SUMMER READING; FAMOUS FIRST WORDS: WELL BEGUN IS HALF DONE
Published: June 2, 1985
In the spirit of summer playfulness, The Book Review asked several writers: What is your favorite opening passage in a work of literature, and why? Some recalled their favorites instantly; others pondered the question for a while before choosing. But all these authors revealed a fondness for other writers' enticements, a willingness to be grabbed and held captive from the start. Elmore Leonard Author of ''Glitz.''
''La Fiesta Brava'' by Barnaby Conrad. ''On August 27, 1947, a multimillionaire and a bull killed each other in Linares, Spain, and plunged an entire nation into deep mourning. The bull's name was Islero, and he was of the miura strain. The man's name was Manolete, and he was the essence of everything Spanish. His story is the embodiment of la fiesta brava.'' It must be my favorite, because it's the only opening passage of a book I can recall and recite word-for-word some 35 years later, and be moved by it. With a simple documentary sound, the passage sets the stage for drama, tragedy, and never fails to give me a chill. Walker Percy Author of ''Lost in the Cosmos.'' My choice is the first sentence of the first novel ever written - and perhaps still the best - ''Don Quixote.'' It goes: ''In a village of La Mancha the name of which I have no desire to recall, there lived not so long ago one of those gentlemen who always have a lance in the rack, an ancient buckler, a skinny nag, and a greyhound for the chase.'' My pleasure derives both from the sense of what Cervantes must have been feeling when he wrote it and from the anticipation of the coming adventures of the Knight of the Mournful Countenance.
Here is Cervantes, a failed writer in his late 50's, who has come to that fateful pass when failure is just that, defeat, or by some mysterious dispensation reverses itself and confers a freedom all its own. ''What the hell,'' one can imagine Cervantes saying to himself, ''I've tried it their way all my life. Now I'll amuse myself. What's to lose?''
And so there comes to life before one's very eyes that marvel of all great literature, the character or characters who, drenched in the particularities of a place and a time, achieve the universal human experience without seeming to - humor but something more, satire and philosophy without one single lapse into that overkill and dead prose to which satirists and philosophers fall prey.
All Cervantes did in this sentence was to show all future novelists and readers what the novelist can do and what the novel is about. Angela Carter Author of ''Nights at the Circus.'' ''Call me Ishmael.'' I should think Melville whooped and hollered with glee when he thought of that. The effect is as if some demented stranger with whom you have made casual eye contact in the street, an ancient mariner perhaps, suddenly grabs your collar and demands: ''Call me Ishmael.'' Why Ishmael? Why not Tom, Dick or Harry? Or Herman? Surely his name is Herman? But no, he wants you to call him Ishmael. He insists on it. And you're hooked. You know this man has a story. You know he is about to mesmerize you with it. And his story is ''Moby-Dick,'' the best novel in the entire world. This Ishmael or Herman or whoever he is turns out to be no half-crazed seafarer but possibly the most rational person ever to live on the Eastern Seaboard. Thomas McGuane Author of ''Something to Be Desired.'' Famous opening passages all seem to deserve their fame even when time gives the prominent ones a Polonian air of wise old stuff. One of my favorites has stayed fresh for years, retaining a special insolence and truth, however loosely applied.
''Only the young have such moments. I don't mean the very young. No. The very young have, properly speaking, no moments.'' - Joseph Conrad, ''The Shadow Line.''
Apart from disparaging youth, always a festive thing, Conrad lights one of his famous smoldering fuses. By the time the thing goes off, we have traveled - while Conrad gradually dissolves into his own pages - from no-moments to excruciating momentousness and beyond; miraculously polishing for another age the chestnut that life is but . . . a moment! The starting line, the deadline, the finish line are all interstices between innocence and experience, and all underline the sumptuousness of mortality. But ''The Shadow Line'' has a navigational air. And the word ''shadow'' is not used accidentally. Frank Herbert Author of ''Chapterhouse: Dune.'' I'm a collector of narrative hooks, and I always hunt for beautiful examples of them. They are the essence of suberb writing. One is from M. F. K. Fisher's ''Consider the Oyster'': ''The oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.'' I choose it for brevity and because it does what a narrative hook is supposed to do - it gives you the key, the essential of what you're going to read about in a tantalizing way. It grabs you and hauls you bodily into the story. Bobbie Ann Mason Author of ''Shiloh and Other Stories.''
I love the first page of
Nabokov's ''Lolita.'' It starts, ''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.'' It goes on in that vein and then you get to ''You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.'' The actual beginning of the novel is the ironic foreword by ''John Ray Jr., Ph.D.,'' in which we learn that both Humbert Humbert and Lolita are dead, but that isn't the beginning one remembers. The first chapter, four paragraphs long, evokes the whole sordid story of scheming, professorly Humbert and all-American schoolgirl Dolores Haze. ''She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.'' Lolita and Humbert are two of the most unforgettable characters in literature - an ordinary little girl and a man sick with the disease of romanticism. He thought of Dolores Haze as Lolita, a ''nymphet,'' instead of a real little girl in dirty socks. Herman Wouk Author of ''Inside, Outside.'' Opening passage, Genesis 1: ''In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.'' Direction of interest is at the heart of literature, and here in the very first sentence of the book we meet the Protagonist in action. The picture of Creation could not be more forceful and stark. Dramatically, the effect is smashing. We are in the black theater of nonexistence. In an eyeblink the curtain is up, the stage ablaze, for the vast drama of ourselves. And we already know the master theme of the book, the primal giving of form to chaos by a Presence; the enigmatic and still unfathomed great event of our beginnings. Stephen King Author of ''Skeleton Crew.''
''All the King's Men'' by Robert Penn Warren. ''To get there you follow Highway 58 . . . You look up the highway and it is straight for miles . . . with the black line down the center coming at you and at you . . . and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you . . . and if you don't quit staring at that line and don't take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you'll hypnotize yourself and you'll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab . . . and maybe you'll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won't make it, of course.'' I like it because it invites the reader in. He is addressed directly with his name, which is always ''you.'' It's a very intimate opening, very welcoming. There's a photographic reality that I respond to. The road he's describing is a negative of what I'm used to -instead of a black road with a white stripe it's a white road with a black stripe. Reynolds Price Author of ''A Palpable God.'' The opening sentence I can quote from memory is a famous stunner - ''Call me Ishmael'' - but most of the novels I return to in affection or need are clandestine in their strategies. They don't so much open as start. They mean to go far on a minimum of wind; and it's their deceptive shyness, their refusal to strut, that wins me. (Commanded to ''Call me Ishmael,'' I'm tempted to irreverent replies - ''Call me anything; just don't call me late to dinner!'') Of living novelists, none has produced a book I admire more than ''A Sport and a Pastime,'' by James Salter. In its peculiar compound of lucid surface and dark interior, it's as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know. But it sidles at the start, in an ostensibly phlegmatic but somehow desperate voice: ''September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished.'' Published in 1961, the novel has often been unavailable but is due back soon. Any reader who's missed it - and who can face an extraordinary (and extraordinarily tender) sexual candor - should repair the omission. Gloria Vanderbilt Author of ''Once Upon a Time.'' ''In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.'' - ''The Divine Comedy'' by Dante.
This strikes into the center of the dark night of the soul. Unforgettable, haunting, mysterious - the spirit plunges into the abyss. At the same moment it gives a kind of wild hope - a surge of will, a determination to find the road back from darkness into light. Gloria Naylor Author of ''Linden Hills.'' ''Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody's did. Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year. . . . We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola's father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair. . . . Cholly Breedlove is dead; our innocence too. The seeds shriveled and died; her baby too.
''There is really nothing more to say - except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.''
Each writing seminar I teach begins with having my students read Toni Morrison's ''Bluest Eye.'' I believe that by taking apart the first novel of any great writer, we can see plainly what strategies failed since it is a first work and where the germ of artistic brilliance lies since it is that particular author. With this passage, one of the novel's opening sections, I can demonstrate all the major elements of a writer's art simply through an exegesis of three short paragraphs. While the novel handles a weighty subject - the demoralization of black female beauty in a racist society - it whispers in the mode of minimalist poetry, thus resulting in the least common denominator for all classics: the ability to haunt. It alerts my students to the fact that fiction should be about storytelling, the ''why'' of things is best left to sociologists, the ''how'' is more than enough for writers to tackle, especially beginning writers. Laid out here before them are the plot, the characters, the pervading metaphor, and the voice that will weave them together. One should be able to return to the first sentence of a novel and find the resonances of the entire work. That first sentence is the DNA, spawning the second sentence, the second the third. ''The Bluest Eye'' - wasted beauty, thwarted dreams, and social complicity for it all: ''Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.'' Robert Ludlum Author of ''The Aquitaine Progression.'' ''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.''
My God, what a grabber! As familiar as this is, the impact is still astonishing. The sweeping use of opposing extremes, the dramatic juxtaposition of times and ages and epochs - one just knows that a giant's at work and an enormous ball of a yarn is about to be unraveled. The author has at once set in motion the forces of storytelling by promising just about everything. A reader can't wait to enter the world of Charles Dickens's ''Tale of Two Cities.'' Judith Rossner Author of ''August.'' ''The small room was warm and moist.'' What I find when I look through books I've loved for wonderful opening lines are words so gripping as to make explanations unnecessary, such as:
''The boy Etzel had a presentiment of evil even before the man wearing a captain's cap turned up.'' ''The Maurizius Case,'' Jakob Wassermann.
''I am writing this book because I understand that 'revelations' are soon to appear about that great man who was once my husband, attacking his character, and my own.'' ''Prisoner of Grace'' Joyce Cary. But always I come back to that opening of infinite promise from a seminal work of my childhood: ''The small room was warm and moist. Furious blasts of thunder made the window-panes rattle and lightning seemed to streak through the room itself. No one had dared say what each was thinking -that this storm, violent even for mid-March, must be an evil omen.''
The woman giving birth in that room dies there, but the baby lives. Her name is Forever Amber, and her creator is Kathleen Winsor.