Some of the greatest first lines in world literature are but a few words long, consisting of a lone and simple clause:
‘Call me Ishmael.’
from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), and for a more recent example,
‘See the child.’
from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985). Others too suggestively introduce a central figure, whether the narrator or the object of the narrator’s gaze:
‘For a long time, I went to bed early.’
from Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (1913), and,
‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.’
from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). There are those which would immediately place us in the middle of some mystery, some drama awaiting to unfold:
‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect’
from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), and,
‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’
from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), and,
‘It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.’
from Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1985). And then there are those which afford – earnestly or ironically – pithy and universal observations:
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’
from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice(1813), and terser still and perhaps the greatest of all opening sentences,
‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
from Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina (1878).
But there is an art too to the longer opening sentence, and one which shows itself consistently across the full course of modern literature. These longer first lines typically abound in conjunctions and in marks of punctuation, commas, colons, semi-colons, and all manner of dashes. They can be by turns hesitant and hysterically out of breath, discursive where they are not deliberately diversionary, while some even set out a series of rules by which the ensuing text ought to be read.
The long opening sentence is well demonstrated by a number of works foundational to the modern English novel. But across world literature, we find great long opening sentences in many novellas and short stories too. Indeed, something about these shorter forms – self contained, covering brief spans of time, often displaying a heightened subjectivity, amorphous and experimental and drawing from the fantastical, the philosophical, and the forms of anecdote, parable, and fable – seems particularly conducive to subtle and convoluted, bounding and explosive, altogether brilliant long openings.
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To begin with a long opening sentence which in many ways seems the epitome of the type, Franz Kafka’s ‘A Country Doctor’ remains one of the German-language writers most elusive works. A short story amounting to just six pages, it depicts the nighttime journey in the depths of winter of a regional doctor, who attends the hopeless case of a sick young boy. It blends elements of the fantastic and grotesque – the enormous horses on which the doctor makes his journey are conjured out of the cold night, and later he is forced by the locals to crawl into bed with the dying boy – and throughout the doctor thinks back upon the fate of his maid, who he has left obscurely understanding that she will be raped.
The meaning of ‘A Country Doctor’ evades critical endeavour. It was written in 1917, when Kafka was sick, but before he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis which would ultimately kill him: the nature of his illness only became clear after a bloody coughing fit on the night of 9 August 1917 with the text already complete, and he apparently finalised publication details with Kurt Wolff on 12 September. The story would appear as the title piece of a collection in 1919. Kafka’s favourite uncle, Siegfried Lowy, was himself a country doctor, and an inspiration for the story; while Kafka dedicated the full collection to his father.
‘A Country Doctor’ equally contains one of the best final lines in all of literature. Its opening sentence amounts to almost half of the first page of the text:
‘I was in great perplexity; I had to start on an urgent journey; a seriously ill patient was waiting for me in a village ten miles off; a thick blizzard of snow filled all the wide spaces between him and me; I had a gig, a light gig with big wheels, exactly right for our country roads; muffled in furs, my bag of instruments in hand, I was in the courtyard all ready for the journey; but there was no horse to be had, no horse.’
– Franz Kafka, ‘A Country Doctor’ (1916), translated by Willa and Edwin Muir
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While perhaps slightly less famous than the opening to Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), which self-referentially begins ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.’, the strident opening sentence of Calvino’s earlier work, Invisible Cities, has it beat for oblique grandeur:
‘Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.’
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972), translated by William Weaver
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Often considered the beginning of the novel in English, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was first published under a title which could itself stand as a great long sentence. It’s full title upon publication in 1719 was ‘The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.‘ The novel’s opening line reads:
‘I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call’d me.’
– Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)
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Laurence Sterne’s humorous novel Tristram Shandy, purportedly the autobiography of the titular narrator, is characterised by digressions, double entendres, obscene allusions, the wholesale borrowing of other texts, and graphic devices including a blacked-out page. This most modern of novels has been cited as an influence on the works of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Salman Rushdie. Its long and pondering opening sentence:
‘I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.’
– Laurence Sterne, The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759)
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Heinrich von Kleist’s collapsing worlds, anxiously captured here and in other short stories like ‘The Earthquake in Chile’ and ‘Michael Kohlhaas’, were of signal importance for Kafka.
‘In M—, an important town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O—, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-brought-up children, inserted the following announcement in the newspapers: that she had, without knowledge of the cause, come to find herself in a certain situation; that she would like the father of the child she was expecting to disclose his identity to her; and that she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.’
– Heinrich von Kleist, ‘The Marquise of O—’ (1808), translated by David Luke and Nigel Reeves
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Worth noting because it is probably the best known of all long openings – though infrequently quoted in full – the first sentence of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities fails the standard of greatness, trite and cloying in its easy oppositions:
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
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The opening line of Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘Bliss’ suggests one of the key modes of the New Zealand-born author’s fiction, in which moments of keen insight blister the mundane lives of the provincial middle class:
‘Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply.’
– Katherine Mansfield, ‘Bliss’ (1921)
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Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘The Circular Ruins’ was initially published in the Argentine writer’s 1941 collection El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths). In 1944, this collection became the first part of Ficciones. Two years later, ‘The Circular Ruins’ was the first of Borges’ stories translated into English, by Paul Bowles in the January 1946 issue of View.
Following an epigraph taken from the fourth chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, ‘And if he left off dreaming about you…’, Borges begins his story about a wizard whose sole desire and purpose is to dream a man:
‘No one saw him slip from the boat in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe as it sank into the sacred mud, and yet within days there was no one who did not know that the taciturn man had come there from the South, and that his homeland was one of those infinite villages that lie upriver, on the violent flank of the mountain, where the language of the Zend is uncontaminated by Greek and where leprosy is uncommon’
– Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Circular Ruins’ (1941), translated by Andrew Hurley.
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Дар (The Gift) proved Vladimir Nabokov’s final Russian novel. Written between 1935 and the end of 1937, and published in 1938, these years had seen Nabokov leave Berlin – after fifteen years following the Russian Revolution and Civil War – for Paris. Then in late May 1940, just three weeks before German tanks rolled into the French capital, Nabokov and his family set sail for New York.
More than the last, The Gift has been called Nabokov’s greatest Russian work: on his death in 1977, John Updike remarked:
‘Posterity’s judgement can sort out the best: in English, Lolita, perhaps, and, in Russian, The Gift.’
In the early 1960s, Nabokov’s son Dmitri translated the book’s first chapter int0 English, with Michael Scammell completing the rest and Nabokov revising all five chapters prior to publication in 1963. The English version’s parenthetical opening line:
‘One cloudy but luminous day, towards four in the afternoon on April the first, 192– (a foreign critic once remarked that while many novels, most German ones for example, begin with a date, it is only Russian authors who, in keeping with the honesty peculiar to our literature, omit the final digit) a moving van, very long and very yellow, hitched to a tractor that was also yellow, with hypertrophied rear wheels and a shamelessly exposed anatomy, pulled up in front of Number Seven Tannenberg Street, in the west part of Berlin’
– Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift (1963), translated by Dmitri Nabokov, Michael Scammell, and Vladimir Nabokov
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French novelist Georges Perec was a longtime member of Oulipo, a gathering of French-speaking writers and mathematicians who operated using constrained writing techniques. A theoretical guide to method begins the Preamble to Life A User’s Manual:
‘To begin with, the art of jigsaw puzzles seems of little substance, easily exhausted, wholly dealt with by a basic introduction to Gestalt: the perceived object – we may be dealing with a perceptual act, the acquisition of a skill, a physiological system, or , as in the present case, a wood jigsaw puzzle – is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analysed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element’s existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it.’
– Georges Perec, Life A User’s Manual (1978), translated by David Bellos
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Finally, there is this beautiful and haunted torrent of prose from Leonid Tsypkin, whose novel Summer in Baden-Baden was published in a Russian emigrant magazine in 1981, shortly before his death, remaining neglected until the English translation was given a preface in 2001 by Susan Sontag. The novel moves between a portrayal of Tsypkin’s own journey, by train, from Moscow to Leningrad; and a reconstruction of the relationship between Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anna Grigoryevna as the couple lived abroad in the early years of their marriage.
‘I was on a train, travelling by day, but it was winter-time – late December, the very depths – and to add to it the train was heading north – to Leningrad – so it was quickly darkening on the other side of the windows – bright lights of Moscow stations flashing into view and vanishing again behind me like the scattering of some invisible hand – each snow-veiled suburban platform with its fleeting row of lamps melting into one fiery ribbon – the dull drone of a station rushing past, as if the train were roaring over a bridge – the sound muffled by the double-glazed windows with frames not quite hermetically sealed into fogged-up, half-frozen panes of glass – pierced even so by the station-lights forcefully etching their line of fire – and beyond, the sense of boundless snowy wastes – and the violent sway of the carriage from side to side – pitching and rolling – especially in the end corridor – and outside, once complete darkness had fallen and only the hazy whiteness of the snow was visible and the suburban dachas had come to an end and in the window along with me was the reflection of the carriage with its ceiling-lights and seated passengers, I took from the suitcase in the rack above me a book I had already started to read in Moscow and which I had brought especially for the journey to Leningrad, and I opened it at the page held by a bookmark decorated with Chinese characters and a delicate oriental drawing – and in my heart of hearts I had no intention of returning the book borrowed from my aunt who possessed a large library, and because it was very flimsy and almost falling apart, I had taken it to a binder who trimmed the pages so that they lay together evenly and enclosed the whole thing in a strong cover on which he pasted the book’s original title-page – the Diary of Anna Grigor’yevna Dostoyevskaya produced by some liberal publishing-house still possible at that time – either ‘Landmarks’, or ‘New Life’, or one of those – with dates given in both Old Style and New Style and words and whole phrases in German or French without translation and the de rigueur ‘Mme’ added will all the diligence of a grammar-school pupil – a transliteration of the shorthand notes which she had taken during the summer following her marriage abroad.’
– Leonid Tsypkin, Summer in Baden-Baden (1980), translated by Roger and Angela Keys
Susan Sontag’s preface provides an insight into Typskin’s style:
‘Each paragraph indent begins a long, long sentence, whose connectives are ‘and’ (many of these) and ‘but’ (several) and ‘although’ and ‘and so’ and ‘whereas’ and ‘just as’ and ‘because’ and ‘as if’ along with many dashes, and there is a full stop only when the paragraph ends. In the course of these ardently protracted paragraph-sentences, the river of feeling gathers up and sweeps along the narrative of Dostoevsky’s life and of Tyspkin’s […]
Tyspkin’s sentences call to mind José Saramango’s run-on sentences, which fold dialogue into description and description into dialogue, and are spiked with verbs that refuse to stay consistently in either the past or the present tense. In their incessantness, Tyspkin’s sentences have something of the same force and hectic authority as those of Thomas Bernhard. Obviously, Tyspkin could not have know the books of Saramango and Bernhard. He had other models of ecstatic prose in twentieth-century literature. He loved the early, not the late, prose of Pasternak – Safe Conduct, not Doctor Zhivago. He loved Tsvetaeva. He loved Rilke, in part because Tsvetaeva and Pasternak had loved Rilke; he read very little foreign literature, and only in translation. Of what he had read, his great passion was Kafka, whom he discovered by way of a volume of stories published in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s. The amazing Tyspkin sentence was entirely his own construction’.