Saturday, February 04, 2006

Opening lines

Oh this is fun, once you start. Prompted by Chekhov's Mistress' post and link to the American Book Review's choice of 100 Best First Lines, I went in search my favourites. I have chosen four.

There are two from Samuel Beckett in the 100: from Murphy and The Unnamable. However, for my first choice, I have selected his final prose work Stirrings Still:
One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go.
The movement back or forth is everything. It draws one back, in, and it sets one free. This is why I disagree with CM's evaluation of Proust's famous opening line - that is famous only because of what it precedes. No. It goes back and forth. It encompasses the novel to come.

My second and third choices are by the same author, Peter Handke, both translated by Ralph Manheim.
I shut my eyes and out of the black letters the city lights took shape. Across.

A quarter of a century, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the trail of my missing brother. Repetition.
For my final choice, I was tempted by the two and a half page sentence hurling us into Thomas Bernhard's Yes, solely for its hilarious, horrendous excess. But I ran out of patience copying it. So instead I chose my real favourite, the first line of Extinction as translated by the late David McLintock.
On the twenty-ninth, having returned from Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Gambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-Josef Murau, and impressed once again by his high intelligence, I was so refreshed and exhilerated, so glad to be living in Rome and not in Austria, that instead of walking home along the Via Condotti, as I usually do, I crossed the Flaminia and the Piazza del Popolo and walked the whole length of the Corso before returning to my apartment in the Piazza Minerva, where at about two o’clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died.


  1. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

    --Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (of course)

    This one begs to be read aloud...:)

  2. My favorite from Handke:

    "Who has ever dreamed that he has become a murderer and from them on had only been carrying on with his usual life for the sake of appearance?"

    A Moment of True Feeling (Manheim trans.)

  3. It's quite adolescent, but I still think Kafka and Camus have this first-line business just about sown up. However, my current fave is the first line of 'Solid Geometry', the first story in Ian McEwan's first book, First Love, Last Rites.

    "In Melton Mowbray in 1875 at an auction of articles of 'curiosity and worth', my great-grandfather, in the company of M his friend, bid for the penis of Captain Nicholls who died in Horsemonger jail in 1873."

  4. Right.

    I totally failed to read this properly on Tim's blog and came up with "She could have been waiting for her lover" from England Made Me.

    So it's not a first novel, but still, it's good, OK?

    Sorry, will obey the rules in future.

  5. Tim, I don't think it's entirely adolescent. The ones I chose are important to me because of how they relate to the rest of the book. All four examples are inseparable from the novel.

    However, Anthony Burgess' opening to Earthly Powers and the like are indeed adolescent.



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