Friday 14 March 2014

Best opening lines from books

Harriet Wilson had one of the best opening lines in literature: 
I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.
My other favourites are, unsurprisingly,
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again
The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

And, of course, though I feel it goes without saying,
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife
One more. As an undergraduate, I used to read a great many parodies. Two of the funniest I ever read were '"Summer at Blandings" as it would have been had it been written by Kafka' and '"The Castle" as it would have been had it been written by P.G. Wodehouse.' The latter began,
'''What ho" said K.'
This blog post was inspired by a long tweetfest (is that the word or did I invent it?) that the journalist John Rentoul has been having on this subject on Twitter, based on an article he wrote. Among the lines offered were this from Muriel Spark's The Girls of Slender Means, a book I wanted to like but couldn't.

'Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions'
This is Sylvia Plath, the opening of The Bell Jar:

'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York'
And Ian Fleming, Casino Royale:

'The scent, smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning' 
 Please tell me your favourites. 


  1. “When I reached C Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning.”
    ―Evelyn Waugh

    First lines of Prologue. - Brideshead Revisited (1945)

    1. I love Evelyn Waugh so much but would not say that that is a particularly great line or great book.

  2. "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."

  3. "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Anna Karenina

  4. 'Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.'

    1. Oh so wonderful. Marques is it not? I read and didn't like the book, I think. 100 Years of Solitude?

  5. Tristram Shandy is a book I was always completely certain I should love (as I did The Sentimental Journey, at the fairly young age of fourteen) but somehow I found it unreadable. It begins:

    I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;--that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;--and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;--Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,--I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.--Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it;--you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.--and a great deal to that purpose:--Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man's sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, 'tis not a half- penny matter,--away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.
    Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?-- Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time,--Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying?--Nothing.

  6. Actually, the best of course is: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

  7. John's Gospel is a good one, Paul. I don't tend to focus on beginnings much, but I like that one.

    Dostoevsky's beginning to "Notes from Underground" is memorable as well: "I am a sick man."


    1. I bought "Notes from Underground" in 1989 and brought it with me to Romania in 1998 and still have not started it. When I did a creative writing course that and Gogol were recommended - I know i shall love Gogol too.

  8. I just remembered: Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him.

  9. "Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite."

    1. St Augustine's "Confessions"

    2. Oh a much better book than the Koran! I brought St Augustine's "Confessions" with me from England in 1998 but still have not read.

  10. Hi Paul, Akis.

    "Longtemps je me suis couche de bonne heure." but not lately. so I am duty bound to bring up A la recherche du temps perdu.

    Dorothy Dunnet counters Harriet Wilson with:
    "Not to every young girl is it given to enter the harem of the Sultan of Turkey and return to her homeland a virgin."

    And surely CS Lewis with:
    "I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of the gods."
    Come to think of it, contender for best book title too; Till We Have Faces.
    (actually I have long imagined that first line re-written thus):
    "I am old now and have little to fear from the anger of gods."

    Also Zora Neale Hurston from Their Eyes Were Watching God. with:
    "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board." Now that is good.

    and perhaps:
    "All children except one grow up." ?

    I am also captivated by the opening of Kazantzakis - The Last Temptation: (which has to be read in Greek), but goes something like:
    "A cool heavenly breeze blew and possessed him."

    Michael Moorcock too, from The War Hound and the World's Pain, with:
    "It was in that year when the fashion in cruelty demanded not only the crucifixion of peasant children but a similar fate for their pets, that I first met Lucifer and was transported into Hell; for the Prince of Darkness wished to strike a bargain with me." Use of that semicolon is inspired and the premise so good that one is loath to read on.

    Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It, tries to go one better by having best first and last lines:
    "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing."
    and ends:
    "I am haunted by waters." Impressive.

    I was going to quote Chesterton from The Napoleon of Notting Hill but then thought better of it.

    So instead: "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it."

    but finally, and divinely of course:
    Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
    mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
    che la diritta via era smarrita.

    Talk soon.

  11. "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure." From Albert Camus's "The Stranger"

    "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear." From C. S. Lewis's "A Grief Observed"

    "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities! all is vanity." Ecclesiastes

    Of course, I agree that John 1:1 is the best.

  12. "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
    (1984; Orwell)

    1. Interesting that my original Facebook post, my post on LinkedIn and here get exactly the same suggestions.

  13. "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
    (1984; Orwell)

  14. Wendy Cope began 'The Waste Land in Limericks' with the line 'One seldom feels cheerful in April.'

  15. "As the train came out of the long tunnel between provinces, all of a sudden we were in the snow country." (Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata)

    I'd also like to expand the discussion to include last lines. This one is from The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki:

    "Yukiko's dysentery continued until the 26th and was a problem on the train to Tokyo."
    Jason James

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  17. On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.
    Alec McCrystal

  18. If you like parodies, don't forget Douglas Adams' parody of Hartley's famous first line, in his Campaign for Real Time

  19. What is the best opening line of any book?

    In his book "On Reading Shakespeare", [which begins with a chapter "On not reading Shakespeare"], Logan Pearsall Smith speaks of the excellence of the first lines of his plays.
    "If music be the food of love, play on"
    "In sooth I know not why I am so sad"
    "Nay, but this dotage of our general"
    And many others.

    Not novels, of course, but still.
    John Chamberlain