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“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath”

January 16, 2012

Stanley Fish (photo by Fishbowl Collective via Flickr)

“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.”

This is the striking first sentence of Anna Funder’s All That I Am, which I reviewed in the previous post. It has what Stanley Fish calls “an angle of lean”. First sentences, he says, “lean forward, inclining in the direction of the elaborations they anticipate.” Funder’s sentence leans towards the political and personal strands that intertwine though her book.

Stanley Fish’s chapter on first sentences in his book How to Write a Sentence (link here), is full of examples, from one-liners to those covering half a page. But such sentences cannot stand alone, he says. “Even the simplest first sentence is on its toes, beckoning us to the next sentence and the next and the next, promising us insights, complications, crises, and, sometimes resolutions.”

Fish provides exercises in imitation for other categories of sentence but not in this chapter, because “there can be no formula for writing a first sentence, for the promise it holds out is unique to the imagined world it introduces, and of imagined worlds there is no end.”

Here are some first sentences I have found memorable or enticing. Do you recognise them? The books from which they come are at the end of this post.

  1. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
  2. The moment she opened the front door and stepped into the passage she knew he was gone.
  3. My mother spoke to me once after she was dead.
  4. For a short while during the year I was ten, I thought only people I did not know died.
  5. The best time was always afterwards, alone, in the Ladies Restroom on the first floor.
  6. There is no way, unless you have unusual self-control, of disguising the expression on your face when you first meet a dwarf.
  7. At the moment which became history, Ella Ferguson was wearing nightgown, dressing-gown and slippers.
  8. We come sweeping up the tree-lined boulevard with siren and lights and when the GPS urges us to make the next left we take it so fast  that all the gear slams and sways inside the vehicle.
  9. You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue.

1. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
2. Alex Miller, Journey to the Stone Country
3. Rupert Thomson, This Party’s Got to Stop
4. Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John
5. Joan London, The Good Parents
6. Christopher Koch, The Year of Living Dangerously
7. Amy Witting, A Change in the Lighting
8. Tim Winton, Breath
9. Steve Toltz: A Fraction of the Whole

What first sentences have you found arresting or irresistible?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2012 7:42 pm

    Oh, I can’t resist. There are some I know from memory, those being for Pride and prejudice, Anna Karenina, A tale of two cities and Moby Dick, but everyone knows those so I won’t quote them. Another favourite though is: “124 was spiteful.” (from Toni Morrison’s Beloved).

    I recognised a couple of yours but couldn’t pick them!

  2. Bryce permalink*
    January 16, 2012 10:18 pm

    I haven’t read Beloved, but the first sentence has sparked my curiosity. Do you know the whole first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities from memory? Many people only remember the first line. A friend recently pointed out that it repeats ‘it was’ ten times, whereas some writers might hesitateto use it even once. She also didn’t care for the last part of the sentence. I almost put it in my list, and for the record, I’ll include it here:

    ‘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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’

    I do get more of a kick out of more concise first sentences.

    • January 16, 2012 10:24 pm

      To be honest, no I didn’t! It’s been a long time since I read it, though now you quote it I do recollect. I don’t mind the repetition – it’s poetic like, a time to be born, a time to die, a time to …. etc etc (which could have been the inspiration for it?). But, being one who loves novellas and spare writing, I do like concision, as in, say, Call me Ishmael (or are you going to tell me that’s longer too!)

  3. Bryce permalink*
    January 17, 2012 8:19 am

    No, ‘Call me Ishmael’ is it for that first sentence. Short and simple, no Austen/Tolstoy/Dickens razzle-dazzle, yet exactly right for the huge story that follows. The ability of these writers to put words together in a way that perfectly matches their story seems to me almost god-like, but I suppose they’re just good at their job.

    • January 17, 2012 9:43 am

      Oh phew! But I must argue that there’s not too much razzle dazzle to Austen. She’s quite to the point though admittedly not down to 3 words.

      Take Northanger Abbey’s: ‘No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine’.

      Or Persuasion’s: ‘Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up a book but the Baronetage’. These are great first lines which tell us a lot.

      I particularly love Northanger Abbey’s because of the way the novel plays throughout with the “heroine” notion.

  4. Bryce permalink*
    January 17, 2012 11:17 am

    Granted. Maybe no razzle, but I’m still dazzled by such craft.

    My first sentence fever is out of control. Here’s two more:

    “On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.”

    – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which I think is by far his best book.

    “The first wound comes with the cutting of the umbilical cord.”

    – Drusilla Modjeska, Poppy

    • January 17, 2012 2:33 pm

      Oh oh oh, I was nearly going to quote Chronicle in my first response but I was too lazy to get up and go get my book to quote it perfectly. One of my favourite opening sentences, and one of my top novellas/novels and my favourite too of the 4 of his that I’ve read. As soon as I read “On the day they …” I knew the book you were talking about.

      I must read Poppy … it’s been in my virtual tbr for the longest time.

  5. Bryce permalink*
    February 28, 2012 8:31 pm

    Another quiz on first lines of famous novels at


  1. When Hitler came to power I was in the bath | Caseword's Blog

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