Message in a Bottle
First Line Friday




In the last installment of First Line Friday we considered a number of very economically expressed openers, so I thought I’d try to feature a few this time that take a more florid approach. Before I get into those, though, I have to include one very short first sentence that’s always been extremely memorable to me. It comes from Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Don’t blink, you’ll miss it: “So.” Yep, that’s the whole thing. Heaney, whose ancestors carried the name Scullion, explains more fully why that one word is significant:

I called them “big-voiced” because when the men of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf. A simple sentence such as “We cut the corn today” took on immense dignity when one of the Scullions spoke it. They had a kind of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk. And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives. I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon:

Hwæt w Gr-Dena      in gar-dagum
Þod-cyninga      þrym gefrnon,
H p æþelingas      ellen fremedon

Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with “lo,” “hark,” “behold,” “attend” and—more colloquially—“listen” being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, “so” it was:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

After that long preamble about a very short word, let’s work our way up to the more meandering phrases by test-driving a mid-sized model. A commenter on our last post offered the unforgettable “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” That’s the beginning of George Orwell’s 1984, of course. As Lynn put it, after that line a reader’s reaction can’t be anything but “What? Why? Must read on …”

Into the thickets, then. Tristram Shandy (1767) by Laurence Sterne is the ultimate shaggy dog story, in which the eponymous narrator purports to tell us the story of his life, but first insists on preparing us by describing everything about the lives of his parents, inexorably leading up to the strange circumstances that influenced the critical moment of his conception. Of course, we never learn much about Shandy himself, instead spending almost the entire book following one digression after another. The first line gives the flavor:

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 considered 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.

How true. If his mother hadn’t stopped to ask whether the clock was wound, Tristram might have turned out to be someone else entirely, and the book would have been a whole lot shorter.

John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is a product of recent times that pays tribute to early novels like Sterne’s, and he starts his comic adventure in much the same style:

In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.

More fun to game with the sound of English than labor over the sense of it? Stretch a simile to a snapping-point? Barth is talking about himself as much as he is his protagonist, obviously.

Sometimes an opening line is a fairly plain thing that grows richer when it’s supported by its close followers. Take the innocuous scene-setting start of Bleak House by Charles Dickens: “London.” That turns out to be the beginning of a series of fragments that together pack quite a wallop:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborne Hill.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian achieves a similar effect:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a last few wolves. His folks are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.

By itself, “See the child” is a decent enough way to establish the ageless atmosphere McCarthy’s after, but it’s the rest of the passage, with its rhythmic repetition and archaic diction, that really sets it off.

Another 20th-century novel with a 19th-century setting, Steven Wright’s The Amalgamation Polka is a Civil War picaresque that shares McCarthy’s Faulknerian flair for the antique and the grotesque, but adds a sense of comic parody to the mix. It starts off with a solid kick and keeps right on going strong:

The bearded ladies were dancing in the mud. Outsized country feet that just wouldn’t keep still, strutting and reeling all along that slippery stretch of flooded road. Yellow paste clung to the hems of their gowns, flecked sunburnt arms and whiskery cheeks, collected in thick earthen coins upon the lacy ruffles of their modest chests like a hero’s worth of medals artlessly arranged. A cold rain fell and continued to fall over the lost hills, the yet smoking fields, the rude, misshapen trees where light—vague and uncertain—struggled to furnish the day with the grainy quality of a fogged daguerreotype. And at the center of this dripping stillness these loud animated women without origin or explanation, refugees from a traveling circus perhaps, abandoned out of forgetfulness or deceit or simple spite, the improvised conclusion to some sorry affair of outrage and betrayal, and as they danced, they sang and reveled in the rain, porcelain pitchers of ripe applejack passing freely from hand to unwashed hand, the echo of their song sounding harshly across that desolate country.

After those verbal marathons, these lines will seem like sprints:

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
  • The same author’s Love in the Time of Cholera: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
  • Robert Graves’s I, Claudius: “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot,’ or ‘That Claudius,’ or ‘Claudius the Stammerer,’ or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’ or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius,’ am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament’ from which I have never since become disentangled.”
  • John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
  • Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “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.”
  • Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “In the town there were two mutes and they were always together.” 
  • H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds: “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
  • Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love: ” ‘When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.’ “

That last is one of my all-time favorites. It takes such delight in language that the odd subject matter becomes weirdly attractive, goofy yet almost noble. How does that sentence do its work? Indeed, a crystal mystery.