Opening Lines

Opening lines can hook me from the ‘get-go’. They can also demand that I knuckle down and trust the author. (And sometimes they give me a sinking feeling, making me wonder what I was contemplating when I chose the book in the first place.)

What is the job of opening lines?

Is it to give a hint of what is to come? – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ (A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens).

Is it to introduce a pivotal character? – ‘“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug’ (Little Women, Louisa M. Alcott).

Does it offer a glimpse into a world never before visited? – ‘The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards’ (A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin).

 

Memorable Opening Lines

Many of us can quickly conjure some famous opening lines.

Shakespeare’s prologue in Romeo and Juliet – ‘Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene’.

Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ in Anna Karenina.

Melville’s terse entree to Moby Dick – ‘Call me Ishmael’.

Why do we remember these lines? Is it the rhythm of the words or a fondness for a certain character, or is it because the lines evoke in us a reading memory from a particular time in our lives?

Each Monday in 2019, I tweeted the opening lines from a book that has sheltered on my shelves or kipped on my Kindle. Some of the books have been with me since childhood, others are more recent acquisitions. I had no particular schema in mind when choosing my ‘Monday Morsels’. I re-visited books at random and my selections fell, variously, into the categories noted above.

Here is a sample of the 52 beginnings I selected.

 

Harpo Speaks

I opened the year with a quote from Harpo Marx’s autobiography Harpo Speaks. In the Marx Brothers movies, Harpo was the wig-wearing, silent partner. His 1961 autobiography, published just three years before his death, begins with this kernel of wisdom:

I don’t know whether my life has been a success or a failure. But not having any anxiety about becoming one instead of the other, and just taking things as they came along, I’ve had a lot of extra time to enjoy life.

 

36 Children

When the new school year began, my thoughts turned to a book I first read when training as a primary school teacher – Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children (1967). Kohl had studied philosophy and mathematics at Harvard, Oxford and Columbia universities before pursuing a career in teaching. His ethos – along with that of New Zealand’s Sylvia Ashton-Warner – informed my own approach to teaching: start with the children and their cultural environment, and work from there.

My alarm clock rang at seven thirty, but I was up and dressed at seven. It was only a fifteen-minute bus ride from my apartment on 90th Street and Madison Avenue to the school on 119th Street and Madison.
There had been an orientation session the day before. I remembered the principal’s words: ‘In times like these, this is the most exciting place to be, in the midst of ferment and creative activity. Never has teaching offered such opportunities.’

 

‘The History of England, by a Partial, Prejudiced, & Ignorant Historian’

Some weeks later, I chose a morsel from Jane Austen’s writing. Austen’s devotees are spread across the novel-reading world. The first words of Pride and Prejudice are so well known they still regularly appear as the opening gambit of newspaper and magazine articles  (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’).

Instead of Austen’s best-known opening, I selected the start to one of her works of juvenilia, ‘The History of England’ (c. 1791):

 Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, having prevailed on his cousin and predecessor Richard the 2nd to resign it to him, and to retire for the rest of his life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered.

These words are re-used by scriptwriter and director Patricia Rozema in her 1999 film adaption of Austen’s Mansfield Park. If I remember the film rightly, a young Fanny Price is shown penning the words in her crowded Portsmouth home before moving to her Bertram relatives’ expansive estate, Mansfield Park. I must watch Rozema’s adaptation again. Exercising directorial creative licence, she shines a light into some dark corners of Mansfield Park, including Sir Thomas Bertram’s profiteering from sugar plantations in Antigua.

(Images of Austen’s note book, and full text and audio, are available via the British Library.)

 

The Red Balloon

By April, I’d moved from England to Paris and Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon. The Red Balloon began life as a short film of the same name, written and directed by Lamorisse, and starring his children. The film won a Palme d’Or at Cannes for Short Film and an Academy Award for Original Screenplay. Stills from the film were used as illustrations for the book. (Both the film and the book appeared in 1956.)

In the mid-1960s, I discovered a copy of The Red Balloon in my primary school library in Bendigo. I have never forgotten Pascal and his faithful balloon.

Once upon a time in Paris there lived a little boy whose name was Pascal. He had no brothers or sisters, and he was very sad and lonely at home.

 

The Odyssey

One of my Monday Morsels for July was a new translation (2017) of a very old tale: Emily Wilson’s version of Homer’s The Odyssey. One of the appeals of Wilson’s translation, the first by a woman, is pinpointed in Charlotte Higgins’ review in the Guardian: ‘Whereas male translations have a habit, perhaps quite unconsciously, of letting Odysseus off the hook (He tried his best! He just couldn’t manage it!), Wilson is more attentive to the poem’s foldedness, its complexity.’ Even so, Wilson is stuck with a clouded male protagonist and a largely male cast of characters. Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls offer leaven for Odysseus’ heroic lump.

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home.

 

The Thirty-Nine Steps

Another July morsel was John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). I studied this book as 14-year-old at Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew, but I confess that I cannot recall a single thing about the storyline. I still have the copy I used at school. It is a 1942 edition that had previously belonged to my father. My strongest memory from studying Buchan’s spy thriller (was it an odd choice for impressionable young Methodist ladies?) is that I was very cross at having a different edition from my classmates – none of the page references issued by our teacher matched those in my second-hand copy.

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.

 

More Miscellanea

The year continued with assorted openers ranging from Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat who ‘went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat’ to Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth where, ‘from the Fosseway westward to Isca Dumnoniorum the road was simply a British trackway, broadened and roughly metalled … thrusting further and further into the wilderness’.

I meandered towards year’s end with Albert Camus’ The Outsider (‘Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure’) and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (‘His children are falling from the sky’).

Then, after tweeting 51 opening lines, the final Monday Morsel looked to the new year.

 

‘The Gate of the Year’

Minnie Louise Haskins’ poem ‘The Gate of the Year’, first published privately in 1912, is as familiar to me as my grandmother’s cream puffs and butterfly cakes. A framed copy of Haskins’ poem hung on Grammo’s kitchen wall, just beside the stove. I cannot picture Grammo baking without also seeing the verses that steadied her through 40 long years as a war widow.

 And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied:
‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’

 

 

A Note on Links and Sources

Links for most of the books cited in this post go direct to the publisher’s website. (A high percentage of the books are published by Penguin.) Links to some older and out of print books go to Booko. The Booko links provide a range of options for finding the books via international and second-hand sources.

My A–Z of Books and Reading

My reading life – in the shape of the alphabet.

A is for Austen

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen
NPG 3630 © National Portrait Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Jane-isms pepper my conversation. When miffed by extraneous impositions, I quote Miss Elizabeth Bennet and ‘act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to … any person so wholly unconnected with me’; when displeased, I cite Mr Knightley’s chiding of Emma (‘badly done, indeed’); and, when worn down by life, I echo Mary Musgrove (‘I am so ill I can hardly speak’).

Thank you, Jane Austen. My life and language would the poorer without you.

B is for beauty

St John’s Bible calligrapher

The most beautiful books in my house are the seven volumes of The Saint John’s Bible, each measuring a substantial 26cm x 39cm. The books’ calligraphy and illuminations illustrate, quite literally, the era evoked in Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours. They are a testament to time, skill, patience and creativity.

Beautiful books cost money to produce. I am grateful to publishers who invest in beauty.

C is for comfort

Sometimes I want to settle down with a book that’s the equivalent of hot chocolate on a winter’s day. Something that will warm and relax me. Any novel by Kate Morton will do it. Her gift for storytelling carries me along on a tide of contentment.

D is for discomfort

Some books – fiction and non-fiction – open a door onto uncomfortable truths.  Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand on euthanasia, Tara Westover’s Educated on the potent grip of faith and family, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race on racism in Australia.

It’s good to be unsettled from time to time.

E for editing

I’m an occasional editor and proofreader so my checking antenna is generally ‘up’. It’s an occupational hazard. I get cross when books seem to have bypassed the editorial phase. I am annoyed by misspellings, verb confusions, inaccurate references, missing punctuation and repeated words. I’ve been known to send publishers gratuitous lists of the textual errors and narrative glitches I’ve found in their books. The subsequent silence is deafening.

But, before I suffer altitude sickness on my high horse, I need to remind myself of the wisdom of an editor acquaintance: ‘There is no such thing as a perfect book.’

F is for fact-checking

One of my favourite thankyous from an author whose book I proofread was this: ‘You saved me from many egregious errors.’

Authors tend to slip up when they know their subject intimately and so don’t bother to check their facts. I’ve driven along that road umpteen times and I know there’s a pub at the top of the hill. Well, yes, there was a pub there in 1970 when you used to live in the area, but it hasn’t been there since 1995 and your novel is set in 2015.

Assume nothing.

G is for gifts

Cover image courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Books make great presents. I’m always happy to receive books (even the Christmas when three of my children each gave me a copy of the same book). Best of all are unexpected gifts, offered when there’s no particular rhyme or reason.

One day, my daughter surprised me with a copy of Hervé Tullet’s Press Here. Its simplicity is sublime. I smile every time I ‘press here’. Partly it’s the joy of Tullet’s humour; partly it’s the memory of the gift and the giver.

H is for holidays

Holidays have a circular effect on my reading.

I once spent a day in Lyme Regis because Anne Elliot went there in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Sometimes, the effect is reversed: a holiday destination sets off a post-visit reading adventure. It wasn’t until I visited the Corinium Museum at Cirencester that I discovered the books of Rosemary Sutcliff. I was soon devouring The Eagle of the Ninth and the subsequent books in the series. (Those Romans certainly knew how to build roads and baths.)

I is for illustrators

Jeannie Baker’s collages, Graeme Base’s hidden clues. Anything by Oliver Jeffers or Shaun Tan. I am hard pressed to draw a recognisable stick figure so I honour those who create pictures.

If you want a taste of the talent displayed by Australia’s current crop of illustrators, visit the Australian Society of Authors’ Style File.

J is for jobs

I spent over 20 years working with AustLit, the ‘go to’ resource for all things Australian literature related. My husband used to tell people I got paid to read the newspaper. There’s some truth to that. Each Monday, I’d spread the weekend papers across my desk and search their pages for book reviews, poems, essays, and scraps of author information. I loved my AustLit job; Mondays were bliss.

K is for Kindle

When I tell my friends that I read most of my fiction on a Kindle, they generally flinch. I might as well have sold my soul to the devil. But my Kindle works for me. It was a gift from my husband and, I have to admit, I was initially sceptical. Eight years on, and 300 downloaded books later, I’m a convert.

L is for libraries

My love of libraries began at the children’s library in the regional city of Bendigo, Victoria. The five years I spent in Bendigo were largely miserable, but there were two saving graces – the public pool and the public library. I volunteered at the library, along with other primary school-aged children, under the supervision of the indefatigable librarian Miss Euphemia Tanner. My book-soaked Saturdays with her restored my spirits.

© National Library of Australia

When I arrived in Canberra to begin my undergraduate degree, I fell into the warm embrace of the National Library of Australia (and the iced buns that could then be purchased from the fourth-floor cafeteria). Our nation’s library has been my home-away-from-home ever since. I’ve used its resources for study, work, research and leisure for over 40 years. (I miss those iced buns though.)

M is for missing

There are books that ‘well-rounded’ readers are meant to have read: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’ve read none of them.

Sometimes friends gasp: ‘Oh, my goodness, you haven’t read xyz?’

No, I have not. And I probably never will.

N is for nature writing

Cover image courtesy of Trinity University Press

It was while working for AustLit that I came across Mark Tredinnick’s PhD thesis ‘Writing the Wild’ (partially published at a later date as The Land’s Wild Music).

Tredinnick’s thesis introduced me to people like Terry Tempest Williams and James Galvin and Barry Lopez. They gave me a new way of seeing.

O is for oral reads

This esoteric topic deserves a comprehensive explanation but, suffice to say, an oral read tracks the textual variations between different versions of books with messy publication histories. The aim is to prepare a definitive, scholarly edition.

To conduct an oral read, several people read the variant versions simultaneously. One person reads aloud while the others follow along in their different versions. When the silent readers spot a variation, they call out. Everyone stops and the variation is recorded.

It’s kind of like bingo for readers. It’s a lot of fun … if you’re that way inclined.

P is for place

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Australia

There are some places I know only from the pages of books, either because I will never visit them or because they no longer exist. Arabella Edge (The Company: The Story of a Murderer) and Kathryn Heyman (The Accomplice) have shown me the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, off the coast of Western Australia, as they were at the time of the Batavia’s shipwreck in 1629. Madeline Miller (The Song of Achilles and Circe) and Pat Barker (The Silence of the Girls), among others, have conjured my vision of the ancient city of Troy.

Reading is a cheap ticket for vicarious travellers. It can be a surprisingly embodied experience.

Q is for quest

There’s a popular theory that there are only seven basic story lines; one of the seven is The Quest. (If you want to delve further into this idea, you can read Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots.)

Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins

Quests often govern the structure of fantasy novels and, for me, the granddaddy of them all is J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I didn’t read Tolkien’s tale of Middle Earth until well into adulthood. It was the summer of 2002, just after the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation was released. As soon as I’d seen The Fellowship of the Ring on the screen, I started reading Tolkien’s tale. I barely came up for air. Fortunately most of my family was away on a summer camp. I neglected my one remaining son and gave all my attention to Frodo. A week well spent.

R is for recommendations

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Australia

My best reading recommendations come from one of my sons who has a knack for walking into a bookstore and homing in on quirky titles. He’s often a bit ahead of the curve, or so far behind it that his choices have gone entirely out of fashion.

I have Nick to thank for an enjoyable chunk of my reading in recent years. Titles include John Ironmonger’s Not Forgetting the Whale, Susan Hill’s Howard’s End Is on the Landing, Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Keep it up, Nick!

S is for series

I’m a sucker for a good crime series, especially if there’s a compelling lead character. Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin, Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy, C J Sansom’s Shardlake, Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike, Barry Maitland’s Brock and Kolla, Val McDermid’s Karen Pirie. I could go on. Trust me, I really could.

T is for tutoring

If I hadn’t had to engage deeply (and, truth be told, more than a little reluctantly) with Sophocles’ Antigone when tutoring a Year 11 student in English Literature, my reading experience with Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire would have been markedly diminished. (You can read my thoughts on the way the two stories mesh in my blog post, ‘Burning for Love’.)

Studying a book in order to shape someone else’s critical appreciation makes for a different reading experience. It’s analytic and probing and immersive.

My thanks to the English teacher who chose Antigone as a set text.

U is for unfinished

I have several ‘Collections’ on my Kindle where I group the books I’ve read. There’s plenty of crime fiction and a good dollop of historical fiction. There’s children’s fiction, YA fiction and general fiction. (It’s mostly fiction.) And then there’s a collection headed ‘Too Awful To Continue’. Only four books, from among 300 titles, are listed there. Don’t ask. I won’t tell.

V is for verse, especially the silly and nonsense variety

Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse for Kids allowed me to wrangle many an unruly classroom back to attention. It’s counter-intuitive, but a bit of craziness brings cohesion to a bunch of raucous children. It’s partly the appeal of nonsense, and partly the soothing power of rhythm. I can still recite ‘On the Ning Nang Nong’ and, with prompts, ‘The Land of the Bumbley Boo’.

Cover image courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Edward Lear’s nonsense works too:

They went to sea in a Sieve they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
(From ‘The Jumblies’)

Nonsense and silliness, in verse form, are treasures for frazzled teachers and their fractious pupils. Just remember to ‘beware the Jabberwock’!

W is for women writers

Women authors account for 75% of the books I read. (Only in the crime fiction genre do the numbers come close to a 50/50 female/male split.)

An excellent source for reviews of books by Australian women is the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWWC). (The challenge began in 2012 after the underrepresentation of women in the pages of major literary and reviewing publications was exposed by the VIDA Count.) The AWWC’s function is to promote and support women writers. Nearly 6,000 books have been reviewed in less than eight years.

X is for XML

XML – eXtensible Markup Language – is a tool for creating information formats and sharing data. Basically (very basically), XML uses tags to give instructions to the data. I was introduced to XML in the early 2000s when I was tasked with writing an electronic newsletter for AustLit. XML appealed to me because of its orderliness – for every opening tag, there needs to be a corresponding closing tag.

Writing code for web pages is the 21st century equivalent of being a 19th century compositor. It’s a task that appeals to a certain personality type.

Y is for YA fiction

Cover image courtesy of Black Inc.

Young adult fiction is marketed to readers aged 12 to 18. When I was that age, the genre was barely out of nappies; it’s a creation of the mid-20th century. Despite not falling into the target age group, I include a good smattering of YA among my reading. The books often tackle gritty issues: life after a friend’s suicide (Claire Christian’s Beautiful Mess), judgements about, and the experiences of, asylum seekers (Clare AtkinsBetween Us), growing up in a fractured family (Claire Zorn’s One Would Think the Deep), unexpected teenage pregnancy (Dianne Touchell’s A Small Madness).

YA is not for the faint-hearted.

Z is for Zafón

I began my ABC with an author, so I’ll close with one, too – Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind sees the young protagonist, Daniel Sempere, visiting the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he finds, unsurprisingly, a book. The story behind the book, the last remaining copy in existence, becomes Daniel’s obsession – a fate with which other readers might well identify.

Links and Sources

Links to the books, authors and institutions mentioned in my alphabet:

A: Portrait of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen. NPG 3630 © National Portrait Gallery, London. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0); the three quotes are from, respectively, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion, all by Jane Austen

B: The St John’s Bible; Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader

C: Kate Morton

D:  Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx; Educated by Tara Westover; The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

G: Press Here by Hervé Tullet

H: Persuasion by Jane AustenThe Corinium Museum; The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

IJeannie Baker; Graeme Base; Oliver Jeffers; Shaun Tan; The Australian Society of Authors’ Style File

J: AustLit

L: Bendigo Library; National Library of Australia; image of NLA, © National Library of Australia

M: Moby Dick by Herman Melville; The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger; Ulysses by James Joyce; War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

N: ‘Writing the Wild’ and The Land’s Wild Music by Mark Tredinnick; Terry Tempest Williams; James Galvin; Barry Lopez

P: The Company: The Story of a Murderer by Arabella Edge; The Accomplice by Kathryn Heyman; the wrecking of the Batavia; The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller; The Song of the Girls by Pat Barker

Q: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker; The Fellowship of the Ring (movie); The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien

R: Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger; Howard’s End Is on the Landing by Susan Hill; The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall and Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome.

S: Joe O’Loughlin series by Michael Robotham; Sean Duffy series by Adrian McKinty; Shardlake series by C J Sansom;  Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith; Brock and Kolla series by Barry Maitland; Karen Pirie series by Val McDermid

T: Antigone by Sophocles; Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

V: Silly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan; The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear;  ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll

W: VIDA Count; Australian Women Writers Challenge 

Y: Beautiful Mess by Claire Christian; Between Us by Clare Atkins;  One Would Think the Deep by Claire Zorn; A Small Madness by Dianne Touchell 

Z: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón