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Opening Lines

(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)

“The snow is on everybody tonight—on upturned faces, reflected back in the irises of children in the window; on the hot back of your wife's neck as you know she's shoveling the snow at home; on the men chopping wood for the stove, warming themselves (as the Finnish proverb goes) twice.”
- Ander Monson, Other Electricities

“Billy Brennan overdid it again with the fast food.”
- Ethel Rohan, The Weight of Him

“When Jerome Lafirme died, his neighbors awaited the results of his sudden taking off with indolent watchfulness.”
- Kate Chopin, At Fault

“Obedient to the social law that makes the moot guest the early bird at a tea party, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Lockman were the first to arrive in Utopia.”
- Mary McCarthy, The Oasis

“It had never before been a problem which of them to visit first because they had been together every other time. Every other time he had got off the boat, hoisted up his rucksack, and walked with the straggle of travellers to where familiar faces were waiting beyond the barrier.”
- Val Mulkerns, Very Like a Whale

"I’m not here by choice."
- Giano Cromley, The Last Good Halloween

”Even standing still, finally, Ray Welter's body remained in motion and subject to inner tidal forces beyond his control."
- Andrew Ervin, Burning Down George Orwell's House

"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water."
- H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

"We slept in what had once been the gymnasium."
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

"Marley was dead, to begin with."
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

"The first sound in the mornings was the clumping of the mill-girls' clogs down the cobbled street. Earlier than that, I suppose, there were factory whistles which I was never awake to hear."
- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."
- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

"A nurse held the door open for them."
- Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter

"The two grubby small boys with tow-colored hair who were digging among the ragweed in the front yard sat back on their heels and said, 'Hello,' when the tall bony man with straw-colored hair turned in at their gate."
- Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine

"Heraldic and unflagging it chugged up the mountain road, the sound, a new sound jarring in on the profoundly pensive landscape. A new sound and a new machine, its squat front the colour of baked brick, the ridges of the big wheels scummed in muck, wet muck and dry muck, leaving their maggoty trails."
- Edna O'Brien, Wild Decembers

"One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away."
- Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

"I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room."
- J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands

"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

"A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing

"Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug."
- James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan

"Dennis awoke to the sound of the old man upstairs beating his wife."
- Tim Hall, Half Empty

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

"We always fall asleep smoking one more cigarette in bed."
- Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece

"Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain."
- Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago

"Beware thoughts that come in the night."
- William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America

"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key

"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged

"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night

"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks

"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure

"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless

"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry

"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth

"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square

"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune

"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

May 31, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (5)

”...write like a son of a bitch.”

Jim Harrison’s advice for young writers:

Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years? And don’t neglect music. I suspect that music can contribute to it as much as anything else. Tend to keep distant from religious, political, and social obligations. And I would think that you shouldn’t give up until it’s plainly and totally impossible.

May 30, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Grammar annoyance...

...the use of “out of” instead of “in.” The most recent example I’ve read refers to “a distillery out of California.” The “out of” clause only makes sense if it refers to something that started in one specific place, but later expanded to the greater world. The distillery presumably still operates solely within California, though its products are available nationwide. So its whiskey can properly be said to be “out of California”, but not the distillery itself. 

May 27, 2019 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“One swallow doesn’t make a summer.”

“I welcome it, but I also distrust it because I think it can be quite fashionable to do this. Working-class writers in the north in the late 1950s like Alan Sillitoe and John Braine became, briefly, very very fashionable. And then it suddenly became old hat and it was almost completely dropped. So one swallow doesn’t make a summer.” - Pat Barker

May 27, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Rank socialism was and is rampant.”

Shagpoke Whipple, former U.S. President, disgraced banker and ex-convict:

"When I left jail, it was my intention to run for office again. But I discovered to my great amazement and utter horror that my party, the Democratic Party, carried not a single plank in its platform that I could honestly endorse. Rank socialism was and is rampant. How could I, Shagpoke Whipple, ever bring myself to accept a program which promised to take from American citizens their inalienable birthright; the right to sell their labor and their children's labor without restrictions as to either price or hours?"

This passage, from Nathanael West's A Cool Million (1934), could easily have been spoken today (albeit with the vocabulary and grammar of the average fifth-grader) by a certain president who shall remain nameless.

And, wow, was West ever dark. He made Sinclair Lewis look like a giddy optimist.

May 14, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It comes in lumps..."

In a 1952 letter, Nelson Algren reflected on his writing, and re-writing, process.

No, it didn’t pour. It comes in lumps, and each lump has to be smoothed and grained down and then, when it’s just so shining and smooth that you read it over aloud to your self and love the sound of every perfect word, you find you can’t use it, it doesn’t tie in, it’s fine in itself but it diverts the whole story. So you gulp and put it away assuring yourself you’ll make use of it another day and sometimes you do, if you remember what drawer you put it away in. Sometimes it’s like a squirrel looking for the acorns he hid the fall before last - he knows he’s somewhere in the neighborhood, and digs up the whole plot and when he finds it, it’s gone to seed in those two years.

The letter is included in an appendix to the critical edition of The Man With the Golden Arm, which I just finished reading, for the fourth or fifth time (and was as astounding as ever). The letter is reproduced as an original facsimile, with typos, x-outs and handwritten edits. The editor’s decision to include this in its original form, instead of in pristine, typeset perfection, is curious but perfectly fitting. Algren was a brilliant but deeply flawed man whose writing never shied away from portraying the imperfect and often ugly side of human nature, and this letter (which he apparently mailed as-is, instead of drafting a clean copy) neatly encapsulates his essence.

May 6, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)