Tuesday, July 26, 2016


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.                                                                                                          


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. A BEND IN THE RIVER is a novel in four sections:
    The Second Rebellion
    The New Domain
    The Big Man

    They are sections in a novel not standalone novellas.

  3. -----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.-----

    But Simon didn't like the film.

    I read the review in Something to Eclaire

    1. He may have been referring to the 2015 BBC adaptation, which was well received.

      If not... I won't respect a critic any less for changing his mind about a film, espec after a span of 45 years. What I do find incomprehensible is the arrogant critic (e,g., Pauline Kael) who refuses to see a film--any film--more than once...as if she thinks she can glean everything worthwhile in a film from a single viewing. It's as if she was afraid of having to rethink her judgment on a film. Inevitably, some of her strong opinions were based on obvious errors: misheard dialogue or misinterpreted gestures (as in her bizarre review of "Jeremiah Johnson"). And she would never, ever admit error.

      Simon, on the other hand, has been known to apologize for past reviews; I respect that.

    2. What's more important than "if the reviewer liked a movie, or not" is their ability to write compelling articles about a film, which Kael and Simon certainly did. More times than not I disagreed with Simon about a film, but I always enjoyed his musings about the film itself. The same goes for Kael. I didn't really mind whether they liked the movie or not. They could both be writing reviews for electric saws, and I wouldn't care. I'd still want to read the article.

    3. John Simon gave a lot of great films luke-warm to bad reviews. Reading his impressive collection of 1970s film reviews, The Godfather and The Last Detail come to mind. There are many others like these two brilliant films that I believe Mr Simon has revised his views on over the years. This isn't to say his initial reviews on such films were entirely wrong. One always comes away learning something from a Simon critique.

  4. These are all interesting! You could do the same for endings.

    "He loved Big Brother"

    “No got… C’lom Fliday”

    'Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on."

    " A way a lone a last a loved a long the –"

    And my personal favorite:
    "Sorry I forgot to give you the mayonnaise."

    1. Nice! '1984', 'Naked Lunch', 'The Unnamable', 'Finnegans wake', 'Trout Fishing in America'. Here's a website of famous last lines:


      The opening sentence in a work of fiction is crucial, just like the first 10 seconds of a pop song and the opening shots of a film -- it's where the creator either grabs you or loses you.... Here's a pop song that grabs me from the git-go:


    2. BTW, Nacho, I like the Dan Hicks cut. You dig some off the wall music. I changed my name. Larry was bumming me out.

    3. Thanks, U.K. -- I had the apostrophe in but took it out after a Google-proofread search. Unfortunately I didn't capitalize the "w" in "Wake"... Yeah, Dan Hicks was a good musician, he just died this year -- I remembered that song from WBCN-FM in Boston in the 1970s, the "I scare myself" refrain had stuck with me for 40 years, but I'd never taken the initiative to look it up -- now it and almost everything else is on YouTube, the world's jukebox....

    4. noochinator, nice, tieing Hicks' lyrics into this thread. He's my all-time favorite.

  5. I talked to a young lady today who mentioned the term "emotional onanism" -- a Google search shows that it's a fairly well-established term:


  6. Dan Licks, RIP, a wonderful lyricist. A couple more of his that I love:
    The morning comes with such pain

    She's a bit old timey.

    1. Thanks! I'm going through a Hicks-phase these days --- at least he's a better role model than Ray Donovan! Here's a Hicks appearance on Flip Wilson's variety show in the early 1972 -- check out Hicks' dance moves starting around the 1:54 mark:


    2. Oh yes, I know it well. Loved that man.

    3. Guys, after listening to 8-10 of Hick's songs I've come to the conclusion that he was a funny lyricist, but overall, a (kind of) poor man's version of Randy Newman or Warren Zevon. Am I WAY off on this assessment? (very well could be!) I certainly wouldn't put Hicks in the category of a Tiny Tim type (although Tiny had his moments----the great performances on Carson, etc.), but to equate him (Hicks, that is) with serious music would be a mistake. Hicks sounded like he should have been in Buckwheat Zydeco to fully realize his potential. Here are a few examples to illustrate my points:

      Buckwheat Zydeco (better than Hicks)


      Tiny Tim (a little worse than Hicks)


      I don't know, you guys tell me.

    4. Buckwheat Zydeco looks to be a Cajun band & Tiny Tim was a novelty act. Hicks was a southern boy from Arkansas who moved to Northern California -- his music is southern but sunlit, in his words light, humorous and very musical. His band was at home on 'Austin City Limits', but had a humor that one doesn't normally find there. As with virtuoso pianist Cyprien Katsaris, his enjoyment of humor and making people laugh made many think him unserious. The cut I linked to below is a perfect sample of his work: a humorous look at a dark subject (his woman left him and will never return, although he insists she'll come back), with exchanges between him and the woman singers (who know better), and virtuosic solos on guitar and violin -- it's light, funny and musically impressive:


    5. I like this song. The call and response with the background singers is really good.
      The guitar solos ARE inspired, but, Hicks isn't doing them. His voice leaves a lot to be desired as well. Of course, Dylan wasn't a great guitarist or singer either, but very few would deny his musical prowess.

    6. Here's a Hicks cut from the early 1970s, supposedly about Richard Milhous Nixon:


  7. I like this song. A little creepy. The best thing about it is the comment eight comments down by Mr. "Bark-Bark-etc". After reading that, Hicks jumped up a few spots on my musical playlist.

    1. Yeah, that's a great quote in the YouTube comments from barkbarkbarkbarkable, I saw that yesterday. "Moody Richard" is from his album 'Striking it Rich' (1972), considered by Hicks to be his best record. I'd love to read a bio of the guy with interviews of the people who worked with him -- I sense that he was once or twice on the cusp of big success, but at the key moments told important allies (whether fellow band members, record company execs, agents, et al.) to go eff themselves...

  8. Here's a "music video" that starts off strong and doesn't let up --- featuring the magnificent and radiant actress Bridget Fonda (and some dude):


  9. Well, I spent almost an hour trying unsuccessfully to find a certain Ambrose Bierce short story whose first sentence is one of my favorites; so I shall have to paraphrase:

    "Mr. and Mrs. _____ were honest, and therefore poor."

    1. Ha! I love that first sentence. Does anyone else think you could invent the first line of a story and then write it (the entire story, that is) off of that one idea? You could do it with a short story I'm sure. It would be interesting to try. Just invent an interesting first line, and then build your entire story around it. Here's one I thought of. It's a Twilight Zone kind of story:

      "At the red light, he turned and was shocked at the familiar face outside his passenger window. The man there said 'They told me I was you, but I don't believe everything they say.'"

    2. Then there's that famous short, short story that goes:

      "The last man on earth sat in his room, and just then there was a knock on the door."

      That's it! The whole story. I love that idea!

    3. I would love to hear John Simon's list of his top 25 favorite novels. The guy is so incredibly well read. It would be very interesting to see which books make his list.