Wednesday, September 22, 2010

First Lines

Eli has collected some favorite first lines, and since this is an internets meme, I am required to participate:

People were telling one another that a newcomer had been seen on the promenade -- a lady with a dog. -Chekhov, "The Lady with the Dog."
As is his wont, Chekhov wastes no words squeezing a considerable amount of exposition out of a brief sentence: we are in a place with a promenade where people are telling things to one another, and where it makes sense to speak of newcomers, so there is already the hint of a gossipy social scene. Notice, too, how the reader is addressed as though receiving this gossip, so we are immediately asked to evaluate whether this reportage counts as news, and whether news or not, if it counts as anything to bother being discreet about.

Is it possible Chekhov was thinking of Herman Melville -- no, don't worry, not that Melville book -- the one that starts this way:
At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the Lake Titicaca, a man in cream-colors, at the waterside in the city of St. Louis. - The Confidence-Man
As is his wont, right here in the first words, Melville is undecided between a desire to lose his reader -- "Manco Capac at the Lake Titicaca"? only a footnote tells me this alludes to the mythical beginnings of the Incan founder -- and the desire to throw his reader into a richly-drawn world. Here too, as with Chekhov's story, we are receiving the reportage on small, low events that may or may not grow larger and broader in significance. That it is April Fools day suggests no clear answer, but underscores the ambiguities.

Vladimir Nabokov played with ambiguities, and it seems he knew Pascal:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. - Speak, Memory
If this autobiography consists of pensees, they are not going to reach too high -- only a sentence in, and Pascal's insight has already been demoted to common sense. Or does this mean the opposite, namely, that you won't get anywhere in this account without a solid grasp of Nabokov's intellectual influences? Again, Nabokov did enjoy his ambiguities.

I have more first lines, but not the time to lay them out.

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