First Lines

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We watched Sense and Sensibility the other night. I’m talking about the 1995 movie, which I believe is the only movie version ever made, with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and the late, great Alan Rickman. It’s about the third or fourth time I’ve seen it, but it’s so good it deserves to be watched repeatedly. I’ve never read Sense and Sensibility, but I was so impressed with Emma Thompson’s script that afterward I went into the library to get a copy so I could dive in and compare Jane Austen’s book to Ms. Thompson’s adaptation. Instead, by accident, the first volume I grabbed was my father’s copy of Pride and Prejudice, and like all confirmed, hardcore, unreformed booklovers, even though it wasn’t what I wanted, I automatically opened it.

There on the flyleaf was my father’s name in his queer, old-fashioned, elegant script, written with a fountain pen (what else?) at the ascending angle he always used putting his name in books. As it always does, just the sight of his writing, and knowing his hand had been on that page, took me rushing back to the golden days when he was alive; he really was the most extraordinary and wonderful man I will ever know.

But then I turned to the first page and saw Jane Austen’s first line of her second major book: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Well, I mean to say! The genius of all great first lines is that they capture within a few words both the reader’s interest and the tone and essence of the book to follow. And that thought started me thinking about great first lines.

“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…” which brought to mind a cartoon The New Yorker ran many years ago showing one of those arrogant, self-satisfied editors all writers would love to choke looking across his desk at Charles Dickens and saying: “Come, come, Mr. Dickens! Either it was the best of times or it was the worst of times; it can hardly have been both.”

Actually, Dickens had a lot of great first lines:

“Marley was dead, to begin with.”

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”

“Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great armchair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.”

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

And J.D. Salinger played off that opening for the beginning of The Catcher in the Rye: “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, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

John D. MacDonald’s first line of his very first Travis McGee novel, The Deep Blue Goodbye, set the stage and the tone for an entire series: “It was to have been a quiet evening at home.”

The second volume of what will eventually be Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell opens with: “His children are falling from the sky.”

With “I did it—I should have known better; I persuaded Reginald to go to the McKillops’ garden-party against his will,” Saki (H. H. Munro) sets the humorously resigned tone of disaster for all his “Reginald” short stories.

“True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” Edgar Allan Poe draws you into the horrors of The Tell-Tale Heart instantly.

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.” Kenneth Grahame draws you into the gentle joys of The Wind in the Willows.

Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for his body of work, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opens with: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” And his Love in the Time of Cholera opens with: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s first line of Anna Karenina is possibly the most famous first line of all.

The Leper’s Companions, by Julia Blackburn: “One day in the month of September, when the low autumn sun was casting long shadows across the grass, she lost someone she had loved.”

“I lost my own father at 12yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.” Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is written entirely in the late eighteenth century Australian working-class slang of a semi-literate (or semi-illiterate) career criminal, which makes it sound almost inaccessible, but not so, not so; it’s as uniquely compelling as everything Carey writes.

Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way, set in Ireland in the terrible days of World War One and the Troubles, begins: “He was born in the dying days.”

Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche takes a lighter approach: “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The Old Man and the Sea, arguably the greatest thing Hemingway ever wrote.

There are many, many more great first lines, but what is probably my favorite of all time comes from M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote primarily about food and did it better than anyone else. From Consider the Oyster: “The oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.”

Tell me your favorites.

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