The first line is the deepest
Even the longest novel begins with a single line, which sets the narrative on the path to its destination, writes John Sutherland.india Updated: Sep 02, 2006 02:26 IST
Like much of the peripheral apparatus that the book trade has shrewdly devised and perfected, the publicity photo has a palpable effect on the reading experience.
More so as the photograph is typically ‘framed’ by readers’ perceptions of what it is, at this point in time, to be an author. Such perceptions change over time.
Novelists first began to use publicity photographs in the great carte de visite mania of the 1860s, when photography for the masses became a viable proposition. It also, as literary historians have recorded, changed the canons of narrative realism; as did the arrival of film, 40 years later. In the middle of the 20th century, studio photos of the author embellished novels (by Yousuf Karsh, or Cecil Beaton, if the novelist warranted it).
Publicity photographs, as with everything else, have loosened up in the last 50 years. It would be possible to write a history of the novel in terms of the poses that novelists have struck for the lens over the past century and a half, and the changing iconography of authorship those poses project.
The Victorian sage; the cigarette-smoking, tweed-wearing bookman; the beautiful fighter for human rights. The ‘semiotics’ (what am I signalling to you by my appearance?) are historically different and — for those with a curious eye — register the changing image of what this novelist is, beyond a neutral tale-teller.
One of the more useful pieces of advice given to examination students is to visualise, in as much detail as you can, the examiner you are writing for: as a person you are conversing with, that is, not a veiled, Delphic figure who holds your destiny in her/his hand. So, too, with novels. Without making the crass error of confusing narrator and author (Holden Caulfield is not J.D. Salinger), the novelist is always there in the novel — if only as the ghost in the text. It is a plus to be able to put a face to the name.
The prospective reader has, then, a number of initial ‘encounters’ with the novel before reading it. Reviews and word of mouth may form a distant introduction. The first sight of the cover and the title, a quick-read scan of the blurb and shoutlines on the jacket form another. But the first ‘close’ encounter will be the first line of the text. This is the moment of coupling. The following are two of the more famous first lines, or sentences, in fiction: they are much quoted and will be found in all self-respecting anthologies of quotation as stand-alone statements about the human condition.
“All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
The first is from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the second from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Neither assertion is at all plausible, outside the socially artificial world which the novelist has created and into which the sentences usher us. They are, in more than one sense, fictional. It is not, even in the little world of Longbourn, true that every single man in possession of a fortune, etc., must be in search of a wife. Bingley may be; Darcy certainly is not. He seems, if anything, to be infused with misogynistic Byronism.
What is his first comment on Miss Bennet at the Meryton ball? “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” (Swine.) These are scarcely the words of a man with a fortune in search of a wife. They indicate, rather, a rich man well aware that the mothers of England are stalking him. What the apparently universal truth at the opening of the novel lays down are the distorted parameters within which a free spirit like Elizabeth Bennet is obliged to operate — and a wholly mercenary spirit like Mrs Bennet is all too happy to operate.
So, too, with the Tolstoy. It is manifestly not true that there is only one kind of family happiness. Is the happiness of the Vicar of Wakefield’s domestic circle, the same as that tentative happiness reached by the hero and heroine at the conclusion of Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel Enduring Love? What Tolstoy’s pseudo-pontifical ‘truism’ sets up is the large question hovering over the life choices that Anna makes. Would she have been happier had she accepted her bourgeois, limited existence and the compromised happiness it guaranteed? Or is she justified in yearning, and reaching for, something larger, with all the attendant risks? Would it really have been a happy ever-after had she never returned to Moscow and Vronsky? Had she, that is, embraced the destiny of a respectable wife and mother? Is not ‘happy family’, in Tolstoy’s world, as created in Anna Karenina, a contradiction? Within the novels, these over-arching statements — which echo, more or less ironically, until the last page — create a climate within which the narrative operates. They put the reader on the track. They are not, to echo Austen, universal truths.
Consider next another famous first sentence: “Call me Ishmael.” Like the redolent madeleine that opens A la Recherche du temps perdu, or the first line of Finnegans Wake (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s...”), ‘Call me Ishmael’ is proverbial, known even to those who would not know Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece Moby Dick from the spotted variety served up as dessert. It has been the subject of innumerable jokes. That by Peter de Vries (a sadly forgotten comic novelist), through the sly interjection of a comma, creates the kind of travesty that would appeal to Lynne Truss: “Call me, Ishmael.”
Far from putting the reader on the track, however, this line sets us on a bumpy course. The hero narrator’s name is, it appears, not Ishmael (but you can call me that). The nom de plume is freighted with allegorical significance — but who, under his Biblical name of convenience, is this ‘Ishmael’? He is, it seems, suffering from some kind of depression and is going to sea as a kind of therapy. He is clearly literate: far more literate, as the encyclopaedic chapters on cetology witness, than most able-bodied seamen. There is a hint that he has had an unhappy childhood and was mistreated by his mother. But at the end of a long narrative we know less about his life before joining the Pequod than about its captain, Ahab’s, wife and children. Why does Melville play these games with us? Even the whale has a proper name. Why not Ishmael? Why this vagueness in a novel that goes into much more detail than we want to know about the sexual equipment of the sperm whale (its ‘cassock’, or silky scrotum sack, for example). The first line of Moby Dick hangs, like an unresolved question mark, over the 1,000 pages of text.
In any competition for the 10 most resonant first sentences in fiction I would, among all the other usual suspects (best of times, worst of times; clocks striking 13; dark and stormy nights; riverrun; the past as foreign country, etc.), give a prominent place to “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again”. For those not familiar with Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), the remark is tantalising. Is Manderley a place? A town? An estate? A great house? An imaginary country? Why the stress on ‘again’? Can Manderley, whatever it may be, not be revisited in the flesh? Who is ‘I’?
As the novel unfolds, the enigma dissolves, with one exception. We never learn either the first name or the maiden name of ‘I’, even though she is even more important than her predecessor as Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, in the narrative. Artfully, Du Maurier witholds that information to the last sentence. It creates an unusual effect which, doubtless, has contributed to the novel’s perennial appeal.
Demonstrably, novelists who care take huge care with the opening words of their works. In Camus’ 1947 fictional allegory of the Nazi occupation, La Peste (The Plague), there is a would-be novelist who, with ultra-Flaubertian scrupulosity, wrestles interminably over the first line of his magnum opus. But he can never perfect it, so the novel is forever blocked. It is a joke, but it contains a proverbial truth. Even the longest novel has to begin with a single line, and that line sets the narrative on the path to its destination.
The writer is the author of How To Read A Novel