Like first impressions in life, and rather more so, first impressions, i.e., beginnings in fiction matter. They may not be quite all important, but they do invite and influence readership.
Take that terrific opening sentence that many people who know nothing else about Tolstoi’s “Anna Karenina” (more properly “Anna Karenin”) are familiar (!) with, “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” No one is let down by that novel, but “War and Peace” must be a veritable graveyard of readers who gave up midway or sooner.
Pretty famous, deservedly, is also the beginning of L. P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between,” “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The whole novel is good, although the fine film based upon it may be even better.
Both of these are apt beginnings because they lay their finger on something we “oft have thought but ne’er so well express’d,” as Alexander Pope so well put it. But are other beginnings as good as that, I wondered. So I decided to pluck ten worthy books at random from my shelves and check out their beginnings. See how ably they invite further reading or not.
Only one of them is well-known, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which starts: “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do; once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations.’”
Very clever, this, since it appeals not only to children (no pictures) but even to their elders (no conversations). What characterizes the passage is impatience (very tired of sitting) and what is more characteristic of young children than their lack of what German calls “Sitzfleisch,” hard to put into English short of “flesh to sit on.” Conversations, of course, know no age. So our author appeals to all ages.
Now take what may be my favorite English (British) novel of all time, Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier.” Here the very short opening sentence gets us where we live: “This is the saddest story I ever heard.” How succinctly the author establishes the presence of both a narrator and of the characters whose story it is. Presumably equally sad for those who lived it and the one who heard and recorded it. And who can resist reading on compassionately?
There is, however, a tricky way of telling a tragic story humorously: a double-bottomed treasure chest. This is the Turkish American Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name Is Red,” which begins: “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below.” This opening paragraph goes on to list further gory details, but already you see its burlesque effectiveness. Which would be less remarkable but for the victim telling it (The same device figures in that splendid movie, “Sunset Boulevard.”)
The comic tone—gallows or black humor if you like—comes from the details so carefully enumerated by the corpse; it is bizarre, but somehow also reassuring, if dead men do tell tales. Even the almost convivial “that wretch,” plays a droll role.
As does something worse than mere death: entombment in a well. We want to know more.
Now take the start of George du Maurier’s “Peter Ibbetson” (1891). “The writer of this singular autobiography was my cousin, who died at the ---- Criminal Lunatic Asylum, of which he had been an inmate three years. He had been removed thither after a sudden and violent attack of homicidal mania (which fortunately had no serious coincidences) from ----Jail, where he had spent twenty-five years having been condemned to penal servitude for life, for murder of ---- his relative. He had been originally sentenced to death. It was at ----Lunatic Asylum that he wrote his memoir . . .” etc.
Note especially the adroitness of the double dash (----). It cleverly makes the story universal, allowing the reader to fill in the lacunas with the jail and asylum nearest him. The narrator is essentially genteel, a later paragraph reveals that it is a woman, the loony’s literary executrix, who tells the story with refined discretion, hence also all those masking dashes. Our curiosity for what follows is chastely aroused, allowing for the propriety of the Victorian readers as well as their secret love of horror.
Next, consider the skillful beginning of Milan Kundera’s early ‘The Farewell Party” (1976), in its French original the more lyrical “La Valse aux adieux.” “Autumn had arrived. In the lovely valley trees were turning yellow, red, brown, and the small health-resort town seemed to be surrounded by flames. Women were strolling under the colonnade of the spa, now and again pausing to lean over the spouting springs. These were childless women who had come to the spa in the hope of gaining fertility. There was a handful of men among the patient too, for in addition to gynecological wonders a cure at the spa was supposedly beneficial for heart ailments. All the same, females outnumbered males nine to one—an infuriating ration for a young nurse like Ruzena, ministering all day to the needs of sterile matrons.”
Observe the skillful progression from the beauty of nature to the anguished childless women, thence to the zeroing in on the unfulfilled needs of a specific heroine. A movie camera could not have made these transitions more vividly effective, from an establishing shot through a tracking shot to a close-up. We are caught in Kundera’s clever manipulation, ready to be taken into the heart of the story.
Similarly involving and evolving is the progression at the start of the French-Alsacian Rene Schickele’s delightful novel (written in German) “Die Flaschenpost” (“The Bottle Mail”), which I translate, keeping the spacing that resembles free verse. “Cloud./ Richard Cloud . . ./ Today the matutinal mini-boats all foregathered on the horizon. As the sun rose, someone gave a signal, and they sailed in a race across the sky. // One after another they capsized, filled up on blueness and sank—I said to myself contentedly: ‘among them also Richard Cloud.’ . . . // My family lived in the United States, there where it is most boring.”
Here, too, we start with a nature description, lyrical but also ironic, mocking. The hero, Richard Cloud, watches his namesakes in the sky overturn and, smiling, projects himself among them, a rich young man who will similarly capsize. And the very next sentence is a challenge: what is this America, the most boring place in the world? Again, we are seduced into wanting to find out what clouds the life horizon of this Mr. Cloud.
Now take Arthur Schnitzler’s marvelous novella, “Casanova’s Homecoming” (1918), though the German “Heimfahrt” inadequarely translatable as homegoing or home journey. I translate. “In his fifty-third year, when Casanova had long since given up being chased through the world by the adventurousness of youth, but by the restlessness of approaching old age, he felt arise so powerfully in his soul a nostalgic longing [Heimweh] for his birth city, Venice, that, like a bird that from airy heights gradually descends toward death, he began surrounding it in ever narrower and narrower circles.”
We have here Schnitzler’s gift for blending, in an elaborate but elegant style, psychological insight with poetic prose. The long sentence weaves its way through senescence and an avian image to a vagabond’s yearning for the true final home. A long but carefully constructed sentence is itself a kind of journey toward a resting place as it carries us along toward greater realization impending.
Contrast this sympathetic approach to human yearning with the severity of the beginning of V. S, Naipaul’s novella, “The Second Rebellion” (l979) in the volume entitled “A Bend in the River.” “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
Naipaul’s antipathy for much of humanity is crystallized in this hostile opening. Where other writers’ motivation is usually sympathetic, Naipaul’s is condescending and contemptuous. But it works in its negative way just as much as other authors' positive one.
Take now the good-natured approach in “The Caliph Stork” (1913) by the great Hungarian poet and prosaist, Mihaly Babits. Captioned “The Autobiography of Elemer Tabory,” it begins (I translate): “I want to gather together the acts of my life.
Who knows how much time I have left? The step I have resolved to take may prove fatal, Slowly, inexorably night is waning. Surely there will come sometime, tiptoe like a murderer, the black Dream, and step soundlessly behind me. Suddenly, it will press its palm on my eyes. And then I will no longer belong to myself. Then anything can happen to me. I want to collect the acts of my life before I would go to sleep once more.”
Note how calm this writing is, how empathetic. Death as a black dream, silently pressing from behind its palm on one’s eyes, does not sound too awful, leaving one time to collect one’s past actions, presumably on paper. The repetition makes it all the more resolute, the tone more resigned. We are eager to read those recorded acts.
But the recording of the past can be much more unnerving, as in that superb novel, Italo Svevo’s “Zeno’s Conscience,” (1925) published in Italian as La coscienza di Zeno, which I would translate more euphoniously as “The Conscience of Zeno,” but who am I to dispute the premier translator from the Italian, William Weaver? Herewith the beginning of the “Preamble” following a very brief doctor’s note. The hero is commenting on the doctor’s recommendation.
“Review my childhood? More than a half-century stretches between that time and me, but my farsighted eyes could perhaps perceive it if the light still aglow there were not blocked by obstacles of every sort, outright mountain peaks: all my years and some of my hours.”
The jacket copy informs us that this is “the story of a hapless, doubting, guilt-ridden man, paralized by his fits of ecstasy and despair and tickled by his own cleverness” in this “pioneering psychoanalytical novel.” The tone of that beginning establishes an attitude of imaginative, jocular pessimism.” We want to read on and find out whether those blocking mountains could be climbed.
Let me conclude with the first sentence of the Russian poet-novelist Valeri Briusov’s “The Fiery Angel” (1930), excellent advice to both writers and would-be writers. “It is my view that everyone who has happened to be witness of events out of the ordinary and not easily comprehensible should leave behind a record of them, made sincerely and without bias.” It should be taken to heart: something that we don’t quite understand, if written down sincerely and without bias might become comprehensible in the process of committing to paper. That is what Babits had in mind too, and that is what Zeno is advised to do. The past may be a foreign country, as Hartley opined, but we can become observant tourists in it.
Briussov’s exciting novel has become the basis of Prokofiev’s terrific opera, all too rarely performed. But there are at least a couple of worthy recordings of it that will afford repeated happy listening.
And one further comment. Isn’t it interesting that half my prosaists were also poets? To wit Babits, Briussov, Carroll, Schickele and Schnitzler. It bears out my contention that the best training for a prosaist is to have also been a poet.