Saturday, April 19, 2008

First Lines - How D'you Like 'Em?

I am fascinated by the lure of the first line, and how it grabs the reader. So, I was delighted to find, on Karen's blog, a link to The 100 Best First Lines of Novels. Okay, I thought, let's see the genii in action!

Now, this might be supreme ignorance, or supreme arrogance (and I'm happy for you to tell me which), but having read the whole list, I thought just a few of them priceless, and the rest utter crap.

My favourites (in no particular order) were:
• "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
• "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." - Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
• "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." - C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
• "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." - Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)
• "Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law." - William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own (1994)
• "I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled." - Robert Graves, I, Claudius

My don't-get-'ems were (amongst many others too boring to include here):
• "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." - James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)
• Where now? Who now? When now?" - Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953)
• Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex's admonition, against Allen's angry assertion: another African amusement . . . [blah blah blah]" - Walter Abish, Alphabetical Africa (1974)

Now, call me shallow and poorly-read, but I think Dick Francis always writes a great first line:
"I could think of three good reasons for not going to Moscow, one of which was twenty-six, blonde, and upstairs unpacking her suitcase." Trial Run

And can anyone tell me why Herman Melville's opening to Moby Dick, "Call me Ishmael" (which I have seen on several 'best first-line' lists this evening) should be considered a good opening? I'm still scratching my head over that one.

What are your favourite/least favourite first lines?
Any of you prepared to reveal your own first line(s)?


Creative A said...

hey :)

I had to agree with you on everything you said. The good lines were good, and the bad lines just plain sucked. Especially the "a" alliteration one.

The favoritest first line of my own is,

"It lived in a glass box."

But it's not that special unless you know it's si-fi.

JJ said...

Leigh, I've just ... just come up with my own first two lines, so this was great reading. Thanks.


HelenMH said...

I'm with you on Dick Francis, as you know.

I also love 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,' (Dickens - A Tale Of Two Cities)

I also didn't get a lot of the others. 'Call me Ishmael' is presumably something to do with bad luck or being an outcast, because of the biblical reference. I'm tempted to say that you probably need to have read the book to understand why it's so good, but then that defeats the purpose of it being a great first line! (Can you have a retrospective great first line?)

KAREN said...

I recently realised that the reason I Didn't Get the Finnegan's Wake one, is because that novel was Experimental. That's one word for it, I suppose...

Ruth Rendell writes great opening lines that pull you straight in. "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write," for instance.

My favourite line from a short story I once wrote is, "It was a perfect night for a garden party, apart from the wasps."

Well, I liked it.

SpiralSkies said...

Did you know that you can see the first lines of a gazillion novels on

That first line is soooo tricky. The others aren't that easy either, come to think of it.

Leigh said...

Creative A - Hello! "It lived in a glass box" sounds like a great first line. It has me asking all sorts of questions! Which book is it from?

JJ - And I so want to know what they are!

Helen - And I've read me Bible too. Huh. And, no, for me, a first line has to be a hook, a lead in, a you-can't-get-away-now, kind of line!

Karen - Ah, yes. I confess. I've never read RR, but I can see I'm going to have to (just as soon as I clear my tbr pile...). And I really like your line about the party. Has me wondering about the wasps, for sure!

Jen - I've only recently discovered, and, no, I didn't know. Thanks!

mel said...

"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." Anthony Burgess: Earthly Powers

Lane said...

My favourites are 'It was the best times etc and the first line of Pride and Prejudice, probably because they're so familiar.

My own favourite first line was 'Christine's foot was welded to the accelerator' probably because it was a shortie that actually got published:-)

Sue said...

I also like 'It was the best of time...' from Dickens, and the first line of 'Pride and Prejudice' but agree that many of them are a bit bizarre, although I quite like a first line that makes me think, or sit up a bit. So I thought some of them on the list were intriguing, and might well have made me read on.

I also like first lines that introduce the main characters. I love the opening paragraph of 'Little Women', which does that, and am surprised that 'Christmas wont be Christmas...' is not on the list. And I love the very long opening sentence of 'Anne of Green Gables' that has such dry humour rambling along the stream.

Maddie Moon said...

Glad to see my fave on there, 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' Such a fantastic opening, it really drew me in and it still rates as one of my favourite books.

The first line of my novel isn't fit for public consumption yet, along with all the other lines. Sigh...

Leigh said...

Mel - That is good. I wish I had written that one, though perhaps not in the first person!

Lane - Yes, I like P&P too. Oh, no! Poor Christine. What happened to her?

Sue - Ditto P&P and Dickens. Also Little Women (doesn't that have quite a good last line too?). I've not read AofGG, but I've just looked up the first line and I like it very much! I might have to read the rest now!

Maddie - Yes, that is a good one too, though I confess I haven't read it either. Sigh. So many books, so little time.

Sarah Ball said...

I'm afraid I liked the dark humour of Iain Bank's The Crow Road that started 'It was the day my Grandmother exploded.' It certainly grabbed me! I also like the one in I Capture the Castle about sitting in the kitchen sink, I can't remember it exactly but the times I've read it it seems to immediately set a scene...

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

One of my favourites is 'I shall soon be quite dead, at last, in spite of all.' (Samuel Beckett, 'Malone Dies') - I like it because it makes me want to know what the 'all' was. I liked the ones you picked too. I'm sure there are others but my brain won't remember them for me. Naughty brain.

Still not sure what my own first line is, it keeps changing!

Leigh said...

Sarah - I think I'd have run a mile from that one. Not least because I don't like being splattered!

Zinnia - I've heard that Beckett one before. Never read it, though. Another for the tbr pile.

Moondreamer said...

Leigh, thanks for sharing these, some of them are brilliant ... but I don't get the first line of Finnegan's Wake, either. (But then, i don't get Finnegan's Wake at all!)

The first line of the only short story I have ever written(well, since my teens) is:

She sat halfway up the sodden hill, looking down on the house with venom in her veins and a wild rage bubbling in her tummy.

Haha! Now you know why I don't write short stories!


Rebecca said...

I have to agree on that Dick Francis first line - I think it's the best of the lot!