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Bits and bobs about my life in my lovely home, Thatchwick Cottage, Pretoria, South Africa.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Friday, 5 June '09: First lines

“The introduction of your essay,” repeatedly admonished my English high school teacher, a diminutive Irish nun with mischievous blue eyes and a Master’s dissertation written on Gerald Manley Hopkins’ The wreck of the Deutschland, “must grab your reader’s attention”.

So also the first line of any text; that single sentence that seduces you, draws you, renders you the writer’s willing serf for hours and hours. The most effective first line suggests a whole story in a few words. Think of Daphne du Maurier’s opening to Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Manderley? A return? A nightmare or pleasant reminiscence? Who can resist finding out.

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” writes Charles Dickens. And David Copperfield has me like putty in the hollow of his palm. Champion or rogue, what will he be?

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” So George Eliot introduces us to Dorothea. Now, is Miss Brooke really poor as her dress belies or is she a self-absorbed, priggish saint who wishes to appear poor for maximum effect? My battered Penguin version of Middlemarch required my undivided attention for 895 pages to establish D's character.

Amy Tan had me committed for days with her opener in The Joy Luck Club: “The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum.” Sudddenly I am back in my childhood, in a once-upon-a-time world of ugly ducklings and doomed swans. Little do I know that instead, Tan has lured me into a complex web of mother-daughter relationships: regrets, misunderstandings and dogged love.

For pure lyricism, my countryman, Alan Paton gets my vote. He opens his seminal work, Cry the beloved country with the words: “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.” Is it surprising that he wrote that in dark, cold Norway, far from wife and country? Can’t you hear the homesickness that overwhelms South Africans abroad, exiled from dusty roads and hot sun?

But surely the most powerful first line was penned by Moses in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

Majestic in its simplicity.


Barbara Jacksier said...

For great first lines (and most intriguing title), check out Susan Orlean's book of short stories The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. I've recommended this book to several writers and all have agreed, Ms Orlean is THE best.

Sreddy Yen said...

Hi Mrs L, very interesting post~! I have to say that the opening chapter of The Kite Runner certainly got me hooked for days!

I've just finished my English literature exam and I have to say that I feel awesome! The unseen poem was the best: "Mother" by Rod Mackenzie(?). That poem has touched me and I hope to find a copy of it on the internet.

Bon voyage with your trip. I've always wanted to see Amelie but have never got round to it. I hope you enjoy "La France" and remember to practise your French with the phrasebook :O)


Gaelyn said...

All magnificent opening lines that drag you into the story. That's what I was taught many years ago in English writing class. A very good reminder to us bloggers as well.

Vicki Lane said...

I teach a class in writing popular fiction and we always spend some time on opening lines -- important to catch the reader's attention but also, for the unpublished and unagented, useful in snaring the interest of a potential agent and/or editor.

Ramadhani said...

very interesting and informative blog...


Anonymous said...

Aha! You surely turned that on its tail, by having your last line be the clincher! Bravo!

SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

I love reading. There are so many excellent authors out there. Love the aloes Eleanor. :)