Favourite first sentences

This is the second lame Favourites post I’ve done for this blog. But favourite first sentences of novels/short stories is a slightly more interesting subject for a favourites list than, say, favourite novels, no?

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.

– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Austen does a good job here of laying her cards down on the table (it’s a parody, see?) without it becoming too obnoxiously self-aware and cute.

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

If this were a more standard Sword & Sorcery epic, the Prologue would likely start things off  (as the Jackson film does) with Isildur hacking the ring off of Sauron’s hand. Instead we get a dry treatise on Hobbits. This annoyed me when I was a teenager, but now having been through university I find Tolkien’s Donnish ways rather amusing.

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.

– Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

The narrator of At Swim-Two-Birds is such a pretentious loser.

On the heights above the river Xzan, at the site of certain ancient ruins, Icounu the Laughing Magician had built a manse to his private taste: an eccentric structure of steep gables, balconies, sky-walks, cupolas, together with threee spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colors.

– Jack Vance, The Eyes of the Overworld

I mentioned this one a few months earlier when I was starting to get seriously into Vance. It perfectly gives a sense of both the surrealistic setting of the novel and the seriously weird people who inhabit it.

From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

The sentence reaches back into the past and memory, and then forward again, shifting from Miss Coldfield to Quentin in the process. It sets up in miniature a form of what Faulkner is going to repeatedly do with the narrative.

The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.

– Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.

– Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer

Actually, it only becomes memorable the second time around.

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About Josh W

A Catholic; an occasional writer.
This entry was posted in fragments of culture, Stuff other people said and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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