Booking a Room with a View

Join me as I shuttle and shoulder through the worlds of literature, cinema, and the awards seasons attending both.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

In a recent piece in the Guardian, Robert McCrum listed what he considers the ten best openings to novels. Most of the usual, and deserving, suspects were there: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. McCrum went out on a limb, too, going further afield, opting to include Donna Tartt, P.G. Wodehouse and Sylvia Plath (the latter's scorching, tone-setting opening of The Bell Jar is, indeed, a stunner) -- but might not a longer list, going far further past expectations, been the way to go? Readers have been giving their suggestions in the comments on the piece, but these, too -- e.g. Nabokov's Lolita, Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities -- have been predictable, if deserving. Might not McCrum need to expand his own horizons as a reader? I put forth the openings of Sebastian Barry's Annie Dunne, Peter Matthiessen's At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley, Dickens's Bleak House and Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Love in the Time of Cholera as more than worthy to sit alongside the Austen, Bronte and Twain.

Barry: "Oh, Kelsha is a distant place, over the mountains from everywhere. You go over the mountains to get there, and eventually, through dreams."

Matthiessen: "In the jungle, during one night in each month, the moths did not come to lanterns; through the black reaches of the outer night, so it was said, they flew toward the full moon."

Llewellyn: "I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley."

Dickens: "London."

Garcia Marquez: "It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love."

These speak for themselves and are among the dozen or so finest openings to novels I've ever encountered. I'd put the Plath in there, too. Sarah Waters's Tipping the Velvet. Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. Peter Carey's Illywhacker. The first paragraph of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. The first five or six sentences of Graham Swift's Waterland.

To paraphrase (if I'm not mistaken) the poet William Stafford: the beginning of a poem should feel like stepping onto a moving train. Or into a dream.

Ditto the beginning of a novel.

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