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Jack Smith

As far as correctly quoting first lines of novels, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times

December 09, 1985|Jack Smith

In recalling a few memorable first lines of novels the other day, I hoped that I would skin through on that subject without arousing any criticism.

I should have remembered that there is no subject on which some readers don't hold different opinions from mine.

The most common complaint was that I left out the first line of "A Tale of Two Cities," Charles Dickens' durable romance of the French Revolution.

It begins, of course: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . ."

It was included in Baird W. Whitlock's "From These Beginnings," the book that served as my excuse for that column, but I left it out to make room for the first line of my own novel--"It was the end of summer."

I have my priorities.

As Jim Linck of Glendale points out, the last lines of "A Tale of Two Cities" are as good as the first. They are spoken by the wastrel English barrister Sydney Carton as he mounts the guillotine to give up his life for the woman he loves (actually, for her husband):

"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."

Who can forget Ronald Colman's rendition of those lines?

Cassandra L. Smith of Venice writes to complain that I misquoted the first lines of Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."

All I can say is that I quoted Whitlock's book correctly. Let him explain.

Ms. Smith adds: "Finding two strikes in a four-column piece, I stopped reading. I'd be interested in your explanation."

I would have thought that Ms. Smith would have gone on reading in hope of finding yet a third strike--three strikes you're out, you know.

Nancy Rayl of Cypress College reminds me of Franz Kafka's famous opening of "Metamorphosis"--"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."

Of course that is only a short story, but it is such a fine specimen that I will overlook the technicality.

Lee Lavalee of Hollywood nominates one of his favorites, the first line of "The Bold House Murders," by Eugene Franklin: "If I were you, I'd eschew mushrooms."

Sounds to me like the beginning of one of those English country house weekend murders, in which everyone is required to say exactly what he was doing at a certain hour, and the mystery is solved by a busybody female.

Alma Johnson of South Pasadena nominates the first line of another obscure book, "Hardicon's Hollow," by J. S. Fletcher--"It had been threatening to rain all day, and now, at six o'clock of a mid-September afternoon, when everything was growing gloomy and shapeless in the vague dusk, great drops began to fall with persistent steadiness on the lonely high road which I was following."

That one is in the genre of the prolific Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton's romantic melodramas, as exemplified by the famous "It was a dark and stormy night. . . ."

Nancy Hyde of San Clemente wants to know how I could have neglected the beginning line of Erich Maria Remarque's "A Time to Love and a Time to Die"--"Death smelled different in Russia than in Africa."

I like that one mainly because of its cavalier treatment of Miss Thistlebottom's tiresome rule that different must be followed by from , not than .

A serious entry comes from Bob Long of Walnut. As Jim Linck argued in behalf of "A Tale of Two Cities," Long argues that both the opening and closing lines of Thomas Wolfe's "You Can't Go Home Again" are among the great ones.

It begins: "A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world."

Tough going, if you're not a Thomas Wolfe fan. Besides, maybe the true beginning of "Look Homeward Angel" is the first of those poetic prefatory lines opposite the first page:

" . . . A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces."

The book ends:

"Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, I should say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say 'The town is near,' but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges."

I discovered Thomas Wolfe when I was in high school; maybe that's why I think he was a genius.

In that ending Wolfe set the stage for Eugene Gant's further adventures in "Of Time and the River" and "You Can't Go Home Again," a book that played a sadly ironic role in my life. On a troop ship headed for Iwo Jima I lent my copy of it to an 18-year-old Marine who had the bunk below mine and who had never heard of Wolfe.

"That's a funny book to be reading now," he said with brave irony.

He was reading the book the night before we landed, and he was killed the day we boarded our ship to leave.

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