My internet browsing habits are incredibly haphazard. Having been a committed user of Google Reader, I’ve migrated across to Feedly, but with a subscription to maybe 100 RSS feeds, each containing up to 20 stories daily, there’s no avoiding an incompleteness when it comes to reading them all. Getting to scan every headline in my Feedly on any given day is a rare feat.
So for me, finding interesting things effectively comes down to the wisdom of crowds. Devout on Twitter and trying to build on Google+ and Tumblr, I often just go where people suggest I go, which was how I found a piece from The Atlantic on great opening lines in literature this week. I like The Atlantic, but I’m not sure I’ve ever visited its homepage. Deep-linked by social media is the way of the web for me.
Three opening lines from James Joyce were included either in the article itself or in the extensive discussion generated in the comments.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
– Ulysses, James Joyce
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.
– Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
– A Portrait of the Artist of Young Man, James Joyce
Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman was also suggested by one of the commenters. I am more than a bit ashamed to admit that I have yet to read The Third Policeman; even its opening line had escaped me until this week.
Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with a spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.
– The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien
So which other Irish novels stand out? Here’s the first line from Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, which a recently auctioned manuscript revealed had gone through nine iterations before the version that stood:
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
– Murphy, Samuel Beckett
More recently, the first line(s) of Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin succeeded in drawing you into the story immediately:
Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful.
Let The Great World Spin, Colum McCann
Away from Irish writing, if I may, and some of my favourite first lines:
Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buenda was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
– One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
I think it’s fair to say this first line laid down a tone that sustained me days and weeks later as I struggled through some of the denser passages. It remained a memorable experience, mind, but I recall a sense of frustration in the reading.
Charles Dickens specialised in lengthy opening sentences, strewn with clauses, which would possibly have some readers casting aside before the end of Page 1. Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities are both from that school, but my favourite Dickens opening lines come from Great Expectations:
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.
… and, a bit obviously, A Christmas Carol:
Marley was dead, to begin with.
First lines are perhaps even more crucial to the success of a poem.
The title of The Atlantic piece is “This did something powerful to me”, and the opening lines of Seamus Heaney’s “Mid Term Break” and Patrick Kavanagh’s “Inniskeen Road: July Evening” certainly had a profound effect on my school-going self:
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
– “Mid Term Break”, Seamus Heaney
The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn to-night,
– “Inniskeen Road: July Evening”, Patrick Kavanagh
What all these great opening lines have in common (apart from a great poem or story or entire book beyond them) is in laying down an immediate certainty in the world that to be conveyed. There is no cloudiness, no vague qualifiers, no dearth of confidence. All of which leads me to believe that unshakable confidence is a hallmark of all the best writers (famous or otherwise).
Anyway, please forgive the digression across the Irish Sea and beyond.
Have you got any favourite first lines from Irish (or non-Irish) poems, short stories or novels?