IN THE BEGINNING . . .

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Hah! You thought I was going to go all religious on you, didn’t you? Nope. I want to discuss the beginnings of novels. You know: that place where the author hooks the reader.

Some critic (I never heard who—it was on NPR) recently lauded Markus Zuzak for the opening lines of his new book, The Messenger. I’ve not seen the review or the book yet, though I loved The Book Thief. Anyway it got me to thinking about beginnings that I have particularly liked.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (of course!):

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

This sentence works delightfully. Yet it shouldn’t. Think about it. It begins with the vague pronoun it and the main verb is an innocuous “be” verb, is—no action there. The main clause is “It is a truth.” Yeah, so? Then we find a passive modifier (acknowledged) followed by a long subordinate clause (beginning with that) and we finally get to the main point. The sentence sets a tongue-in-cheek tone that we encounter again and again throughout the book. It also introduces the comic-serious subject of husband-hunting—or maybe we should say spouse-seeking? In any event, it works and it’s wonderful! (But just try diagramming that sentence!)

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Call me Ishmael.

Herman Melville’s famous opening line to Moby Dick introduces his narrator, the restless wanderer, symbolically named Ishmael, who proceeds to tell of his periodic need to go to sea. “Whenever I feel myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul . . .” Don’t you just love that metaphor, “November in my soul”? Not March or December, but November. It is SO right!

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Leo Tolstoy starts Anna Karenina with

All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

That statement comes pretty close to being a universal truth on its own, but no, the book is not about a dysfunctional family—at least not only. Instead, it is a tragic love story about a sensual woman who defies the conventions of her society to follow her heart with disastrous consequences. My summary is incredibly shallow, and the book is incredibly rich in texture and characters. Tolstoy is not easy—but oh, so rewarding!

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Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

These are the first lines of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. One is immediately pulled into the character of the hapless Meursault. Imagine obsessing about the timing of his mother’s death with nary a whisper of what that loss might mean. Is he that indifferent to other aspects of his life? Well, yes, he is, but the book presents a basic moral conundrum that transcends this one rather insignificant man.

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I had intended to share a couple more, you get the picture: beginnings, whether they draw us in slowly or abruptly, often set the tone for the entire story.

What are some of your favorites?

 

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