By Tony Deyal
“They shoot the white girl first”. This is the first sentence in “Paradise” by American writer, Tony Morrison. Noted for writing about the Black experience in the US, she won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. While this is not the shot that will be heard around the world, I hope it will get you to read on, and not write off the bookshelves.
When it comes to books the first few lines have the power to either turn off readers or make them want to continue to the end. For example, Eoin Coffer, who wrote the Artemis Fowl books, opened his “Highfire” with, “Vern did not trust humans was the long and short of it.” The one that caught me wondering, and kept me from wandering in my library, was “Waiting by Ha Jin” which is from “Strange Sally Diamond” by Liz Nugent: “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyou.”
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has been celebrating the best of the worst opening lines since 1982. While “It was a dark and stormy night” takes the cake or candle for all time, there are a few that are fun like “The night resembled nothing so much as a giant Labrador in excellent health: cold, black and wet”, and “Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do.” The one that would have made the police look for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was: “Like an overripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor.”
This next one almost ran over me: “A tear rolled down her face like a tractor. ‘David,’ she said tearfully, ‘I don’t want to be a farmer no more.’” I went to “tongue” on this tongue-lashing from “Power of Positivity” by Clare Fisher, “The tongue has no bones, but it is strong enough to break a heart.” It is all touch and go with this one.
Fortunately for all of us, there are opening lines that will never fail the test of time or lose their places as the best ever. My favourite is the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (which I am sure many of you can still recite or at least remember): “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Many people have Moby Dick by Herman Melville as the second-best since it started with three words, “Call me Ishmael.” However, my second best is from 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.” I compare it with Bill Manville’s opening in “Breaking Up”, “I don’t know how other men feel about their wives walking out on them, but I helped mine pack.” Before moving to the next section, and because it is said that “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two”, I will end with an opening from Felipe Alfau, the Spanish-born, American Journalist who, in his book CHROMOS, wrote: “The moment one learns English, complications set in.”
While the opening line of a book is what generally determines if you will continue, the closing line is what really does all the work. But before we go there, we need to take a quick look at the middle ground and treat it like a T20 cricket match where you bring in the spinners. We start with some advice from Mark Twain, “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want. Drink what you don’t like. And do what you’d rather not.”
Steven Wright (who always lives up to his surname) quipped, “Someone asked me if I were stranded on a desert island what book would I bring: ‘How to Build a Boat.’” In “Machine Man”, Max Barry wrote, “As a boy, I wanted to be a train.” As a total and long-time P.G. Wodehouse fan, there is my favourite line from “The Code of the Woosters”, “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” And from the Dorothy Parker collection, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
For those who, like me, read books of quotations as if they were both novel, and novels, there are a few I consider useful anywhere in any book. For example, Oscar Wilde’s, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
From England by way of the Caribbean and Trinidad, there is V.S. Naipaul, who in 1971 wrote, “The only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.” Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy in one of his most famous novels, “Anna Karenina” (1877), advised: “It’s much better to do good in a way that no one knows anything about it.” Charles Dickens helped me to stop keeping my fears and feelings hidden. In Great Expectations I learnt, “We need never be ashamed of our tears.” What can I say? “Don’t cry for me again Lena?” and ignore the Horne? I got really good advice from Charlotte Brontë, “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”
It is why I keep reminding myself and pounding into my children that we can’t change the past but should, and must, learn from it. Finally, from Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot.” I quickly ran out of lots and now move to the end of our learning curve.
The last words or line can make or break the experience of reading the book. I start again with Tony Morrison who ended her book “Beloved” with one word, “Beloved.” The readers loved it. In “Gone With The Wind”, Margaret Mitchell wrote the famous line, “After all, tomorrow is another day.” Next in my lineup is an ending that even today is still appropriate and well-known. It is from a dystopian novel or one which features an imagined state or society where there is great suffering and injustice.
George Orwell’s book “Nineteen Eighty-Four” got a new lease on life when Donald Trump got elected and “his unprecedented readiness to lie and to repeat lies” brought Orwell back into circulation with his famous ending line, “He loved Big Brother.” Orwell had also written, in another masterpiece, “Animal Farm”, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
That is my sermon for the day. And so, folks, I end with Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985), “Are there any questions?”
*Tony Deyal was last seen quoting Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, “The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are.”