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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

first lines & last lines

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I had fun reading the list of 100 best first lines from novels and 100 best last lines from novels, at American Book Review. Made me want to write a novel, just to start and end it. Here are a few good ones from each list, from books I haven't read.

I never knew where this first line came from:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. "Stop!" cried the groaning old man at last, "Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree." —Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans (1925)

For a long time, I went to bed early. —Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (1913; trans. Lydia Davis)

The moment one learns English, complications set in. —Felipe Alfau, Chromos (1990)

Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. —Anita Brookner, The Debut (1981)

We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. —Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)

Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden. —David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (1987)

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women. —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

This is not the scene I dreamed of. Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere. –J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate. –Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Matthew Ward)

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow. –Toni Morrison, Sula (1973)

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.” –Voltaire, Candide (1759; trans. Robert M. Adams)

Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry. – Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1956)

“Maybe I will go to Paris. Who knows? But I’ll sure as hell never go back to Texas again." –James Crumley, The Final Country (2001)

47 comments:

Oliag said...

So much fun! I enjoyed reading both lists and they made me take a look at the beginning and ending lines of the book I just started...Little Dorrit by Dickens..
"Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day." Hmmm...an interesting sentence but maybe a slow start. And the end..

"They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the forward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar."...yes I think I will finish reading this!

Lover of Life said...

Great post. There are some incredible writers in the world. How I wish I was one of them :-)

Johnnny said...

Things I like about your site: Clouds are your mountains, your clock, your list of blog labels, your use of different fonts and colors, and of course, your links to the 100 best beginnings and endings to novels. There should also be the 100 worst of each. Thanks. Johnnny

Annie said...

This was wonderful, thank you! First and last lines, they're always magical - at least they should be. :-)

Susan said...

Oh, my! How could they not include Rebecca--"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."? And To Kill a Mockingbird--"When he was thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."?

My own personal favorite is from The Prince of Tides--"My wound is geography." The second line is "It is also my anchorage, my port of call."

Well, as the saying goes "so many books.....".

I totally understand your burning need to write a book just so you can have a first sentence and an ending one. I've thought that many times myself.

shicat said...

Hi Ruth,I want to read them all." I write this sitting in the kitchen sink:)" What's that all about.Have you read that. I loved Toni Morrison's lines the best.But I'm feeling meloncholy today.

Arti said...

Excellent post, Ruth! Will definitely check the link too. Your post reminds me of a Peanuts comics, in which Snoopy is sitting on top of his doghouse typing away, trying to write a first line for his novel. He types in: "Well, Prince...", deletes it and types in "The day broke dull and gray", then deletes it again. In frustration he says: "All the best lines have been taken already!"
(Just to point out the obvious, those are first lines of War and Peace, and Of Human Bondage)

alice said...

Being able to read English speaking authors will stay a dream for me but I can read three famous authors of your list without translation ;-))

Peter said...

James Crumley forgot that there is a Paris Texas also?

Some wonderful extracts... It reminds me that I only read Candide in Swedish a few decades ago; must reread it in French! It's really remakable if you consider when and in what context it was written!

Julia said...

That last last line worries me.

Juila

*jean* said...

I see some new things to consider from this list....of course, i was glad to see my very favorite among your choices...louise erdrich....

thank you for introducing this list, i will pop over and check out the rest of them....

Ginnie said...

Someone sure had fun compiling that list, Ruth...but I love the ones YOU chose to list! I especially liked the last line, “Maybe I will go to Paris. Who knows? But I’ll sure as hell never go back to Texas again." I can see why you chose IT! :D

shoreacres said...

Hey! We Texans take exception to that!

Actually, that line makes me want to read "The Final Country", just to find out what happened to bring a character to that point. There are so many possibilities from which to choose!

Brian said...

Yes, we Texans do take exception to that, or would but for the fact that the real Paris is in Texas.

Here's one of my favorite first lines:
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
JA's wit is wonderful.

Loring Wirbel said...

I am SO glad Melville took 1 and Pynchon took 3 in First Lines, and that Joyce took 4 in Last Lines. Those would be my top choices.

Pynchon's first two pages in Gravity's Rainbow, describing the transport of refugees out of the city, is the best novel opener overall I've ever read.

Hildegarde said...

A pleasure ! And reading can be such a joy and enrichment. Wished I had time to blog AND read AND paint AND photograph AND ... and wash dishes :-)

freefalling said...

Ooo - I do like your new banner - very arty-farty - you had fun playing with that font, didn't you?

I love Toni Morrison's last line - it's extraordinarily expressed.
And Samuel Beckett's (15) one about the sun is funny.

Geez Ruth, your head must be chockers full of stuff.

CottageGirl said...

Once again, Ruth, very thought provoking! You are a wealth of useful information! How intriguing. If I had more time, some of those lines would be enough to get me to read those books this summer! One month has already passed, however and I'm still doing some household renovations!!!

renaye said...

i have always wanted to write a novel but i got too many ideas running wild. when i start writing.. i just don't know what to write for the body. ah.. hopefully i will publish a novel before i die.

Ruth said...

Oliag there is a lot in that last line, I agree. And Dickens is just so wonderful.

Ruth said...

You and me both, L o L.

Ruth said...

Ha, Johnnny - but who would want to read those lists? Because I think they would be boring, right?

Ruth said...

In fact, here are the first and last lines of A Passage to India by Forster, that happens to be on my shelf in my office. I declare them boring:

first line:
"Except for the Marabar Caves--and they are twenty miles off--the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary."

and last line:
"But the horses didn't want it--they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, "No, not yet," and the sky said, "No, not there."

I mean it's ok, but it sounds pretty plodding to me. I've read it and seen the movie too.

Ruth said...

Yes, they should be, Annie. You have to seduce the reader.

Ruth said...

Susie! "My wound is geography." I read that so long ago, and it all comes flooding back. What a summary.

I can see that it could be helpful to seek the counsel of friends and family for the first line of a book at least - just to see if it would draw them in.

Ruth said...

There are books for every mood, Cathy. Today I hope you are feeling more like:

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her."

Ruth said...

Haha, Arti, oh I love that. I love Snoopy.

Ruth said...

Oui Alice - and also one of my favorites:

"Towards three o'clock in the afternoon of one October day in the year 1844, a man of sixty or thereabouts, whom anybody might have credited with more than his actual age, was walking along the Boulevard des Italiens with his head bent down, as if he were tracking some one."

- from Cousin Pons by Balzac.

Susan said...

There's also Paris, Kentucky and St. Paris, Ohio. Any other Parises out there? And Paris Hilton does not count, on any level.

Kerri said...

I LOVE these Ruth!!!

Loring Wirbel said...

I have a terrible confession to make - I have never read any Balzac.
That realization came to me when Abby was running spotlights for The Music Man and I heard the lines:

"You'll find it in Balzac."
"Pardon for me for livin' but I never read it."
"Neither has anyone else in this town."
Ditto.

Ruth said...

Oh, Peter, I have not read Candide in any language.

Ruth said...

Julia, it's a good thing I didn't say it!

Ruth said...

Jean - I have not read her, but I'm glad I included her too for your sake.

Ruth said...

Yes, Boots, but it wasn't very discreet - considering my future in-laws!

:|

:#

:D

Ruth said...

Ha, Linda, so in a way you agree with him?

Ruth said...

Brian, if Crumley is still around I could see you having a very good discussion.

Oh I'm so glad you read P & P. I need you to read the rest of them too. But none is as good as P & P.

Ruth said...

Loring, don't you wonder who made the list? I didn't investigate that. But it pleases me that it pleases you, voracious and discriminating reader that you are.

Ruth said...

Hildegarde, I agree it is frustrating. I would add writing to the list.

Ruth said...

Hiyeee, Letty Girl - arty-farty? You think? And oh! The font is one I found at picnik.com. There are some very cool "homemade" fonts there.

Oh no, my head is empty. These things go out as soon as I read them. I would not remember most of this the next day.

Ruth said...

Oh dear, CottageGirl, don't think like that! I'm trying not to look at the calendar.

And seriously, if I place one more book on the pile behind me, it will topple. The latest from Diane Wakoski, which she loved: Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book.

Ruth said...

Renaye, I tried to write a short story, and I didn't get past the first half. If I can't finish a short story, I think a novel is hopeless.

Ruth said...

Susie, shh don't say that too loud about Paris Hilton. If Nautankey stops by, he will be offended the way my Texas friends (and soon to be relatives) felt about the Texas quote, hehe. I give him a hard time about it.

Ruth said...

Loring - puh-leeze. You've made up for it I'd say.

Ironically - me who is among the most poorly read, has! :D Somehow that makes me happy in a competitive evil way.

Ruth said...

Kerri - they make me happy every time I go back and read them. Words are so great, aren't they?

Bob Johnson said...

Lol, now you got me looking in my books to look for first and last lines, and they are very cool, who knew to look, thanks.

Ruth said...

I was doing that in my office the other day too, Bob - hahaha.