes on thus .. "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) ... " (Paul Clifford)

    One I've mentioned before .. "A small dusty man in a small dusty room." Alistair McLean's "The Dark Crusader" opens and ends with that line.


  4. JAP, did you even look at the list on the link? Both One Hundred Years... and Tale of Two Cities are on it.

  5. "IT WAS INEVITABLE : the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love."
    -Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

    Nice blog!!

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  7. Oh, and one mustn't forget:

    "One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it: -- it was the black kitten's fault entirely."

    - Lewis Carroll. Through the Looking Glass


    "All children, except one, grow up."

    - J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan.

  8. Sigh. It is so totally not fair when large Book Review organisations start outdoing individual enterprise.

    Here's a post that I'd put together some time ago -


    And one on Veena's blog that ran pretty much in parallel:


    They cover most of the openings mentioned (do check out the comments sections), though there are a still a few left out - including the Hitchhiker's Guide opening and the Golden Gate

    Ah, well.

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  11. (wow. Typos!)

    "Why is London like Budapest?
    A. Because it is two Cities divided by a river.
    Good Morning! Let me introduce myself. My name is Dora Chance."
    -Wise Children, Angela Carter

    "Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls"
    -Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

    "Like most people I lived for a long time wih my mother and father"
    - Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson

    (I'd type the first few pages of Winterson's Written on the body here, but a friend has my copy and I haven't quite learnt it by heart. Yet.)

  12. Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a telegram from the home: 'Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.' That doesn't mean anything. It may have happened yesterday

    Outsider. Camus

  13. Sorry!!. the mother died thing was in the list.

  14. That afternoon Mr. Surujpat Harbans nearly killed the two white women and the black bitch. --V.S. Naipaul, The Suffrage of Elvira (1958)

  15. Father died last year. I don’t subscribe to the theory that we only become truly adult when our parents die; we never become truly adult.

    As I stood before the old man’s coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me. He had made the most of life, the old bastard; he was a clever cunt. “You had kids, you fucker,” I said spiritedly. “You shoved your fat cock in my mother’s cunt.” I was a bit tense, I have to admit. It’s not every day you have a death in the family.

    -Houellebcq updates Camus for the 21st century in his novel Platform :)

  16. Nabokov already has two entries in the list, but this one should be there too. from his autobiography Speak, Memory:

    The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heart-beats an hour).

    Sorry, my nominations look more like paragraphs than sentences ;)

  17. What do you think of this Jai?

    I was born a Brahmin - that is devoted to Truth and all that. "Brahmin is he who knows Brahman," etc., etc., ... but how many of my ancestors since the excellent Yagnyavalkya, my legendary and Upanishadic ancestor, have really known the Truth excepting the sage Madhava, who founded an empire or, rather helped to build an empire, and wrote some of the most profound of Vedantic texts since Sri Sankara? There were otheres, so I'm told, who left hearth and riverside fields, and wandered to mountains distant and hermitages "to see god face to face." And some of them did see God face to face and built temples. But when they died -- for indeed did they "die" -- they too must have been burnt by tank or grove or meeting of two rivers, and they too must have known they did not die. I can feel them in me, and know they knew they did not die. Who is it that tells me they did not die? Who but me.

    From The Serpent and the Rope by Raja Rao.

    Will surely figure in a list of the best first lines from Indian writing (IMHO)


  18. Some of my favourites:

    He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini. God how I love this book! Though it figures in that list, I had to mention it again.J

    If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done. Still Life With Woodpecker, Tom Robbins.

    The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh in close competition with

    A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. A Confederacy Of Dunces, J.K. Toole.

    The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything occurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Milan Kundera, transl. Michael Henry Heim. You read this one, stop, wonder if you should bother to go on, and then…

    aargh! this will chew into ALL my time!

  19. though paul auster's 'city of glass' features on the litline list think this is better:
    For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out.
    -Music of Chance

  20. Not a first line, but a first paragraph that certainly derserves mention:

    "London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full grown snowflakes - gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun."
    - Dickens, 'Bleak House'

  21. Sorry to take up your space, this is meant for people like Falstaff and Space Bar, because I like their selections and wanted to say so.

    Look forward to more lists.

  22. Sorry, Jai, I didn't check the link till you said so. Don't agree with some of their stuff; I'd say the first line has to stand on its own without the context of the book. By that criterion, the first line of "Huckleberry Finn", one of my favourite books, shouldn't make it.

    I am very happy that not only did Rafael Sabatini make it to the list, but somebody in your comments space made it a point to repeat that line from "Scaramouche". (Yes, I have a weakness for books dating back to my childhood!)

    Thanks for the link and the post. (You don't like Alistair McLean, do you!)


  23. The Famished Road (Ben Okri) - In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road, and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river, it was always hungry.

    Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee) - For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.

    The Good Soldier Svjek (Jaroslav Hasek) - "And so they've killed our Ferdinand," said the charwoman to Mr. Svejk, who has left the military service years before, after having been finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile, and now lived by selling dogs - ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged.

    Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts) - It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.

    Black Dogs (Ian McEwan) - Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people's parents.

    The Cement Garden (Ian McEwan) - I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way.

    Life Is Elsewhere (Milan Kundera) - Exactly when and where was the poet conceived?

    The War of the End of the World (Mario Vargas Llosa) - The man was tall and so thin he seemed to be always in profile.

    The Last of the Savages (Jay McInerney) - Friendship is God's way of apologizing for your family.

    Earthly Powers (Anthony Burgess) - 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.

    Written on the Body (Jeanette Winterson) - Why is the measure of love loss?

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  25. ...In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

    Also. What's the first line of Moby Dick? Call me Ishmael. Alright, Ishmael, what's the first line of Moby Dick?

    (And who said something about typos?)

  26. Check out this quiz on famous first lines: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3532609.stm

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  28. Mmm, much food for thought: you'll turn us all into literary gastronomes yet, Jai. But here's one of my contributions (and don't you think this is the end of my being prolix): "Dear Bosie - After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you myself, as much for your sake as for mine, as I would not like to think that I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain."
    De Profundis, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Writings: Oscar Wilde

    "He woke, and remembered dying."
    The Stone Canal: Ken Macleod

    "It was a pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history."
    Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury

    "The main entrance to Falconer - the only entrance for convicts, their visitors and the staff - was crowned by an escutcheon representing Liberty, Justice and, between the two, the sovereign power of government."
    Falconer: John Cheever

    "The page that was blank to begin with is now crossed from top to bottom with tiny black characters - letters, words, commas, exclamation marks - and it's because of them the page is said to be legible."
    Prisoner of Love: Jean Genet (translated from the French by Barbara Bray)

    "No bondage is worse than the hope of happiness."
    Diana - The Goddess Who Hunts Alone: Carlos Fuentes

    'Nuff - for now.

  29. Hi: first, I love reading your blog. And my favourite first sentence:

    'For a long time I went to bed early.'
    (Proust, Swann's way)

  30. "so long, pop! i'm off to check my tiger trap!" - calvin and hobbes, bill watterson.

  31. "The hot stench of the slow-decaying poor, the mobs flowing ceaselessly over the scalding bridge, the treacle of the Hooghly swamps below, the bent and broken limbs and the roting subbish piles and the screetching horns and the rickshaw bells and the infuriating calm of the cud-chewing cows - yes, such things as these I remember only to well about Calcutta, and my first long visit there, back in the early seventies in the time of war."

    -Simon Winchester, Calcutta

    And Jose Saramago's Journey to Portugal:

    "Nothing of the kind had occurred within the living memory of any border guard. This was the first traveller ever to pull up in his car, with the engine already in Portugal but the petrol tank still in Spain, and lean over the parapet at the precise point crossed by the invisible line of the frontier. Then, from across the deep dark waters, echoing between the tall rocky slopes on either side, the traveller's voice could be heard preaching to the fish in the river:
    "Gather round, fishes, those of you to the right still in the River Douro and those of you to the left in the River Duero, come closer all of you and advise me which language you speak when you cross the watery frontiers beneath, and whether down there you also produce passports and visas as you enter and depart.""

    (It goes on for longer.)

  32. Most of my favourite ones are in there but I have to mention

    "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." - Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

  33. "It was love at first sight" - catch 22, Joesph Heller

    “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” - The Catcher In The Rye, J D Salinger

    "far out in the unchartered backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral of the galaxy lies a small , unregarded yellow sun" - The Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy, Doulas Adams

  34. "If i am out of my mind, It`s allright with me"
    - Herzog

  35. “So they’ve done it to us,” said the cleaning woman to Mr. Švejk. “They’ve killed our Ferdinand.”

    The new, Chicago version translation of The Good Soldier Svejk available at http://zenny.com. More information about the Svejk phenomenon at http://SvejkCentral.

  36. Looking back at this post, I realize this was the first post I read from your blog nearly 5 years ago and have been strongly influenced in my reading and watching by your recommendations since then. Google searches do impact your life sometimes.

    Anyways, adding a couple more:

    Happy families are all alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way - Anna karenina

    It was a pleasure to burn - Farenheit 451