Thursday 12 December 2019

Getting off to the best possible start

What are the most memorable opening sentences of novels? We all have our own favourites and I must say I'd have chosen only two of the 10 selected by Robert McCrum in an Observer page-length feature last weekend.

Like McCrum, I'm partial to the famous first lines of Pride and Prejudice and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but would have passed over the "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan" of Joyce's Ulysses in favour of the more intriguing and evocative "Once upon a time..." from the same author's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

I'd probably also have included the celebrated starts to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina ("All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way") and Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier ("This is the saddest story I have ever heard").

And in preference to McCrum's fondness for somewhat humdrum opening lines by Dodie Smith, Sylvia Plath and Donna Tartt, I'd favour EM Forster's disarmingly offhand start to Howards End ("One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister") or the alienated beginning of Camus's The Outsider ("Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure").

Indeed, if I were choosing first lines with which some readers might be unfamiliar, I'd opt for Muriel Spark's The Girls of Slender Means ("Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions"); George V Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle ("Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns"); John McGahern's Amongst Women ("As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters"); and JM Coetzee's Disgrace ("For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well").

These are all openings that immediately make the reader want to know more -- vital in a short story, which can't afford not to engage instant attention, but admirable in the more leisurely world of the novel, too.

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