In the Beginning

Recently, Observer Associate Editor (and occasional Folio contributor) Robert McCrum announced his list of some of the most memorable closing lines in literature. Here at The Folio Society, as one publishing year ends and another begins, we have come up with some of the opening lines which have most inspired or infuriated – from the wildly famous to the relatively obscure.

For some readers, ‘Call me Ishmael’ is as far as they get with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick which means missing out on one of the most sinewy, virtuoso pieces of literature ever written. There’s probably another blog covering the great unread works of all time (naturally I remain silent on my own omissions) but our survey of first lines ranges from the epic to the epigraphic. ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,’ explains Cassandra Mortmain in Dodie Smith’s marvellous coming-of-age novel, I Capture the Castle, instantly plunging us into her chaotic family life. Jane Austen’s ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’ (Pride and Prejudice) brilliantly sets up her acutely reliable format of perceived attributes versus actual flaws, and L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between rivals even Austen for one of the most-quoted first lines: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Most poignantly, Peter Pan’s ‘All children, but one, grow up,’ seems enshrined in memories young and old.

As the first line is quite possibly the most significant of any in a book, I wonder how long Charlotte Brontë agonised over Jane Eyre’s ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,’ or Ralph Ellison with his ‘I am an invisible man’ (Invisible Man). Sylvia Plath’s only novel, the autobiographical The Bell Jar, begins uncompromisingly with a real place, a real situation: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York,’ whereas in Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell immediately lifts the lid on his skewed futuristic world: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Obsessive love is unequivocally evident in ‘Fire of my loins!’, Nabokov’s considerably-more-than-a-paean to Lolita, while a passion for cultural destruction is declared in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’

And finally (or should that be initially?) let’s turn to Don Quixote. All together now: ‘Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…’