A few more literary favorites among the best of the firsts and the best of the lasts
There seem to be as many favorite first lines as there are books, and I could probably go on endlessly with the subject, but I will just take this one last shot at it, to correct a few misapprehensions and oversights.
In the first place, E. Pipes of La Crescenta protests that I left out “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
That undoubtedly is the best-known first line in literature, though I always considered it a bit speculative.
Gladwin Hill, formerly of the New York Times, notes that I overlooked “Tom,” which is the first line of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
“If there’s a shorter one,” Hill says, “I don’t know it.”
While we’re on Twain, the first line of “Huckleberry Finn” is noteworthy, too:
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer;’ but that ain’t no matter.”
Dan Ford of Long Beach nominates the first line of a book that has only recently begun to receive critical acclaim, and which, surprisingly, has become a collector’s item--Florence Aadland’s story of the notorious romance between her 15-year-old daughter Beverly and Errol Flynn, “The Big Love.”
This classic begins: “There’s one thing I want to make clear right off: My baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn.”
Charles T. Fisch of Redondo Beach nominates the first line of James M. Cain’s steamy classic of sex and murder in California, “The Postman Always Rings Twice"--"They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”
When I was in high school we read “Postman” with the sense of discovery and infatuation that Hemingway and Fitzgerald had aroused in our older brothers and sisters.
Roger W. Hardacre recalls one of the heights of Winston Churchill’s prose, the opening line of “Their Finest Hour"--"Now at last the slowly gathered, long-pent-up fury of the storm broke upon us.”
A fit beginning for the Battle of Britain.
Tom Treadwell of Oxnard offers the first line of “Earthly Powers,” by Anthony Burgess: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”
We can always count on Burgess to be naughty.
Herman Quick, retired Fairfax High School English teacher, recalls an old boyhood favorite, the first line of Rafael Sabatini’s “Scaramouche"--"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
“By the way,” he adds, “congratulations on your precocity in reading Thomas Wolfe in high school. I taught English for 36 years and had a hard time convincing boys that he was a genius of sorts. (Perhaps I should have devoted more time to his womanizing.)”
Surprisingly, several readers wrote of their early and deep admiration for Wolfe, whose opening of “Look Homeward, Angel” was nominated by Bob Long of Walton.
William J. Smollen recalls that he carried one of Wolfe’s novels with him in the war, as I did:
“It was the Big War, and my idol of perfect femininity wrote me as I worked my way across Africa that she was going to send me a special package. I hoped for canned pears, and was disappointed when it finally arrived. At this time I had just led the diversionary invasion of southern France and was on my way up into the real combat zone. . . .”
What his idol of perfect femininity had sent him was Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River.”
“I kept the book with me right through until the day I was rushed back to the States,” Smollen recalls, “reading it at night with a candle, using it as a headrest at times, but always enjoying the prose poetry, the imaginative flow of words into pictures. . . .”
Jack Catran of Sepulveda recalls a wartime experience like the one I described--of lending Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” to a young Marine who was killed on Iwo Jima the day we boarded ship to go back to our base.
“I, too,” he writes, “lent my copy to a Marine, who started reading it the night before he was to leave for a trip to his home in Los Angeles. It was ordained, I suppose, by the same gatekeeper who diverted your Marine’s final itinerary, that my Marine would never make that trip either. He was killed on a routine training flight an hour before his departure for home. . . .”
Catran confesses that he “borrowed” the book from the student library at Utah State, at Logan, Utah, when he was stationed there with a few hundred other U.S. Army Air Force and Marine air cadets. “The late fines on the book have since accumulated to about $775; I can’t afford to return it unless they’re willing to settle for less.”
“The last lines of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ are not spoken, as stated in your column,” writes Robert Shackford of South Laguna. “Dickens wrote the closing lines as the thoughts of Sydney Carton at the scaffold. Hollywood had Ronald Colman speak them for effect.”
Never mind, if Dickens had foreseen movies, he’d have had Ronald Colman speak the lines too.
Fred A. Glienna of South Pasadena nominates what may be the most irresistible first line of all: “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. . . .” That was the start of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan of the Apes.”
They don’t write stories like that anymore.