Top 10 lists are controversial, guaranteed to please some people and attract the ire of others, while ultimately proving utterly irresistible. I don’t know why we need to come up with top-10 lists. Try as I might to refuse to click on links to them, my twitching mouse finger and my need to know overcome me every. single. time.
The Guardian’s 10 Best First Lines in Fiction proved particularly irresistible, and my thoughts ran rampant before I’d even called up my fine motor skills to hover the mouse above the hyperlink and depress the button.
I immediately thought Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ If that’s not in there, I thought, I’m going to start a riot.
A one-person riot was thankfully avoided, with Austen’s esteemed, oft-co-opted opener making the cut. Or, as The Guardian more silkily put it: ‘The one everyone knows (and quotes). Parodied, spoofed, and misremembered, Austen’s celebrated zinger remains the archetypal First Line for an archetypal tale.’
The Guardian arguably cheated, giving a secondary option for every one that made the list. That technically takes the opening-lines tally to 20, but I’m not complaining.
They include Mark Twain there, but I much rather the secondary option in his case, which is JD Salinger’s opening for The Catcher in the Rye: ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like … and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’
Call me slow, but I still don’t hugely get this confusingly long first sentence by James Joyce: ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’ It may explain also why I’ve never been able to tackle any of his great tomes.
Charlotte Bronte’s ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’ is much more my preferred style: concise, direct, curiosity-piquing and, subsequently, impossible to ignore.
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar makes an appearance with: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’ I have to admit I hadn’t thought of it for the list, but think it’s inclusion is definitely warranted—marrying the lightness of summer with the darkness of death in an off-hand, understated manner is genius on the page.
Nor had I thought of Donna Tartt’s: ‘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.’ But I did a metaphorical high-five when I saw it—The Secret History is, for fear of sounding trite and hyperbolic, one of those books that changes your life.
I must confess that I’ve read nought of PG Wodehouse’s books and know next to nothing about them (mostly because I’ve always, clearly wrongly, assumed that with a name like ‘PG Wodehouse’, his books were likely to be serious and stuffy). But I plan to change that based on this masterpiece: ‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.’
I’ve got to say that some of these top-10 openers are indeed a bit old and (in my humble opinion) a bit wanky. But I also recognise that I’m not perhaps The Guardian’s primary reading demographic and that not every list has to please me every time. I wouldn’t mind seeing The Guardian’s list of 10 best modern literary opening lines, though. If I had to hazard a guess at an entry, I’d say that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood would surely be in there …