“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my teenage gay lover when Ali announced the archbishop had come to see me.”
So snorts the opening sentence to Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers – almost. Instead of “teenage gay lover” St Anthony uses the word catamite. The sentence has gone down in novel history as a notoriously arresting opening. Indeed, a few words later Burgess, as the narrating character, Kenneth Toomey, confesses that it is a deliberate “arresting opening”. The sentence is splendidly offensive. And for those without religious interest, it is perhaps delightful to, oof, read how offensive it must be for others. We love finger pointing.
The only word I was not happy with in the original is Burgess’s “catamite”. The author was risking that the general reader may not know that taboo word. This would dampen the desirable, first-sentence bang. However, we have the gem, catamite, waved about like soiled underwear, used in the same sentence as archbishop. And this venerable cleric is clearly at least acquainted with an octogenarian who likes to sport with catamites in bed. Ye Gods.
We all want to be heard, to receive attention. This much is clear from the moment we are slapped wailing from our mothers’ wombs. Almost from the minute we can use our lungs, we are bawling to be noticed. Toddlers howl. They stamp their feet, braying, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Teenagers bitch and throw tantrums. We adults – only sometimes — become more sophisticated. I get the sulks. Or I give my missus The Silent Treatment, ignoring her, usually hovering nearby with folded arms to ensure she knows she is being utterly ignored. What’s your skill set?
In music, probably the best-known arresting overture is Beethoven’s Fifth. It does sound a bit like a tantrum, especially since the composer had gone deaf and in sheer frustration banged away on the keys. Or so the tale goes.
What does this apparently puerile behaviour say about the art of writing? With its need to strike a chord from the first? (Sure, the commercial value is apparent. Opening paragraphs should be spellbinding, saying, “Please hear me! Buy this ruddy book I spent years writing and re-writing! Never mind the gazillion publisher’s rejection slips!”)
Puerile or not, tantrums get to the core of what we are – a screeching bloody rapture mirrored in the staccato, upreached pleading of trees stripped in winter. We can only see these trees as pleading if there is something in us that is pleading. The inner mirrors the outer. We connect more deeply with trees, or anything else, in these metaphoric ways. If, say, those willows are bowed in meditation, inking green hymns in the water; that is because there is something in us that is bowed in meditation and reverence, or fretfully craving that state. We need our nappy-soiling hullabaloo, our braying and attention-seeking, our shillelagh, to find the silence that lays us bare. Or hopefully discover it.
Ah, silence. We sometimes shut up when enthralled. Notice how the dinner table grows quiet when the guests enjoy a superb meal; all the senses are absorbed in the savouring. Or when we are deep in a book or gardening. Listening with eyes closed to the rhapsody in music or in the sea.
Any writer worth his salt knows his first sentence and paragraph must be choreographed with care. The result will resonate throughout the entire book. I am sure many favourite riveting openings of novels and other books are coming to readers’ minds. There is the “clock striking thirteen” in 1984. Or that sustained trumpet call of a sentence commencing A Tale of Two Cities.
What are your favourite openings? A personal favourite is the commencing chords of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, which effortlessly imprinted itself on my memory decades ago: “The sea is high again today with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes … ”
Then there’s Frank McCourt’s autobiography, Angela’s Ashes, which expels its first breath with: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
Many readers of this blog have written a manuscript of some kind, or have at least scribbled a few pages. What are the stunning openings you have written? There should be an air of mystery to them, a huh? moment which grabs the reader’s attention. In closing, here’s a few of mine (mine! mine! You can’t steal them … ):
“The day after I died I sat at my kitchen table and enjoyed a favourite breakfast: a chocolate croissant with a double espresso.”
“I relished listening to your story about your mother-in-law getting in the sack with your boss even before he fired you. But tell me, how do you intend to tell your wife what really happened?”
“Could Richard hear me breathing? I tried not to gasp as I lay half submerged in the freezing dam water, only a few feet away from him.”