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J.A.A. Purves

Best Opening Paragraphs

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From Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan:

GORMENGHAST, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.  They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbor until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock.  These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them.  Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow the Tower of Flints.  This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.  At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

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The Millions has a piece on "The Art of the Opening Sentence":

 

I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I’m a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You’ve earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out.

 

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The opening paragraph from The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence:

 

The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, in the meadows where the Erewash twisted sluggishly through alder trees, separating Derbyshire from Nottinghamshire. Two miles away, a church-tower stood on a hill, the houses of the little country town climbing assiduously up to it. Whenever one of the Brangwens in the fields lifted his head from his work, he saw the church-tower at Ilkeston in the empty sky. So that as he turned again to the horizontal land, he was aware of something standing above him in the distance.

 

Edited by Tucker

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H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu"

 

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

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H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu"

 

 

 

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

 

 

 

Yes.

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From my favorite postwar American novel (alongside Gravity's Rainbow), The Recognitions:

 

 

Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality. But the procession up the foreign hill, bounded by cypress trees, impelled by the monotone chanting of the priest and retarded by hesitations at the fourteen stations of the Cross (not to speak of the funeral carriage in which she was riding, a white horse-drawn vehicle which resembled a baroque confectionery stand), might have ruffled the shy countenance of her soul, if it had been discernible.

 

It always gives me that Barry Lyndon-narrator feel.

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I love this sort of discussion. Here's my contribution, from Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms (I expect everyone knows it well):

 

"In the later summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves."

 

 

Related: the original opening to The Sun Also Rises is getting the special-edition treatment in the latest printing of the novel. The Millions has the skinny.

 

Readers are used to the 1926 novel starting off with a portrait of Robert Cohn; it turns out that, as many scholars have known, Hemingway planned to commence with the words “This is a novel about a lady,” and a snapshot of Lady Bret Ashley, only then to launch into his dissection of Cohn, in the middle of chapter two. This manuscript material is now available in “The Hemingway Library Edition,” volume, put out by Hemingway’s original publisher under the editorial aegis of Patrick Hemingway(his son) and Seán Hemingway (the grandson also rises). The release prompts us to consider how to receive this introduction and challenges us to wrap our heads around an alternate universe in which Fitzgerald’s advice goes unheeded. There will be skepticism about the endeavor; indeed, the previous “Hemingway Library Edition,” led to a bit of a takedownright here in The Millions.

 

Edited by NBooth

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Has anyone here read L.P.Hartley's 'The Go-Between'? That first line,

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

sends a sort of thrill down my spine when I read it - not quite sure why, but something to do with English nostalgia and being a hopeless Romantic.

 

 

I have (read it).

I also love the symmetry of its ending and how that idiom and the core dramatic elements come full circle.

From the final passage:           

A foreigner in the world of the emotions, ignorant of their language but compelled to listen to it, I turned into the street .

            [. ...] But I didn't, and hardly had I turned in at the lodge gates, wondering how I should say what I had come to say, when the south-west prospect of the Hall, long hidden from my memory, sprang into view.

 

 

 

I tend to reread books I love, not just once but cyclically, making it hard to separate my affection and personal associations from more objective merit. 

But I do think this one stands out. It's so finely wrought and beautifully imaginative and grows on me.

I have wondered that it's not more widely read or never attained the status of say, The Good Soldier.  It might be that old-fashioned nostalgic quality; even in the 50s, it drew comparison to 'the work of the great Victorians' and 'the great days of Edwardian novel writing'. But I think maybe the real reason is a kind of smallness, almost inconsequence, to plot and setting. 

 

Here are two more openings I like a lot, from The Long Goodbye and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:

 

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox's left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.

 

 

 

and

 

You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827.

 

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I used to read a lot of horror novels.  This is one opening line and paragraph that has always stood out.

 

From Robert McCammon's GONE SOUTH...

 

It was hell's season, and the air smelled of burning children.

      This smell was what had destroyed Dan Lambert's taste

for barbecued pork sandwiches. Before August of 1969, the

year he'd turned twenty, his favorite food had been barbecue

crispy at the edges and drenched in sloppy red sauce.  After

the eleventh day of that month, the smell of it was enough to

make him sick to death.

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I've always loved a great opening sentence. Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three begins with a terrific one: 

 

Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long. Taran's arms ached, soot blackened his face. At last he dropped the hammer and turned to Coll, who was watching him critically.

 

That's the whole book, and in a way the whole Chronicles of Prydain, in one sentence.

 

Here is another great opening sentence, from Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass

 

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

 

Again, so much about the character, the world and Pullman's sensibilities in one sentence. 

Edited by SDG

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From Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker wood beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folks are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink. He quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.

Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visagethe child the father of the man.

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From Francis Spufford's Golden Hill:

Quote

The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour - and having passed the Narrows about three o'clock - and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New-York - until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck, that the small mound of the city waiting there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno - and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tietjes Slip, with the veritable gables of the city's veritable houses divided from him only by one hundred foot of water - and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to pap: - all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning.  (He meaning by the offer to signal his esteem, having found Mr. Smith a pleasant companion during the slow weeks of the crossing.)  But Smith would not have it.  Smith, bowing and smiling, desired nothing but to be rowed to the dock.  Smith, indeed, when once he had his shoes flat on the cobbles, took off at such speed despite the gambolling of his land-legs that he far out-paced the sailor dispatched to carry his trunk - and must double back for it, and seizing it hoist it instanter on his own shoulder - and gallop on, skidding over fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats' entrails, and the other effluvium of the port - asking for direction here, asking again there - so that he appeared most nearly as a type of smiling whirlwind when he shouldered open the door - just as it was about to be bolted for the evening - of the counting-house of the firm of Lovell & Company, on Golden Hill Street, and laid down his burden while the prentices were lighting the lamps, and the clock on the wall showed one minute to five, and demanded, very civilly, speech that moment with Mr. Lovell himself.

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