In my last post on why I read what I do, I promised to share a few of my favorite beginnings of my favorite books. I have been derailed by way too much work, but that is another story…
My favorite beginning, hands down, of any book I’ve ever read is the beginning paragraph of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles. The bad news is that I gave my copy to my daughter as part of her “classics collection” and don’t have access to it at the moment. However, the image created by that paragraph was of a woman seated on the quay somewhere in England, looking off in one direction with a gaze that captivated the male protagonist to such an extent that it provided the springboard for an entire novel. I loved the novel, but my favorite part of it was that image, which I still see in my mind, it was so evocative.
My favorite current mystery writer is Earlene Fowler. Her books are clean, her characters so addictive that you’ll read her books again and again, just to be in her world accompanied by them. This is the first paragraph from my favorite of her books, Steps to the Altar (Berkley,2002)
Late at night when the dreams woke him, he would lie in the dark and try to forget the faces of the people he’d watched die. Memories of them exploded in his brain, popping and flaring like star shells launched from cannons. With a sick compulsion, he counted off their lives like a human rosary.
End of same chapter, same book:
He never expected Aaron to die. He never expected to fall in love. He never expected to find grace.
My favorite modern epic storyteller is Herman Wouk. He begins his unmatched saga of World War II,The Winds of War (Pocketbooks, 1971), thusly:
Commander Victor Henry rode a taxicab home from the Navy Building on Constitution Avenue, in a gusty gray March Rainstorm that matched his mood. In his War Plans cubbyhole that afternoon, he had received an unexpected word from on high which, to his seasoned appraisal, had probably blown a well-planned career to rags. Now he had to consult his wife about an urgent decision; yet he did not altogether trust her opinions.
One of my very favorite modern literary writers is Anne Tyler. In my second favorite book of hers (I can’t find Accidental Tourist), The Ladder of Years, she begins her strange tale with an unforgettable character sketch:
This all started on a Saturday morning in May, one of those warm spring days that smell like clean linen. Delia had gone to the supermarket to shop for the week’s meals. She was standing in the produce section, languidly choosing a bunch of celery. Grocery stores always made her reflective. Why was it, she was wondering, that celery was not called “courduroy plant”? That would be much more colorful. And garlic bulbs should be “moneybags,” because their shape reminded her of the sack of gold coins in folktales.
Can’t you just see Delia and the produce department?
Now for the CLASSICS:
Favorite Modern Classic opening paragraph:
When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought, and there was a certain amount of evidence to back him up. He had once been an actor–no, not quite, an extra–and he knew what acting should be. Also, he was smoking a cigar, and when a man is smoking a cigar, wearing a hat, he has an advantage; it is harder to find out how he feels . . .
(Seize The Day, Saul Bellow, Fawcett 1956)
Favorite Nineteenth Century Classic opening paragraph:
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.
I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped finger and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie , the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.
(I cheated–two paras in this one! You guessed it: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte)
And to round things out, how about a visit to “the wine dark sea”–yes, the opening paragraph of Homer’s Odyssey:
This is the story of a man, one who was never at a loss. He had travelled far in the world, after the sack of Troy, the virgin fortress; he saw many cities of men, and learnt their mind; he endured many troubles and hardships in the struggle to save his own life and to bring back his men safe to their homes. He did his best, but he could not save his companions, and ate the cattle of Hyperion the Sun-god, and the god took care that they should never see home again.
(Now we know why the Odyssey is a classic!)
I am apologetic about the Fowles, and feel guilty for not including any Russians, but then, I don’t think Tolstoy of Dostoyevsky were ever really known for their first paragraphs.