This time last year, Keeping Up With The Penguins launched with a best-of list: the best opening lines in literature. It was an auspicious start, and it seems so long ago now! So, to celebrate KUWTP’s first anniversary, I’m going back to the beginning and bringing you another list: more of the best opening lines in literature.
1. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez
“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.”
Innumerable questions are raised by this opening line: why is the Colonel facing the firing squad? What does he mean by “discovering ice”? Why is that the memory that comes to mind, given his circumstances? The only way to find out is to read One Hundred Years Of Solitude (damn clever).
2. The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
“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.”
This is the perfect introduction to The Catcher In The Rye’s whiney teenage protagonist Holden Caulfield, and his stream-of-consciousness style. You can read my full review of Salinger’s magnum opus here (and my review of David Copperfield here, too, come to that).
3. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler – Italo Calvino
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.”
Nope, I didn’t pull up the first line of the foreword by accident: that’s how If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler starts. This opening line is a baptism by fire into the truly odd and brilliant perspective of Calvino’s novel.
4. The Outsider – Albert Camus
“Mother died today.”
BAM. Cop that! It’s a straight-shooting opener, one of the best. Think of all the different ways Camus (or, more accurately, Camus’s translator) could have phrased it: “My mother died today”, or “Mummy died today”, or “Mother passed away today”. In fact, there’s a lot of debate about the choice of these particular words in the translation of The Outsider (you can get the full story from The New Yorker here).
5. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
It’s a beautiful metaphor, one that reads more like an idiom than an opening line, and one that stands strong with no context at all… but be that as it may, it’s well worth reading the rest of Their Eyes Were Watching God, there’s plenty more brilliance to be found in those pages.
6. Alphabetical Africa – Walter Abish
“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… anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.”
This one is just so damn clever, it makes me angry. And Walter Abish keeps it up the whole time: each chapter of Alphabetical Africa contains only words beginning with a subsequent letter of the alphabet (first chapter is A, second chapter is B, third chapter is C, and so on). If that doesn’t pique your curiosity, I don’t know what will.
7. The Luck Of The Bodkins – P.G, Wodehouse
“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”
Well, it’s hilarious, and that alone justifies the inclusion of The Luck Of The Bodkins‘ opening line in this list. But I also love the way it covers everything – setting, character, conflict – and, without actually describing any specific features of the face, Wodehouse manages to conjure in the mind of the reader the exact expression to which he is referring. That, people, is fucking mastery.
8. The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
Kafka is the king of starting a story in the middle, as all the writing experts say you should, and the opening line of The Metamorphosis is probably his finest example of that.
9. My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
“This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone.”
OK, I’m probably biased (but it’s my blog and I’ll be biased if I want to), because I loved Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend so damn much… But come on! This line hooks you, right from the get go, and I think it’s mostly that final word: “gone”. Gone how?? Rino’s mother isn’t “dead”, she isn’t “missing”, she hasn’t “lost her mind” – she’s gone, and I found that so fascinating I had to devour the book as quickly as possible to piece together what happened. (You can read the rest of my love letter to My Brilliant Friend here, and reviews of the rest of the Neapolitan novels are coming soon!).
10. Opium – Colin Falconer
“Noelle thought she would have noticed him even if he hadn’t driven his Packard through the front bar of the Hotel Constellation.”
This is another opening line I love for its dry humour. It takes such a hard-left turn mid-way through the sentence, I can’t help but chuckle every time! And you can find much more of this comic timing throughout the rest of Colin Falconer’s Opium.
11. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
“‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
I had to include at least one childhood favourite, didn’t I? Fern’s question at the very beginning of Charlotte’s Web betrays such innocence, and in so doing effectively sets the stage for the rest of the novel.
Reading my way through The List this past year, I’ve learned a lot about opening lines, why they work, and why they don’t. For instance, I’m increasingly bored by opening lines that describe the weather (the only exceptions being 1984, and perhaps Jane Eyre). And it’s not just me: Elmore Leonard listed “never open a book with the weather” as his first piece of advice to writers. Most of the best opening lines in literature, I’ve noticed, rather than just “setting the scene” in a geographical sense, find clever ways to position both the reader and the narrator, using very few words. By the end of that very first sentence, you know exactly who you are, and who the narrator is, and the relationship between you. I particularly like it when the impact of the opening line doesn’t hit you until later, perhaps not until you’ve finished the book and meditated on it a little.
What do you think? What makes for a good opening line? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).
And if this is your type of thing, you might also love my round-up of the best book dedications 😉