Sunday!

You can tell a lot about a book by its opening passages. I think that the best writers show that they can create an entire world from the opening lines.

Here is the opening passage to chapter one The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani:

The tomb was large, solid, really imposing: a sort of vaguely ancient and vaguely oriental temple, the kind you saw in the productions of Aida and Nabucco fashionable in our opera houses until a few years ago. In any other cemetery, for instance the municipal graveyard next door, a pretentious tomb of the kind would not have least been surprising, and in fact, lost among so many others, might have even gone unnoticed. But in ours it was the only one: and so, although it arose quite some distance from the entrance gates, in fact at the far end of an abandoned stretch of ground where no one had been buried for over half a century, it seemed a thing apart, and hit you in the eye straight away.

What can we learn from this opening passage? We learn that the narrator comes from a minority group. One that is separate enough to have its own cemetery that is right next door to the one used by the community. We learn that this group is distinct enough from the mainstream culture to have their own customs and folkways, graves and tombs are supposed to be modest and plain. But within this minority, there is one family that chooses to stand out by building a family tomb that is noticeable and even gaudy. Who is the family? Why do they choose to stand out and defy the customs of their group but stay within the group’s cemetery?

Or consider the opening of Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse:

“Outside the entrance of the Mariabronn cloister, whose rounded arch rested on slim double columns, a chestnut tree stood close to the road. It was a sweet chestnut, with a sturdy trunk and a full round crown that swayed gently in the wind, brought from Italy many years earlier by a monk who had made a pilgrimage to Rome. In the spring it waited until all the surrounding trees were green, and even the hazel and walnut trees were wearing ruddy foliage, before sprouting its own first leaves; then, during the shortest nights of the year, it drove the delicate white-green rays of its exotic blossoms out through tufts of leaves, filling the air with admonishing and pungent fragrance. In October, after the grape and apple harvests, the autumn wind shook the prickly chestnuts out of the tree’s burnished gold crown; the cloister students would scramble and fight for the nuts, and Prior Gregory, who came from the south, roasted them in the fireplace in his room. The beautiful treetop–secret kin to the portal’s slender sandstone columns and he stone ornaments of the window vaults and pillars, loved by the Savoyards and Latins–swayed above the cloister entrance, a cospicuous outsider in the eyes of the natives.”

Here again we have a world created but in slightly more lines. We know we are somewhere in the past because of the monastic nature of the cloister. We also know that the cloister has existed for many generations because of the Chestnut trees journey from a sapling in Italy to a fully grown and nut producing tree. The chestnut tree is the defining feature of the cloister and is both warm and welcoming but alien to the world that it inhabits.

This is creating a world. From a few lines, we learn a lot about the world that the characters inhabit and then proceed to learn more. I wish I could write like this. I can not. There are many great novelists that never manage to do this in opening paragraphs either.

What are your favorite opening passages to books?

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20 thoughts on “Sunday!

  1. Flying over here, I watched four films:

    Finding Dory
    Hunt for the Wilderpeople
    Suicide Squad
    Kubo and the Two Strings

    Of all those, I can only wholeheartedly recommend Kubo and the Two Strings. But, at least, I have fodder for some Sunday posts after I get back.

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  2. See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a last few wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.

    Blood Meridian.

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  3. 1).

    On a verdant slope of Mount Maenalus, in Arcadia, there stands an olive grove about the ruins of a villa. Close by is a tomb, once beautiful with the sublimest sculptures, but now fallen into as great decay as the house. At one end of that tomb, its curious roots displacing the time-stained blocks of Pentelic marble, grows an unnaturally large olive tree of oddly repellent shape; so like to some grotesque man, or death-distorted body of a man, that the country folk fear to pass it at night when the moon shines faintly through the crooked boughs. Mount Maenalus is a chosen haunt of dreaded Pan, whose queer companions are many, and simple swains believe that the tree must have some hideous kinship to these weird Panisci; but an old bee-keeper who lives in the neighbouring cottage told me a different story.

    H.P Lovecraft
    The Tree

    My favorite of Lovecraft’s works. Give the man too much space, and he’ll soon wear thin.

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    • “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

      The Call of Cthulhu

      “Somewhere, to what remote and fearsome region I know not, Denys Barry has gone. I was with him the last night he lived among men, and heard his screams when the thing came to him; but all the peasants and police in County Meath could never find him, or the others, though they searched long and far. And now I shudder when I hear the frogs piping in swamps, or see the moon in lonely places.”

      The Moon-Bog

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  4. Openings:

    Ilya Ilyich Oblomov was lying in bed one morning in his flat in Gorokhovaya Street in one of those large houses which have as many inhabitants as a county.

    He was a man of about thirty-two or three, of medium height and pleasant appearance, with dark grey eyes, but with a total absence of any definite idea, any concentration, in his features. Thoughts promenaded freely all over his face, fluttered about in his eyes, reposed on his half-parted lips, concealed themselves in the furrow of his brow, and then vanished completely — and it was at such moments that an expression of serene unconcern spread all over his face. This unconcern passed from his face into the contours of his body and even into the folds of his dressing gown.

    or

    In a white cloak with blood-red lining, with the shuffling gait of a cavalryman, early in the morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, there came out to the covered colonnade between the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great’ the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

    More than anything in the world the procurator hated the smell of rose oil, and now everything foreboded a bad day, because this smell had been pursuing the procurator since dawn.

    Seriously, Russians man.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

    However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

    The long, long road over the moors and up into the forest–who trod it into being first of all? Man, a human being, the first that came here. There was no path before he came. Afterward, some beast or other, following the faint tracks over marsh and moorland, wearing them deeper; after these again some Lapp gained scent of the path, and took that way from field to field, looking to his reindeer. Thus was made the road through the great Almenning–the common tracts without an owner; no-man’s-land.

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  5. This really grabbed my attention when I read it:

    Mickey Cohen was not a man used to being shaken down. Threatened with handguns, blasted with shotguns, strafed on occasion by a machine gun, yes. Firebombed and dynamited, sure. But threatened, extorted–hit up for $20,000–no. Anyone who read the tabloids in post-World War II Los Angeles knew that extortion was Mickey’s racket, along with bookmaking, gambling, loan-sharking, slot machines, narcotics, union agitation, and a substantial portion of the city’s other illicit pastimes. In the years following Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s ill-fated move to Las Vegas, Mickey Cohen had become the top mobster on the West Coast. And the tart-tongued, sharp-dressed, pint-sized gangster, whom the newspapers described tactfully as “a prominent figure in the sporting life world,” hadn’t gotten there by being easily intimidated–certainly not by midlevel police functionaries. Yet in October 1948 that is precisely what the head of the Los Angeles Police Department vice squad set out to do.

    John Buntin — L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City.
    And then there’s my first encounter with my now-favorite fiction author:

    Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head. The crowd on the Common stop praying and sobbing for just as long as Jack Ketch stands there, elbows locked, for all the world like a carpenter heaving a ridge-beam into place. The rope clutches a disk of blue New England sky. The Puritans gaze at it and, to all appearances, think. Enoch the Red reins in his borrowed horse as it nears the edge of the crowd, and sees that the executioner’s purpose is not to let them inspect his knotwork, but to give them all a narrow–and, to a Puritan, tantalizing–glimpse of the portal through which they all must pass one day.

    Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver.

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  6. This one sucked me in while I was aimlessly browsing the fiction shelves at the library a number of years ago:

    HIS LIFE’S WORK and ambition fulfilled. Francis Brimm believed the only metamorphosis left him was a slow, affable decline toward death, and so at the age of seventy-three he returned to the town of his youth to retire. He had been a news photographer–a witness, a messenger amid the world’s fire and ashes–and he figured he had earned not only the right to let the world go, but also the poise to let it go with authority. He would read, write, sleep, visit the beach, fish, garden a bit, whatever he pleased — the pastimes, he imagined, of solitary old people of some accomplishment. The medley of images he assembled for this retirement included a cottage with a porch on which he might sit and muse over the prospects of the very next hour, but soon after he had settled into just such a place, he found himself absorbed in entirely different, unexpected ways.

    Dennis MacFarland, School for the Blind

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  7. “The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do wit love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen.”

    David Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy, Book 1 of the Belgariad.

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  8. “The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.”

    William Gibson, Neuromancer

    and

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

    Stephen King, The Gunslinger

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    • I’m suspicious of authors who try too hard to grab you with their first sentence.

      I don’t agree with Kim’s comment below; I’ve never stopped reading something because the first sentence didn’t grab me. A first sentence can be like the rest of the work, or it can be like the cover art. The former is the beginning of a body. The latter is glitzy advertising. I already picked up the book, so you can stop trying to sell it to me.

      The King sentence seems particularly guilty of this. But then, maybe I’m being overly critical. King’s writing can jab at times. Maybe this sentence is characteristic of the whole piece.

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  9. #2:

    Let me gather my thoughts a little, sitting here alone with you for the last time, in this high western window of your castle that you built so many years ago, to overhang like a sea eagle’s eyrie the grey-walled waters of your Raftsund. We are fortunate, that this should have come about in a season of high summer, rather than on some troll-ridden night in the Arctic winter. At least, I am fortunate. For there is peace in these Arctic July nights, where the long sunset scarcely stoops beneath the horizon to kiss awake the long dawn. And on me, sitting in the deep embrasure upon your cushions of cloth of gold and your rugs of Samarkand that break the chill of the granite, something sheds peace, as those sulphur-colored lilies in you Ming vase shed their scent in the air. Peace; and power; indoors and out: the peace of the glassy surface of the sound with its strange midnight glory as of pale molten latoun or orichalc; and the peace of the moon unnaturally risen, large and pink-colored, in the midst of the confused region betwixt sunrise and sunset, above the low slate-hued cloud-bank that fills the narrows far up the sound a little east of north, where the Trangstrómmen runs deep and still between mountain and shadowing mountain. That for power: and the Troldtinder, rearing their bare cliffs sheer from the further brink; and, away to the left of them, like pictures I have seen of your Ushba in the Caucasus, the tremendous two-eared Rulten, lifted up against the afterglow above a score of lesser spires and bastions: Rulten, that kept you and me hard at work for nineteen hours, climbing his paltry three thousand feet. Lord! And that was twenty-five years ago, when you were about the age that I am today, an old man, by common reckoning; yet it taxed not me only in my prime but your own Swiss guides, to keep pace with you. The mountains; the unplumbed depths of the Raftsund and its swinging tideways; the unearthly darkless Arctic summer night; and indoors, under the mingling of natural and artificial lights, of sunset and the windy candlelight of your seven-branched candlesticks of gold, the peace and power of your face.

    —E.R. Eddison
    Mistress of Mistresses

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  10. Saul,
    Both of those are exceptionally poor opening passages, as much as they “set the world”. They don’t suck you into a Story. They presuppose that you will keep reading.

    I’ve read a good “how to write opening grafs” in Analog — and they pretty much break all the rules.

    My red pen wants to come out and ask, “Why am I reading this?”

    (In contrast, Lovecraft’s lines set a distinct sense of unease, of twisted mystery, which says read on, dear reader, and see what I have to tell).

    Worldbuilding is what you do in the first chapter, not the first graf. The first graf has got to reach out and grab someone.

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  11. On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream

    Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Chronicle of a Death Foretold

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