Thursday, January 13, 2011

I'm interested in whether or not the power of an opening matters in the long run to the power of a piece of literature. Consider, for instance, Shakespeare: the openings of many of his plays are not only tedious but confusing, yet the plays as a whole are masterpieces. Numerous 19th-century novels are slow-goers that transform into page-turners: Trollope's come to mind as an example. But then there's Moby-Dick: what could be snappier than "Call me Ishmael"? And snappy is not a word that describes anything else about that book.

So here are three openings of three novels. Basing your choice merely on the strength of these extracts, which would lure you into reading further into the novel? I'm sure many of you recognize these samples, but try to pretend you don't.

Sample 1

In the spring of 1917, when Doctor Richard Diver first arrived in Zurich, he was twenty-six years old, a fine age for a man, indeed the very acme of bachelorhood. Even in war-time days it was a fine age for Dick, who was already too valuable, too much of a capital investment to be shot off in a gun. Years later it seemed to him that even in this sanctuary he did not escape lightly, but about that he never fully made up his mind--in 1917 he laughed at the idea, saying apologetically that the war didn't touch him at all. Instructions from his local board were that he was to complete his studies in Zurich and take a degree as he had planned.

Sample 2

November 2
I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.

Sample 3

"Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen."

The daily recital of the Rosary was over. For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Sorrowful and the Glorious Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word; love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing-room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream as she usually was.


rss said...

There are no gold, silver, or lead choices here -- all three work for me, albeit in different ways. Lampedusa's use of a "dead" language resonates rather like "Call me Ishmael" as the mysteries unravel. Bolano initiates without initiating by using these two words "visceral realism." I'm hooked and ready to experience the, as yet, unknown adventure in a foreign territory. Fitzgerald's character and historical setting suggest an itinerary relevant to my own journeys to date ... just as I liked the plastic people and your musical score for the Godzilla short!

Dawn Potter said...

Transcribing an email note from David here:

"Didn't have to pretend much. Recognized The Leopard and but didn't know the others: was dimly aware Dick Diver was Fitzgerald, but had to Google for the title, as I did the Bolano.

"I suspect how an opening strikes frequently depends on a person's mood at the moment. Nevertheless, no clear winners for me in these three. The Bolano seems a little too self-consciously clever and hip. Fitzgerald's seems a little laboured (he pronounced authoritatively). de Lampedusa's is the best of the three, but it is a little, um, rococo and maybe full-bodied. (Style as coffee, a new analytical category.)

"Contrast them to, um, say A Farewell to Arms ('In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains'), all that clean simplicity and already that 'we' makes it first-personal and the past tense of someone remembering, which is always a draw. Or 1984 ('It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen'), which is intriguingly unusual without being too arch. Or even (forgive me) the opening to All the King's Men.

So saith I, anyway. Thanks for the (as usual) interesting thought and exercise. Fun."

charlottegordon said...

sI want you to keep doing this, giving us openings to consider. I did not know Bolano.

But I also liked hearing you beat on the dumb SATS.