Peter Seth: "Many Years Later": Great First Lines
The Parks Department in my nice little town in southern California trucks in snow from the nearby San Gabriel Mountains to Memorial Park on Foothill Boulevard for our kids to play in. They dump two large mounds of snow—one for big kids, one for the little ones—onto the grass so that California children, growing up in this warm-blooded paradise of ours, can know what snow is like.
So on a beautiful, sunny, mid-70s Saturday afternoon, I took Calder to play in the snow…and discover ice. Which got me thinking about one of my favorite first lines in all of literature:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
That first line by Gabriel García Márquez from ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE sets the stage for his great novel of time-displacement and intergenerational fantasia perfectly.
Which got me thinking about Great First Lines in Literature.
Some of these first lines come from all-time favorite novels of mine:
“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” —Samuel Beckett, MURPHY
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” —George Orwell, 1984
“Stupidity is not my strong point.” – Paul Valery, MONSIEUR TESTE
“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” —Saul Bellow, THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” —Vladimir Nabokov, LOLITA
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Leo Tolstoy, ANNA KARENINA
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” —J. D. Salinger, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” —Ford Madox Ford, THE GOOD SOLDIER
“I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man.” —Fyodor Dostoyevsky, NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” —Jane Austen, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.” —Edith Wharton, ETHAN FROME
“Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World.” —Robert Coover, THE ORIGIN OF THE BRUNISTS
“She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.” —Henry James, THE WINGS OF THE DOVE
“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”—George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH
“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” —Stephen Crane, THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE
“When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one.” – Larry McMurtry, LONESOME DOVE
“It was only a two-day crossing from Piraeus to Alexandria but as soon as I saw the dingy little Greek steamer I felt I ought to have made other arrangements.”—V.S. Naipual, IN A FREE STATE
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” —Charles Dickens, A TALE OF TWO CITIES
“For a long time, I went to bed early.” —Marcel Proust, SWANN’S WAY (One of the great writer’s “in” jokes because Proust is talking about himself as both the young character in his novel and the writer who went to be early for the last thirteen years of his life, writing this masterpiece.)
“I am an invisible man.” —Ralph Ellison, INVISIBLE MAN – coupled with one of greatest LAST lines — “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
The inevitable, the perfect — “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” —L. P. Hartley, THE GO-BETWEEN
— and rather immodestly —
“My excellent new lawyer told me to write everything down exactly as it happened, so that’s what I’m going to do.”—Peter Seth, WHAT IT WAS LIKE
Peter Seth is the author of the novel What It Was Like, published by The Story Plant.