Famous First Lines
From Dickens to Melville, Tolstoy to Orwell, Nabokov to Bellow, what's your favorite opener?
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
~ Leo Tolstoy , Anna Karenina
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
~ George Orwell, 1984
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
~ Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
An excerpt today, Fellow Flâneur, if not from a famous writer, then from a stubbornly aspiring one. The following passage I purloined from Chapter XIII of my own first novel: Morris, Alive. Reading over it again now, it seems I have long had a penchant for the wandering bibliophile, drawing, as I did, inspiration for this scene from many a weekend spent traipsing the streets of one of the world’s great literary landscapes, New York City, in my early twenties.
The Strand Bookstore, as many of you will no doubt recognize, is something of a New York institution. Alas, I had read a couple of years ago, with great dismay, that it looked as though it might even go out of business. Sales had slumped 70% during the early days of the pandemic when the proprietor, Nancy Bass Wyden, took to social media with the hashtag #savethestrand to ask for help from her loyal customers. Book lovers responded, placing 25,000 orders over a single weekend (the store ordinarily averages 300 per day…)
I’ve bought more books (and spent more hours) there over the years than I can recall and heartily recommend a trip to the place if you find yourself in the vicinity. (Even if you’re not, you can check out their website and grab a book or some merch here.) It’s a must see for every Modern Flâneur.
And now, to yet another scene set against “18 miles of books.” Please enjoy…
“If I am out of my mind,” Morris reread Bellow’s masterly opener with a naked, sinking awe, “it’s all right with me.” There it was. Uneditable. Unimprovable. And, from the moment it was committed to press, unavailable. Along with “Call me Ishmael” and “It was the best of times,” Herzog’s deranged soliloquy surely ranked among the greatest inceptions of all time. And so it would stand, vaunted and unparalleled in Morris’ mind. Until, of course, the budding bibliophile read another classic and was thus compelled to add a new line to the scrawled, pocket-bound list he carried with him in and out of the city’s rambling, weekend hours.
Morris wondered how much stock the truly gifted artists, the savants, the Nabokovian synesthetes, put into those initial words. (“...light of my life, fire of my loins,” he recalled the delicious fruit of that other towering literary trunk.) Were they cast and recast, then smashed into a million pieces, only to be reworked time and again? Were they agonized over, mentally penned in showers and at bus stops and during intercourse and, perhaps the purest infidelity of all, while composing other, peacefully oblivious prose? Or did they flow easily, forming the naturally unexamined sequent to the series of thoughts immediately preceding them, the only line the writer could conceive, the best (and worst) of one possible world? He considered the cadence, the tone, the movement, the elegance and euphony demanded of that single sentence, that unrepeatable first impression. A novel may well end with an arrow shot boldly into the vast philosophical beyond, Morris thought to himself, but it had to begin with a particle of poetry. It had to carry with it the precise embryonic structure from which life itself could proceed.
The procrastinating, would-be author smiled. This useless cerebral abstraction was exactly the kind of thing he liked to reckon through on a rainy Saturday afternoon in The Strand bookstore, the one just off Union Square, near the old Regal Stadium movie theatre. There he sat, cross-legged at the end of no particular row and with a half-dozen books at either knee, the clouds outside spilling their unending grayness onto the world. Some of the books were opened, dogeared, their ancient pages thumbed like braille on bronze; others still held their secret delights, their own introductions and parting thoughts and all the wondrous, imagined realities in between.
If well-written, and granted by the universe no small measure of luck and favorable circumstance, a book had the potential to long outlive its author. Even if under appreciated during its creator’s waking hours, the spark of chance was ignited so that it might someday be recognized as a work of importance. Morris read sideways the names around him, eighteen miles of alphabetically ordered spines, each yearning for a glimpse beyond the shelf, into the stampeding global consciousness presently mapping history onto the streets and avenues outside. He imagined the island, pelted by wind and rain, from its huddled tip to the point at which Broadway switched tracks, on through the verdant midst to where its slender northern finger pointed up the Hudson. Therein lay generations of collected knowledge and experience, bound in dusty sleeves and grooved in shellac and polyvinyl chloride. Millions of stories sung in chorus, sometimes in harmony, mostly not. And the Strand’s iconic red awning, with its own colossal catalogue, just one stop along the way. This is how Morris learned the city, piece by piece.
When not gazing out across the swarm of concrete obelisks converging on mighty Wall and Broad or connecting the hazy, nighttime dewdrops suspended across the Brooklyn Bridge, Morris would often drift aimlessly farther uptown. More often than not, he began these little adventures with no set destination in mind, content to saunter from cafe to diner, bookstore to music shop, along wide, spinal avenues and down sharp lateral side streets. An anonymous flaneur with no direction, he roamed among the busy multitudes, people with places to go and to be, faces to meet and placate and demean and praise, and Morris, with no call to answer, no clock to check, and nobody to notice if he turned to water and washed with the leaves into the foul and fathomless rivers.
Sometimes, during these escapist jaunts, his mind would fixate on the city’s myriad and often peculiar details, a corner plaque commemorating the (since demolished) First Presidential Mansion on Pearl and Cherry, say, or the one bolted to the Radiowave building at 27th and Broadway, where once lived Nikola Tesla, “The great Yugoslav-American scientist-inventor, whose discoveries [...] contributed to the advancement of the United States and the rest of the world,” or the white marble stone in Samuel Paley Park, near the MoMA, which humbly urged that the space be set aside in the man’s memory (1875-1963) “for the enjoyment of the public.”
New York City swells with such markers, from solemn decrees cast in bronze to quiet etchings on lonely barroom tables; tomorrow’s ancients scratching Sator squares into time’s ever shifting dunes.
Emerging from the Strand’s paper trenches into the clearing afternoon weather, Morris pondered the sheer volume of recorded language swirling around him, more than could ever be humanly ingested. And yet, here they were; customers, readers, hungry brains stubbornly scouring the discount shelves for plot and character, love and mystery, eroticism and poetry and inside tips from chisel-jawed, flat-abbed self-help gurus. They were well-dressed, these insatiable word seekers, and shabbily attired too. And everything in between. The man closest to Morris, a tall, mustachioed fellow with a bright red scarf and black T over jeans, thumbed a weighty astrophysics text. The copy looked a decade old, or more. Ample time for a single scientific breakthrough, a lone Copernicus, to turn the universe inside out. To his left, within range of the flapping scarlet neckwear, a Latin woman with a hooked nose and pirate-like earrings puzzled over a paperback fiction, then added it to a bundle of similar titles already firmly underarm. And by her side, a hunched Asian lady in her late grey seasons, shouldered a tote so full of books Morris worried whether she would really have time to read them all. He marveled as she hauled her load over to the checkout and slowly, deliberately, began piling them on top of the counter with the happy nonchalance of a beaver building a damn.
When Morris stepped out onto East 12th Street, he discovered the world still very much turning beneath his feet.
Psst! Continue reading with your own copy of Morris, Alive, here…
And what about you, Fellow Flâneur? Have you a favorite opener? An epic first line? A memorable inception that just sticks with you? Let me know in the comments below. Here are a few more to get the juices flowing…
“Mother died today.”
~ Albert Camus, The Stranger
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.”
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
“All this happened, more or less.”
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five