“Gert Northrup was kind of a weird looking specimen, the other girls thought.”*

Wednesday 8 February 2006

Some months ago, can’t remember where, I was reading a discussion about opening sentences of novels. Just recently, the American Review of Books, as periodicals highbrow and lowbrow alike are wont to do, published a list: “100 Best First Lines from Novels“. An entertaining rumination on said list can be found at Jenny Davidson’s blog Light Reading.
As she and her commenters have observed, a lot of it reads like someone mistook “great first lines” for “first sentences from great books” – Pynchon is dandy and all, but the two examples on the list don’t show it. She also wonders about “the weird attempt to represent a handful of foreign-language titles.. It just draws attention to the English-language-ness of the list as a whole.” Not just English, but the list is heavily over-represented by OK American writers of the past 50 years or so. As I suppose one should expect: given the place of publication, it was kind of the editors to shunt aside Booth Tarkington to make room for an Orwell or a Greene (but not a Green).
Whoever decided on the list is obviously still beholden to their teenage sensibilities: I can understand that sentence from Catcher in the Rye getting the nod, but The Bell Jar? Light Reading accurately summarises it as “an interesting & a historically important rather than actually a great novel”, but even though we’re talking first lines here Plath doesn’t cut it. I can’t get excited about that opener for Catch 22 either.
There’s a lot of box-ticking (Morrison, Hurston, Walker: the only three black, female novelists ever in the history of the universe). I haven’t read a line of Zadie Smith but I know she would be a dead cert to score an entry on a British-made list. Unfortunately, so would Nick Hornby. Someone at the ARB obviously calculated how many of their subscriptions would be cancelled if they didn’t pretend there was a single line of Margaret Atwood that persists in the memory (except maybe that one about it being the same as someone sticking their finger in your ear, in… uh, Life Before Man?)
If you want to make an impression, it helps to drop death into your opening gambit: I made a conservative count of ten deaths, not counting boars, TV channels and annihilated ants.
The pleasant surprises are the acknowledgement of the existences of Walter Abish and David Markson, and that the US Congress has apparently repealed the legislation that once stipulated the American literary establishment must blow Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe at every available opportunity, appropriate or otherwise.
I’m still missing my library, which has yet to arrive in England, so I can’t unearth any neglected gems right now. The great opening sentence that has lodged most firmly in my head comes from Ann Quin’s first novel, Berg:

A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.

The book proceeds to twist every Freudian implication of this sentence into a perverse Gordian knot. Quin lived and died the wrong side of the Atlantic to make the list.

Oh, and they included Bulwer-Lytton**? Someone’s taking the piss.

* I’m quoting from memory, so this is probably wrong. Besides, it’s the first line from a short story, not a novel: from Robert McAlmon’s A Hasty Bunch. That David Foster Wallace thing the ARB includes reads like a pale imitation.

** Even though he unwittingly inspired the first line of The Name of the Rose, via Snoopy.