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Just for Starters : Some First Lines Are Destined for Fame; Others Only Provoke Groans and Shudders

December 16, 1990|JACK SMITH

FIRST LINES HAVE staying power. We remember them after we have forgotten the novel, the story, the poem, the essay.

Generations of high school graduates have never read Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," but many could tell you its clangorous first line:

"Call me Ishmael."

(What if Melville had called him Fred?)

Perhaps everyone has a favorite first line. Most of us know "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," though we might be hard-pressed to remember the following 100-plus words in the first paragraph of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities."

First lines have even been collected. "Know These Lines," published by the New York Public Library, lists an even hundred, from "In the beginning was the Word," to "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," from a poem by Allen Ginsberg.

"From These Beginnings" (Schocken) lists the first lines of 50 literary works, from "Call me Ishmael' to "Alexey Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day (and still remembered among us) owing to his tragic and obscure death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place."

That, obviously, is the first line of "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which is sometimes called the greatest novel ever written, and it may suggest why I have never been able to read it.

The first line of another Russian novel is commendably briefer. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"--the beginning of "Anna Karenina," by Leo Tolstoy.

My own favorite is "It was the end of summer." Does that ring a bell?

Inevitably, first lines would be parodied. Few have provoked more satirical responses than the first lines of one of the baroque novels of Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, which began: "It was a dark and stormy night. . . ."

Some years ago that provoked Scott Rice, a professor at San Jose State University, to introduce a contest in Bulwer-Lytton's name. It has produced such winners as this one, by Michael McGarel: "The sun rose slowly, like a fiery furball coughed up uneasily onto a sky-blue carpet by a giant unseen cat."

Even before Rice, however, Barnaby Conrad had begun a contest among student writers at his Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Conrad admitted that he had stolen the idea from the British magazine The Spectator, whose readers were asked to invent the first sentence of a novel "guaranteed to deter the reader from reading any further."

The Spectator's winner: "So many of my friends have told me that my life sounded just like a book I feel it would be a lack of 'savoir-faire' in me not to try and put down some record of it all, although I have never been quick with a pen."

That sort of thing being the goal, some of Conrad's conferees have turned out some gems.

Robert Morris submitted: "The kid said 'Daddy, Daddy.' And his eyes did kinda look like mine," which would put almost anyone off.

Morris later submitted another winner: "Some readers might say that too much has already been written about the paramecium's frenzied dance in search of a significant other, but to them I say nay!"

Karen Clarke parodied the writers of romances: " 'La!' tittered Merilee Melody Musique into her pillow, her perfect, porcelain, exquisitely cared-for face brightening as she awoke, stretching languidly as a passionate pet tiger between the pine satin lace-trimmed, rose-scented sheets. . . ." It goes on for another 200 words, but you get the idea.

John Maddox Roberts submitted this: "I was fifteen when I decided to devote my life to the study of the Treaty of Utrecht, and I have never looked back!"

Conrad adds a few of his favorites from the general literature. "There's one thing I want to make clear right off. My baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn"--the beginning of Florence Aadland's book about the affair between her teen-age daughter and Errol Flynn.

His other choices are bell ringers, not put-offs, and brevity is their key: From Billie Holiday's autobiography: "Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16 and I was 3." From "The Postman Always Rings Twice," by James M. Cain: "They threw me off the bay truck about noon."

Sheer power has rarely been compressed into fewer words than these: "Now at last the slowly gathered, long-pent-up fury of the storm broke upon us."--"Their Finest Hour" by Winston Churchill.

Have you figured out what "It was the end of summer" is from?

It's from my unfinished novel of that name.

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