First Impressions


I’m a shallow sort of guy and  generally go by first impressions. I  know whether I’m going to like/dislike someone within seconds of our first meeting, partly from what he/she says, partly from how he/she says it. Similarly the opening sentence of a novel/short story either grabs me or loses me, likewise the first minute of a film .
Here are some opening sentences that grabbed me:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. –James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

I like the sound and the rhythm of the first 4 words, how ‘stately’ is deflated by  ‘plump’, the concise exactness of ‘bearing’, the cleverness of the mass parody, the intelligence and humour and control that layers the writing.

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

Three words and I’m the wedding guest immediately under the spell of this ancient mariner

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(1813)

What a wicked sense of humour this lovable lady had!

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. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

Time telescoped.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

All these ells – you can hear Humbert Humbert’s crazy love and lust for the 12-year-old in the rhythms and sounds.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)

Now there’s a thought that sends men in white coats running across fields.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)

English me that you Trinity scholar!

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 (1859)

When you read this, your voice goes up, your voice goes down, up, down, up,  down,  up,  down, up,  down…..and you are swept off  into Dicken’s schizoid tale of two cities

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. —Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925; trans. Breon Mitchell)

The vague, slanderous ‘someone’,  the partially anonymous ‘Joseph K’ , the vagueness of his ‘crime’, the suddenness of ‘one morning’ all create this uncertain world where bad stuff can happen,  unannounced,  to anyone.

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. —Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979; trans. William Weaver)

A bit like those Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls that fit into each other.

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 (1951)

There’s the authentic teenage voice of the 1950s when most things were crap and most people phonies.

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. —James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

The playfully distinctive voice of James Augustine Aloysius Joyce

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. —Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

Poor Mrs Dalloway, worried in case something would spoil her party, in case someone would let her down.

For a long time, I went to bed early. —Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (1913; trans. Lydia Davis)’

” Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.”  Also translated as “For a long time I used to go to bed early.”
Is the abruptness of Lydia Davis’ translation  truer to Proust’s way with time?

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  —L. P. Hartley,The Go-Between (1953)

Like standing up in the cinema at the end of a film to  God Save The Queen…..There’s a metaphor for you – it sounds very wise and convincing. Why didn’t Hartley write “they did things differently there”?


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