Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton
Graham Greene begins with, A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. How handy it is, then, that one should so often ‘choose arbitrarily’ a moment of experience that can be summed up by a pithy, aphoristic opening sentence. And, occasionally, one that also touches on the nature of beginnings itself.
A morning’s trawling through my bookshelves has led me to a very strange conclusion on this subject; that no talented author, no matter how serious-minded they are, or how interested they claim to be in breaking down the form of a novel, is able to resist the allure of a flashy opening sentence. Even Beckett, to my disappointment, starts Murphy with The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. More obvious show-offs- Rushdie, Nabokov, Heller and Joyce- show off, still more obviously. Donna Tartt gets several minus points for trying too hard with, The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
Sometimes, of course, a perfectly ordinary opening sentence can seem like a mannered, polished one because it’s so well-known. But the vast majority- James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and though about life and death, or Iain Bank’s exploding grandmother, or the near-completely unnecessary clocks striking thirteen of 1984? These are very much pre-meditated.
I can understand why we, the reading public, like snappy first sentences. Novels are great sprawling, messy things; opening lines are easier to pin down, especially if we believe we can then use them as some sort of key to the infinitely more complicated stuff that follows. But, for these very same reasons, the aphoristic opening sentence, the self-reflexive opening sentence, the surprising juxtaposition that the rest of the book often fails to live up to- these should, logically speaking, be anathema to the fiction writer, who has the space and the words to push beyond the self-contained nonsense of, say, Every happy family is exactly alike, or that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Naturally, a writer wants to engage his or her readers from the very start. But I don’t believe the publisher who claimed she was gripped from the moment she read that most exceptionally mannered first sentence, of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone- Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
It would have been the opening scenes that gripped her; the opening line just stuck in her head and claimed the credit. Very few readers, I imagine, have tossed a book aside because they didn’t like the first sentence, or praised the entirety of a bad novel because they did. So why do writers feel the need, consistently, to come up with something so flashy and demonstrative? Is it so difficult to write a truly unobtrusive opening sentence- one that simply starts the novel, nothing more, but which is put together expertly nonetheless?
My irritation over this problem carried me here to the Internet, where I spent some time at the website of the Bulwer-Lytton prize, and its spin-off, the ‘Lyttle Lytton’, both of which claim to award a “pittance” every year to the writer who can come up with the most “atrocious” opening sentence to a novel. It doesn’t, of course; most years, the prize goes to an excellent comedic opening sentence to a novel that would probably run out of steam fast. Jon Tando’s A lone testicle lay in a barren field, for instance, verges on genius; I liked Peter Berman’s Gordon strove to be a nice pimp as well. It takes real effort to find one that actually lacks a basic sense of rhythm, such as Graham Swanson’s 2008 winning entry, Because they had not repented, the angel stabbed the unrepentant couple thirteen times, with its sword.
Simply wonderful. Less intentionally bizarre is the first line of Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, after whom the prize is named; 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 housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
The nature of the prize suggests we’re supposed to sneer at Bulwer-Lytton’s overwrought prose, his decision to break up the imagery with an off-putting parenthesis, and the probably unnecessary clarification that the night was dark. But I quite like it. It’s guileless, completely sincere in its desire to build atmosphere, and it fails in its attempt to show off. I imagine Graham Greene’s narrator would have hated it