Reading Opening Lines
Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon reflects words to use opening lines.
There is a curious mix of feelings that come over me when I discover that I’ve not yet encountered a writer who I am destined to be very fond of – chagrin, at my lack of education, combined with delight, at the prospect of all these new books to read. I’ve just come across Rafael Sabatini, and I am quite happy to report that the delight is well outweighing the chagrin.
I don’t know why I’ve never read Sabatini before, although the fact that he seems to have become markedly less popular now than he was a hundred years ago might have something to do with it. I rarely find people who read him, although a large number of the forty or so books he wrote (mostly swashbuckling adventure stories) were bestsellers when published.
I first discovered this historical novelist through the writing of another practitioner of that genre, Arturo Perez-Reverte, in whose work The Club Dumas two characters meet and exchange snippets of an opening line from one of Sabatini’s better known works, Scaramouche. I didn’t realize it at the moment, but I’d fallen prey to one of the true masters of the first line.
I have long been in the habit, I am afraid, of judging a book by its opening line. If I am at a loss for what to read I will flip through a number of books until I find one which has a first line that reaches out and grabs me by my mind’s lapels, insisting that I continue reading. Scaramouche contains what is likely my favorite opening line of all time: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” Who could not want to continue reading after that?
Having thoroughly enjoyed this book I ran to my local library to see what else of Sabatini I could next enjoy, and here is where the trouble began. He wrote some forty books – mostly novels, and a smattering of history and short stories. I anticipated a wonderful month ahead, and began pulling the volumes off the shelves, checking the opening line to see which I would read next. The first line of every one is so enticing that I cannot decide which to read.
The Birth of Mischief begins with “Charles Stuart-Dene, Marquess of Alverley, looked at humanity, and wondered why it was”, which is quite promising, but no more so than “It is established beyond doubt that Mr. Butler was drunk at the time.” from The Snare. And how can I resist delving further into a book such as Mistress Wilding, when it starts off with “’Then drink it thus’, cried the rash young fool, and splashed the contents of his cup full into the face of Mr. Wilding even as that gentleman, on his feet, was proposing to drink to the eyes of the young fool’s sister.”?
I find myself stuck in this peculiar quandary, unable to commit myself to a single book and even temporarily ignoring the others. I wonder if Sabatini sat about for weeks before writing, happily pondering exactly how he should begin each work, searching for the right combination that would set the story off with a bang and snare the reader.
Sometimes this opening is rather succinct, as are all the above lines I’ve mentioned, and other times he allows himself the leisure of letting the first sentence unfurl slowly, taking an entire paragraph. “My lord of Tressan, His Majesty’s Seneschal of Dauphiny, sat at his ease, his purple doublet all undone, to yield greater freedom to his vast bulk, a yellow silken undergarment visible through the gap, as is visible the flesh of some ripe fruit that, swollen with over-ripeness, has burst its skin.” is the start to Saint Martin’s Summer, and I was breathless as I read through it twice.
At other times he is almost brusque, as in the biography The Life of Cesare Borgia, “This is no chronicle of saints.” But no matter whether he is curt or fulsome, he is always enticing.
I waver between Scaramouche the King-Maker (“It was suspected of him by many that he had no heart.”) and The Hounds of God (“It was Walsingham who said of Roger Trevanion, Earl of Garth, that he preferred the company of the dead to that of the living.”), and now the curious mix of feelings I have is that I am delighted that I know I will be happily sated for some time of reading to come, and anguished in that I cannot yet make my choice. I’ve had worse dilemmas.