I’m a shocking abandoner of books. Oh, the nearly-finished literature I’ve left in my wake…
But there are some novels I know I’ll complete before I’ve even reached the end of the first paragraph. Here are a few of the most compelling opening lines in literature…
‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’
I’m not the first person in the history of going-on-about-books to notice that this is a wonderful way to begin a novel. Never mind drawing us in gently, David Lodge accused this famous opening sentence of ‘virtually dragging us over the threshold by the collar.’
FMF originally intended to call this novel The Saddest Story, but evidently decided not to guild the lily by overplaying his ‘saddest story’ card too soon.
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’
This famous opening sentence heralds the dreamlike (or nightmarish) tale that’s to come.
Rebecca herself is the omnipresent ghost at the centre of the story, but this is a novel of reciprocal haunting; a past marred by a dread of the future and a future plagued by nostalgia.
Du Maurier began Rebecca whilst living in Egypt, during a period of intense homesickness. The descriptions of England – of hedgerows, lawns, the Cornish coastline, bourgenvilla – are so lovingly rendered, you can almost hear the kettle boiling and smell the buttered toast.
‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.’
Greene introduces us to the protagonists of his tale – Pinky and his murderous gang of miscreants – through the eyes of their quarry, Hale, as they hunt him down on the bustling streets of Brighton.
What a brilliant opening line. Read on, read on…
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
The famous opening line of Orwell’s frighteningly prescient dystopian nightmare, Nineteen Eighty-Four, perfectly sets the tone for what follows.
This sentence anchors us in a world we recognise – a bright cold day in April – but a world in which beaurocratic intervention has become so powerful it can reorder time itself.
Compulsary reading for all, Nineteen Eighty-Four will definitely turn you off totalitarianism (should you be toying with the idea of starting a regime).
Join us at our Luxury Book Club on April 12th where we’ll be discussing Nineteen Eight-Four and hosting a screening of the film adaptation starring John Hurt and Richard Burton.
‘I am a sick man…I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts.’
Dostoevsky really sets out his stall here with the first few sentences of Notes from Underground. The narrator is just as self-loathing as we may imagine from his opening gambit. What’s more, he possesses a remarkable and untrammelled hubris, swelling with perverse pride about his own infirmities and weaknesses.
If you love the comedy of shame and embarrassment (The Office, Alan Partridge, Curb Your Enthusiasm) then you’ll enjoy the excruciating poignancy of Notes From Underground.