‘Take the first sentence from your favourite book and make it the first sentence of your post’ is one of the daily prompt topics that recently attracted my attention. Great idea, but how do you choose? Especially if you’ve been at it for decades and particularly when the favourite book (possibly sentence) depends on how old you happen to be when asked or at what stage of your life?
Sometimes it’s not the first sentence but the anticipation of what’s to come that can get the imagination going. If you’re six and the title of the book is ‘The Wishing Chair,’ or ‘The Enchanted Woods’ you’re prepared to work your way through the first few pages or chapter to get to the good bit.
‘”It’s a magic wood,” said Fanny, and I was hooked. That wasn’t the first line but I knew that if I persisted I would be drawn into Enid Blyton’s world full of interesting characters and magical lands.
Soon after, I yearned to be an Enid Blyton ‘Finder Outer’. Fatty in particular (that’s Frederick, Algernon Trotteville). Fatty was the leader who usually got the group out of scrapes and more importantly he knew how to make invisible ink. Fatty and his pals had adventures and solved mysteries, things you usually attributed to adults, till you grew up and knew better. Fatty and the Finder Outers were my heroes.
In my mid-teens I was still escaping this world and having vicarious adventures with Verne and Welles, Asimov, Bradbury and Kuttner. I worked my way through all the genres, the exception being porn. I didn’t much like romance novels either. It wasn’t because I was being a snob. I just couldn’t take such euphemisms as throbbing…err, spare parts.
I do love a mystery, preferring the cerebral to the graphic. [Josephine Tey’s] Inspector ‘Grant lay on his white cot and stared at the ceiling.’ Stared at it with loathing. He knew by heart every last minute crack on its nice clean surface. He had made maps of the ceiling and gone exploring on them; rivers, islands, and continents. He had made guessing games of it and discovered hidden objects; faces, birds, and fishes. He had made mathematical calculations of it and re-discovered his childhood; theorems, angles, triangles. There was practically nothing else he could do but look at it. He hated the sight of it.’
Starts off innocuously enough, but being a Josephine Tey story you can expect to be propelled out of that hospital environment pretty quickly. Grant, who is stuck to his hospital bed with a broken leg is given a reproduction of a portrait Richard the Third and not told who it is. Being a policeman who fancies himself good at faces, Grant is surprised to find that it isn’t the photo of a judge but one of the most heinous villains in history. Without leaving his bed, Grant sets off on a hero’s journey to discover the truth for himself. Which is it? Magistrate or villain?
I don’t mind meandering through slow and lengthy scenic descriptions if it’s Charles Dickens. Dickens’ first line in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is a doozy. It is what people like to quote, in part anyhow, because it’s far too long to remember the whole.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” A bunch of comparisons, written by an Englishman. It had a terrific impact on me when I first read it.
But now that I no longer think that unrequited love is romantic, the more memorable line for me is Sydney Carton’s “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” How times and opinions change.
Not much scenic description gets in the way of Jane Austin’s bit of irony in Pride and Prejudice:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” There’s a woman and a writer out of her time.
Here are a couple more first lines of writers that I admire: Elisabeth Jolley, Woman in a Lampshade (short stories) ‘No one knew where the Newspaper of Clairmont Street went in her spare time.’ I heard Elisabeth Jolley speak at a writer’s festival. She was jolly and really likeable.
Lindsey Davis, ‘The Silver Pigs’. When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes. It was late summer, Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddle plate. (I thought I’d better add the second line so you wouldn’t get the wrong impression.)
I’ve only come to writing relatively recently, so most of my reading has been as a reader rather than a writer. So, last but not least, I’m giving you Harlan Ellison. (Depending on my mood) when I’m not wanting to be Danny Katz, I wouldn’t mind being Harlan Ellison. Actually that’s not true. I’m not nearly as good as they are, but I’m past writing or wanting to write like my heroes. I don’t mind being myself. I just have to work harder at it. But as a writer, I like to read what other writers have to say. I don’t mean those books they get you to buy so you can write like they do; I’m interested in a writer’s insights and life experience that were an influence on how and why they write. I think Ellison is one of the most honest and unpretentious writers that I know. Although I may not always agree with him he gets the last word. (He’d like that.)
Harlan Ellison Approaching Oblivion (from the introduction).
‘If it hadn’t been for getting beaten up daily on the playground of Lathrop Grade School in Painesville Ohio – this book would not be what it is. It might be a book with my stories in it, but it wouldn’t be this book and it wouldn’t be as painful a book for me as it is.’