In The Beginning....
“Call me Ishmael” is regarded as one of the great opening lines in literature. But why? On its own, it’s hardly a humdinger and its reputation surely has more to do with the book that follows than the line itself.
In contrast, the start of Martin Amis’s The Second Plane, about September 11, is stunning:
“It was the advent of the second plane, sharking low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment.”
The phrase “sharking low” is typical Amis brilliance and the sentence sets up the whole piece. Powerful as Amis’s essay is though, it’s unlikely anyone will remember its opening line in 150 years for the simple reason that it’s doubtful it will stand the test of time in the same way as Moby Dick.
Below are six of my favourite openings which I believe do justice to the superb pieces of work they start. I’ve limited myself to books I’ve read which sadly means leaving out The Go-Between’s "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” which has always intrigued me but never quite enough to make me read the book. In no particular order:
The Fight – Norman Mailer
“There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then The World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth.”
Mailer, the literary heavyweight, proves more than a match for his subject, the world most famous man, Muhammad Ali. I also love the opening of Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance: “At dawn, if it was low tide on the flats, I would awaken to the chatter of gulls. On a bad morning, I used to feel as if I had died and the birds were feeding on my heart.”
But I never really got on with Mailer the novelist. Give me Mailer the reporter. In fact, just give me The Fight. Quite possibly the best sports book ever written.
Farewell to the Ultimate Football Man - Hugh McIlvanney
“In the language of the sports pages, greatness is plentiful. The reality of sport, like that of every other area of life, shows that it is desperately rare. Greatness does not gad about, reaching for people in handfuls. It settles deliberately on a blessed few, and Matt Busby was one of them.
If Busby had stood dressed for the pit, and somebody alongside him in the room had worn ermine, there would be no difficulty about deciding who was special. Granting him a knighthood did not elevate him. It raised, however briefly, the whole dubious phenomenon of the honours system”.
McIlvanney is the doyen of British sportswriters and these words could just as easily be used to describe him. He’s that good.
All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
“The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscoting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.”
That’s quite a few more than a couple of opening lines but how could I leave out “That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.”? You enter straight into the old west and after 300 pages of mesmerising prose you don’t want to leave. Luckily you don’t have to as this is only book one of the Border Trilogy. The Crossing and Cities of the Plain are superb, but this is the best of the three.
Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book
“An old pro told me originality does not consist of saying what has never been said before; it consists of saying what you have to say that you know to be the truth.”
The bestselling sports book of all time is on the face of it just a short book about how to play golf. But it’s also a book about life, written by a great teacher. My other favourite golf book is Davis Love III’s “Every Shot I Take” written in memory of his father, who died in an airplane crash. This isn’t really a book about golf either. It’s a letter of love to a dead parent and it made me cry. There’s more to these golf books than meets the eye.
Pafko at the Wall– Don Delillo
“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful”.
Delillo’s much quoted line opens his breathless description of a famous 1951 baseball game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. This novella is so vivid it makes me nostalgic for an era I’m too young to remember, a game I’ve never heard of and a sport I don’t even follow. For some reason it was added as the prologue to the interminable 800 page novel Underworld. Luckily it was at the beginning or I would never have found it.
American Psycho – Brett Easton Ellis
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn't seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, "Be My Baby" on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.”
Compelling and horrifying in equal measure, and beautifully written, this is the defining book of the 1980s. If you haven’t read it don’t be put off by the film, which misses Ellis’s point entirely.