Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 20

Today, the kickoff of George Saunders’ The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

It is one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Horenrite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.

And as a bonus, from his story “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror”

My first and favorite task of the day is slaving over the Iliana Evermore Fairy Castle.

Somebody or other quipped that he is sort of Dilbert crossed with Pynchon. I doubt he would mind the comparison.



Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 19

Since I’ve missed a few days, here are two first lines for day 19, and they are both ‘greatest hits’



“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”

From Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.




Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…

From James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Like most greatest hits, a little goes a long way–particularly in Joyce’s case–but they do keep you hooked.

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 18

FiztgeraldAt some point I will get around to my theory of first lines (and my perhaps potted justification for thinking they let me know whether a novel is worth reading). But for this entry, I’ll just say that it’s this opening, a bit self-effacing yet so elegant, that started me reading Penelope Fitzgerald. Not something that I have any plan of stopping.

In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not.

The first line of her 1978 novel The Bookshop.

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 17

A little late with yesterday’s post, which gives me the chance to include one of the greatest of first lines, from the late Gabriel García Márquez‘s 100 Years of Solitude.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

“Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.



Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 16

Today the start of story by William Gass. I’ve blown hot and cold on him: a reading I attended during my college years was mostly mystifying (if memorable, for, among other things, the rapt attention all the creative writing students gave him). His essays and short works have often been engrossing,  though, and this, the opening of “Quotations from General Flaubert” is from a collection of his called “Tests of Time.”


“Heinrich Zeitung Muller-Müller sat silently in the speeding cab and tried not to overhear let alone listen to his wife complaining about the risk inherent in wet roads, about the traffic, heavy already although it was early in the day, about the draft the driver had created by cracking his window, and the smoke of his cigarette, which was inconsiderately circulating across the back seat before finding its way out into the street. “So you say,” she said, though he had said nothing.”

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 15

Sargent_Watercolor“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

The opening of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, not a tracking shot from a helicopter, but a Sargent watercolor, seemingly slight, yet profound, and perfectly judged.

Anthony Lane sent it, and the book, a valentine in a NYKer piece in 2012. “So begins “The Portrait of a Lady,” and its opening chords, quiet as they are, have almost no match in English-speaking literature.”

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 14

Perhaps the simplest way to open is to have the reader meet the character, set the scene, and start the action:


“When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.”

Theodore Dreiser,  Sister Carrie.

Another approach is to deploy a little cheerful bombast. Here’s an example from the opening of “In Defense of Woman” essays by Dreiser’s sometime friend, H.L. Mencken, a master of rhetorical flourish:

mencken“As a professional critic of life and letters, my principal business in the world is that of manufacturing platitudes for tomorrow, which is to say, ideas so novel that they will be instantly rejected as insane and outrageous by all right thinking men, and so apposite and sound that they will eventually conquer that instinctive opposition, and force themselves into the traditional wisdom of the race.”

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 13

Today three openers by Thomas Hardy:

“The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry.”

Jude the Obscure

When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

Far From the Madding Crowd (which in turn takes its title from a poem with a wonderful first line of its own, “The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day.”

A person who differed from the local wayfarers was climbing the steep road which leads through the sea-skirted townlet definable as the Street of Wells, and forms a pass into that Gibraltar of Wessex, the singular peninsula once an island, and still called such, that stretches out like the head of a bird into the English Channel.

The Well-Beloved

Hardy’s Wessex, the locus of his fiction and much of poetry. Llike Yoknapatawpha County for William Faulkner and Malgudi for R.K. Narayan, it was fertile ground for extraordinary novels.

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 12


“Waking up begins with saying am and now.”

The lean first line of Christopher Isherwood’s spare novel, A Single Man. Worth reading, even if you saw that overly opulent film. The book, in contrast, is down to earth, mundane even, yet spiritual. The structure is remarkable as well, an ordinary day that refracts an entire life story. I remember being thunderstruck encountering it as a teen–that gay novels could be grown up was a surprise. It was not (and often still isn’t) a nuanced genre.

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 11

WhitmanI’ve been lax and including first paragraphs instead of limiting myself to first lines. But back to that for today, with the great opening of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

“I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

A poem that also includes a line I’ve always loved: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars…”

%d bloggers like this: