It may be the silliest damn sentence ever set down by a great author, Leo Tolstoy's opening of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Nevertheless, it's among the most quoted lines since Shakespeare. People just love repeating it; yesterday the The New York Times quoted it in the heading over a business-page story on Rupert Murdoch's children. You can't escape it if you read anything about families or unhappiness. I've known it all my life, yet I passed over it many times before realizing what a fool Tolstoy was on the day he set it down.
He got things backwards. Experience and literature both demonstrate that happy families come in all shapes and sizes, but the burdens of unhappy families (emotional indifference, poverty, alcoholism, irresponsibility) are painfully predictable.
What was Tolstoy saying? Perhaps, focusing on an unhappy family, he was hoping that he had chosen the more interesting kind. An English critic, Robert Winder, argues that "all he really meant was that happy families are a fat lot of good to a man planning an 800-page novel." Tolstoy's words have the sound but not the substance of truth. Still, they launch a great book.
The first lines in novels can have a compelling quality -- and sometimes a way of repelling us. It's occurred to me several times, while judging novel competitions, that a book should immediately be disqualified if the first line fails to deliver impact, eclat, power, a fresh style, whatever. After all, if a book begins badly there's little chance it will improve as it grinds on. (I've never put this selection theory to work, however; while possibly foolproof, it feels sinful.)
In 1885, Mark Twain opened The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with words that sounded eccentric but did a lot of work for him: "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly."
Here Twain produced the all-time champion multi-purpose opening. In two sentences he established his own authorial presence, plugged his earlier best-seller while insisting that the present novel could stand on its own, set the tone of his narrative, and hinted that perhaps we were reading about real events, transcribed rather than invented by Mark Twain.
On the other hand, there's much to be said for unabashed one-note openings. Life Before Man, Margaret Atwood's smart, acrid account of Toronto in the 1970s, begins with the words of a major character, Elizabeth: "I don't know how I should live. I don't know how anyone should live. All I know is how I do live. I live like a peeled snail." That says: You wanted bleak? You got bleak.
Some first lines drive permanent grooves in our minds and keep coming back. If I didn't restrain myself I'd paraphrase, several times a month, Jane Austen's immortal "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." That not only encapsulates the theme of Pride and Prejudice (money and love) but also captures perfectly the author's tone and attitudes, as if compressing all her books into one irony-charged sentence.
Now and then, famous first words become known separately, detached from the novels that brought them into being. Millions have read that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" while relatively few have read The Go-Between (1953) by L.P. Hartley, where that opening appears.
At least four books now carry the title The Past is Another Country (two histories, two novels). Wayne Johnston, in the Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998), his fictionalized version of Joey Smallwood's life, pays Hartley the tribute of working that opening into his own first lines, a quote from a diary/letter written by Sheilagh Fielding, the heroine, in 1949, the year Newfoundland joined Canada. "Dear Smallwood: You may not know it yet, but I am back in St. John's. Six months since Confederation. The past is literally another country now." (How come she's quoting Hartley? His book won't appear for another four years.)
Time, that canny editor, has a way of improving the first lines of good novels, even those of Charles Dickens. Time has mercifully shortened the overture to A Tale of Two Cities (1859), about the French Revolution, turning it into a memorable phrase that's since been applied to a thousand situations: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
Readers of the book know that the real sentence is longer and soggier. A comma follows "times," and then Dickens continues, "it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief," etc., etc. The sentence rattles on for 117 words, a slow freight train of prose that the author somehow can't stop. By the sentence's end, after labouring through the spring of hope and the winter of despair, the poor reader can't remember what the point was, if any. Today we know only the concise paradox that Dickens started with, the one that inspired a New Yorker cartoon showing a 19th-century editor working with a writer: "I wish you would make up your mind, Mr. Dickens. Was it the best of times or the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both."
With the opening of Ulysses, James Joyce declares his characters' penchant for blasphemy and their facetious approach to all that's serious: "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed." Buck is about to demonstrates his taste for outrageous sacrilege by delivering a brief parody of the Roman Catholic mass. Joyceans, who can deconstruct every syllable of his work, have found something else in that sentence. Take the last letter of the first word, Y, then the second-to-last letter, E, then jump to the first letter of the word and the first sentence, which is S. Then you have Yes, which of course will also turn out to be, 764 pages later, the end.
Was that Joyce's intention? In Joyce studies, and in the close study of fictional openings, it scarcely matters.