“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.”
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Welcome to the first ever First Line Friday. I aim to use this weekly post to share some of my favourite opening lines – of novels, primarily, but also of poems, short stories, plays and occasionally films.
I should say at this point that I’m no stranger to the dangers of judging a book by its opening. I have been hoodwinked before by great openings that peter out into nonsense. I was even duped once into reading a terrible novel that consisted entirely of openings.
I’ve also read a few slow burners in my time: books with 20 plus pages of plodding exposition that might take weeks, months, even years to get through before you’ve hacked your way clear of the undergrowth, but that reward you once you’ve done so with an exhilarating sprint across the plains.
My idea is to use the first lines as a starting point – a springboard if you will – for a conversation about writing, writers and other literary curiosities.
I’ve started with Plath’s opening to The Bell Jar as it rates, in my humble opinion, as one of the greats. It takes the classic dark and stormy night formula and turns it completely on its head.
On that topic, click here for another take on the “dark and stormy night” opening from a very different kind of genius…