Notes: In the Beginning..

Famous first words

JANE RUSSELL LOOKED Up at me and said, “Jack, you old thing, you; how have you been?” That is certainly not a graceful assembly of words, but I bet it got your attention. If it did, it discharged one of the duties of a first sentence, which is to ensure that at least one person not related to the writer try blood or marriage will read on to the last sentence.

Recently, to relieve the tedium of packing box after box of books (we were moving), I started to look at the first sentences of the volumes I was handling, and I was not only delighted to stumble on this diverting way to evade work but also surprised at what you can discover about writing from this narrow, arbitrary, but, for all that, resonant angle of vision.

To begin with, here is my own favorite first sentence. It’s from E. M. Forster’s short story “The Story of the Siren.” “Few things have been more beautiful than my notebook on the Deist Controversy as it fell downward through the waters of the Mediterranean.” That sentence not only prefigures the action of the story—rationalist Englishman encounters the supernatural, Italian style—but also sets a tone that can only be called Forsteresque. When critics say that great writers have distinctive “voices,” they mean, among other things, that they write first sentences like that one.

This next first sentence has none of the perfection of tone of the Forster, but it, too, is distinctive: “Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, anti still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.” That is how Dostoevsky began The Brothers Karamazov. Here is how he launched The Devils: “Before describing the extraordinary events which took place so recently in our town, hitherto not remarkable for anything in particular, I find it necessary, since I am not a skilled writer, to go back a little and begin with certain biographical details concerning our talented and greatly esteemed Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky.” Neither of those sentences, in these translations, would win a beauty contest, and yet they show what a first sentence can accomplish. Dostoevsky’s strategy was to establish a background and a foreground, a sort of visual frame for the immense novels that were to come. The background—the “gloomy and tragic death” of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, “the extraordinary events which took place so recently in our town”—sets off the action of the foreground, investing it with portent and imparting a velocity of expectation to the whole narrative. That, when you stop and think about it, is not a bad day’s work for a single sentence.

Henry James called the sort of epic novels written by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky “large loose baggy monsters”; and yet many of James’s first sentences cannot stand a comparison with Dostoevsky’s: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea"— The Portrait of a Lady. “‘Oh yes, I daresay I can find the child, if you would like to see him,’ Miss Pynsent said; she had a fluttered wish to assent to every suggestion made by her visitor, whom she regarded as a high and rather terrible personage”—The Princess Casamassima. “A narrow graveyard in the heart of a bustling, indifferent city, seen from the windows of a gloomylooking inn, is at no time an object of enlivening suggestion; . . . ”—The Europeans.

I stop that last specimen at the semicolon as an act of mercy to a great writer; the rest is too clumsily awful to reproduce. Yet correct literary opinion holds James to be the supreme artist in fiction, Dostoevsky the Thomas Wolfe of the steppes. On the evidence of our first sentences, I would say that here is a literary cliche due for revision. Doctoral students take note.

DICKENS WROTE perhaps the world’s most famous first sentence in A Tale of Two Cities, and that lapidary formulation has since been emulated by all manner of writers. Thus Wilfrid Sheed begins his delicious biography of Clare Boothe Luce this way: “‘She was the best of dames, she was the worst of dames.”' Ernie, of Sesame Street, follows suit in a first sentence he reads to Bert: “It was the best of oatmeals, it was the worst of oatmeals.”The title of Ernie’s book? A Tale of Two Breakfasts.

Incidentally, “I am born” is not, as everybody remembers, the first sentence of David Copperfield; it is the title of the first chapter. The first sentence— “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”—is not nearly so memorable. It seems, though, to have furnished the inspiration for this great first sentence by another writer: “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.”The writer is, of course, J. D. Salinger, and that is the beginning of The Catcher in the Rye.

It’s disappointing to discover that John Cheever began his prizewinning novel The Wapshot Chronicle in this flatfooted way: “St. Botolphs was an old place, an old river town.” He did ever so much better in his short stories: “In the summer, when the Nudd family gathered at Whitebeach Camp, in the Adirondacks, there was always a night

when one of them would ask, ‘Remember the day the pig fell into the well?’”—“The Day the Rig Fell Into the Well.”“Our ideas of castles, formed in childhood, are inflexible, and why try to reform them?”—“The Golden Age.”“You may have seen my mother waltzing on ice skates in Rockefeller Center”—“The Angel of the Bridge.”These sentences do more than open stories; they open worlds. Cheever knew that in a novel he had the time and space to fill in his world touch by touch, but in his stories he was under pressure to score a knockout with his maiden punch. Good as they are, his first sentences don’t work as detachable epigrams, like Tolstoy’s much-quoted opener from Anna Karenina; rather, they are portals that open only on the story ahead of us and, through their hard-to-define charm, hold our interest hostage until we have read the last line.

“Put some chrome on it,” a bad magazine editor once told a writer about his first sentence; despite all their polish, Cheever’s firsts sport little chrome. For that one can look to H. L. Mencken: “Has it been duly marked by historians that William Jennings Bryan’s last secular act on this globe of sin was to catch flies?” “When I reach the shades at last it will no doubt astonish Satan to discover, on thumbing my dossier, that I was once a member of the Y.M.C.A.” “Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France.” The trouble with beginning this cleverly is that you raise expectations about the piece as a whole which it may not be able to fulfill. Mencken’s first sentences are in competition with the rest of his pieces, and to my mind, the first sentences win every time.

THE EFFORT TO make good on the promise of the first sentence, which was too much for Mencken, must stanch innumerable pieces of writing before they have fairly begun. That is because it’s possible to write a first sentence that just has to be the last sentence, the last word, on that subject, since it says everything about it in a way that is instantly perceivable as complete. I say it’s possible because I have heard of such a case. A distinguished British newspaper proprietor had died, and his paper was under the competitive necessity of making as much of his death as a very liberal hyperbole would allow. So the editor summoned the paper’s best writer and drummed into him the herculean expectations the paper had for the obituary he was to write. The writer, who was known to possess a lubricable genius, was taken to a hotel room, furnished with a typewriter and paper, and locked in for the night. Early the next morning the editor opened the door to find the writer slumped over his typewriter, asleep, an empty whiskey bottle at his feet. The room was littered with crumpled sheets of paper, and on the sheet in the typewriter were these words: “Not since the death of Jesus Christ...”

—Jack Beatty