Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Top 7 First Sentences of All Time!

A few days ago I was perusing around in the bookstore, pretending -- quite convincingly in my opinion -- that there was no such thing as homework and that I actually needed a novel to read. I did such a good job convincing myself of this that I made the mistake of picking up Orhan Pamuk's "My Name Is Red." This is the first sentence of that book:
"I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well."

I say picking up the book was a mistake because after reading that sentence could I do anything by buy and read it? Of course not.
This experience got me thinking about how seductive first sentences can be. I started remembering various first sentences that also pulled me from other responsibilities like homework and into a novel.
I heard once that the best way to sell magazines is to make a top ten list. Because I couldn't think of that many, this is my top 7 list of what I consider to be some of the best first sentences, or first few sentences I've ever come across. Hopefully you'll still read them even though there are only seven. Obviously this list is far from authoritative or comprehensive so please post some of your favorite first sentences as well!

Let the count down begin!

7. Beloved by Toni Morrison

"124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children."

This is a perfect way to start Morrison's haunting masterpiece. The short, shocking sentences leave you no time to recover before the next one assaults you. These three sentences are a primer to allow the rest of the novel to unfold as emotionally wrenching and beautiful all at once.

6. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

"See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves."

"Blood Meridian" was my first encounter with Cormac McCarthy. As soon as I read those bizarre first sentences I knew everything I heard about McCarthy's unbelievable skill as an author was true. The tone of the novel, as with these sentences, keeps the reader at a far distance from the characters of the novel but doesn't spare him/her the grizzly details of the horrible things that happen to them.

5. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

"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."

Could you ever find a better sentence to sum up Holden Caulfield than this opening sentence? That's a rhetorical question because it's been a long time since I read the book and there could be several. But still! Right away Salinger introduces you to Holden's exhausting cynicism, harsh wit, and pitiful self-denial in one sentence. Although this sentence in the context of a conversation would immediately drive me away from the speaker, as the first sentence of a novel its irresistibly endearing.

4. The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind."

This first time I read these sentences, I had a similar experience as with "My Name Is Red." Although I was in the middle of finals, I couldn't help but read on. In these powerful words Ellison at once establishes one of the most memorable characters of American literature and speaks for all the millions of people oppressed in 1952 when the book was published. I've never experienced the kind of hatred inflicted on blacks in the 50s and I doubt that I'll ever be able to understand it. But if I've ever come close to such an understanding, it was while reading "The Invisible Man."

3. Hunger by Knut Hamsun

"All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiania - that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him."

If you've never heard of "Hunger," I highly, highly, highly, highly recommend checking it out. This unsettling opening to the book introduces one of the most frustrating characters I've ever read about. The book is a harbinger to the works of Kafka, Sartre, and Camus and in my opinion surpasses them in many ways. The candid voice of the narrator expressed in this sentence lasts the whole novel and endures homelessness, an mortally serious case of writer's block, and, of course, starvation.

2. The Stranger by Albert Camus

"Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: 'Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.' That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday."

The Stranger is one of my favorite books, and I wish I could read it at least once a month. Because time is short, however, I often settle for just these amazing first few sentences. The narrator's awkward disregard for the death of his mother seems so foreign at the beginning, but by the end of the book Camus has the reader thinking with the same cold, detached logic.

1. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect."

This simple statement, in my opinion, is the best first sentence of all time. In 17 words Kafka has pulled the reader into his bizarre universe where nothing could be more commonplace than waking up as a huge beetle. The sentence is both funny and macabre and despite its absurdity seems to make total sense.

Well we made it! Like I said, I'm sure there are lots of other great first sentences and it's your job to point them out! Post them up!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Poem of the Week! Birthday Edition!

In Memory of a Spanish Poet by James Wright
Take leave of the sun, and of the wheat, for me.
-Miguel Hernandez, Written in prison, 1942

I see you strangling
Under the black ripples of whitewashed walls.
Your hands turn yellow in the ruins of the sun.
I dream of your slow voice, flying,
Planting the dark waters of the spirit
With lutes and seeds.

Here, in the American Midwest,
Those seeds fly out of the field and across the strange heaven of
my skull.
They scatter out of their wings a quiet farewell,
A greeting to my country.

Now twilight gathers,
A long sundown.
Silos creep away toward the west.

This poem was the obvious choice for the poem of the week first of all because it came from a book of poetry my dad gave me as a birthday present (for those of you who aren't in the fanclub, today is my birthday.) But even if my birthday wasn't today, this fits perfectly because for some reason Spanish Communism has been a hot topic throughout the week.

If this poem doesn't scream "Spanish communism" at you, let me fill in a quick history of it (the poem, not spanish communism.) First of all some background on James Wright: he was born and lived most his life in Ohio and started writing highly formal poetry in the 50s. Eventually he and a few other poets decided American poetry had become too impersonal and waaay too boring. They found a solution in borrowing the styles of Spanish poets like Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Miguel Hernandez, who he quotes at the beginning of his poem.

The influence of these poets definitely shines in this poem. His deeply descriptive, if somewhat unearthly, images like the "black ripples of the whitewashed walls" and "planting the dark waters of the spirit with lutes and seeds" are clearly a homage to similar descriptions Lorca uses in his book "Poet in New York."

Despite the similarities in style, however, there is a huge difference between Wright and his homies and the Spanish poets they looked up to -- Spanish Communism! I told you I'd tie it in! Pablo Neruda was exiled from Chile for having communist sympathies, Federico Garcia Lorca was killed by a Spanish firing squad for the same reason, and Miguel Hernandez spent several years and eventually died in prison for opposing Spanish fascism. The quote at the beginning of the poem, in fact, comes from Hernandez's last line of poetry that he carved into the prison wall before dying of tuberculosis. These obviously aren't the experiences you'd have living in rural Ohio.

What I love about Wright's poem is how he acknowledges the impact these men, particularly Hernandez, have had on his poetry but still admits his relationship to them is limmited because their universes are so utterly different. As he contemplates Hernandez in prison and his tuberculosis-yellowed skin, he looks out over the pastoral landscape of rural Ohio. Somehow these two images don't seem to be reconcilable in Wright's mind. For Hernandez to come to Wright, he first must bid farewell to the inspiration he found in Spain and greet the flat plains of Ohio. Wright's poem does a beautiful job of transmitting his anxiety from not living up to the poets that influence him because their lives were so radically different than his.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Poem of the Week!

A Line-Storm Song

By Robert Frost

The line-storm clouds fly tattered and swift.
The road is forlorn all day,
Where a myriad snowy quartz stones lift,
And the hoof-prints vanish away.
The roadside flowers, too wet for the bee,
Expend their bloom in vain.
Come over the hills and far with me,
And be my love in the rain.

The birds have less to say for themselves
In the wood-world's torn despair
Than now these numberless years the elves,

Although they are no less there:
All song of the woods is crushed like some
Wild, earily shattered rose.
Come, be my love in the wet woods, come,
Where the boughs rain when it blows.

There is the gale to urge behind
And bruit our singing down,
And the shallow waters aflutter with wind
From which to gather your gown.
What matter if we go clear to the west,
And come not through dry-shod?
For wilding brooch shall wet your breast
The rain-fresh goldenrod.

Oh, never this whelming east wind swells
But it seems like the sea's return
To the ancient lands where it left the shells
Before the age of the fern;
And it seems like the time when after doubt
Our love came back amain.
Oh, come forth into the storm and rout
And be my love in the rain.

There comes a time in every person’s life when he/she has to decide whether Robert Frost is just an annoying author of inspirational poster catch phrases, or if he’s one of the most amazing American poets of all time. Only recently have I realized that he is definitely the later, and that even in his poems that just beg to be quoted at high school graduation ceremonies, Frost manages to hide a deeper, more melancholy meaning.

“A Line-Storm Song,” which I read for the first time a couple of days ago, is a perfect example of this. Right away the poem won me over with its beautiful imagery of a rain soaked forest. Some of my favorite images are the boughs that rain when the wind blows, and the flowers wasting their blooms because they are too wet for bees to pollinate them. Frost also uses the song-like rhythm and rhyme scheme so well that every time the line “and be my love in the rain” comes you can’t help but get chills.

After savoring the scene Frost painted and the melody of his language, I re-read through the poem and noticed a tone of sorrow amidst all the beauty – the forlorn road, the quiet birds in the despairing wood, and again the flowers with no bees. The speaker of the poem seems to attribute these things to the constant rainstorm attacking the forest. However, he doesn’t speak with fear or resentment. He seems to have a degree of affection for the storm; he even invites his lover to join in him the rain.

Once again I find myself conflicted in a Frost poem. Supposedly the rainstorm is beautiful, but it also seems to be assaulting the forest. And beautiful or not, who would invite their girlfriend to hang around in a torrential rainstorm? In my opinion this is where Frost’s poem excels. Although the man is stuck in a storm, he wants his lover with him because he knows any storm is beautiful when he’s with the person he loves. Whatsmore, it seems like this couple has seen more than one storm together. The storm even reminds him of their life together: “It seems like the time when under doubt/our love came back amain.”

In the end Frost’s poem teaches the bittersweet lesson that life and love are full of storms, such violent storms that paths wear down and birds stop singing. But what else is there? All we can do is “Come forth into the rain and rout/and be my love in the rain.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

Saul Bellow's Seize the Day

Fathers and sons in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day

I’m a sucker for critics. Nothing catches my attention like someone’s acclaim of a book, movie or album. I’m so attached to what other people think about things that I sometimes wonder if my own opinions become inauthentic. If any author could be called “acclaimed,” its Saul Bellow. His awards include a Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards (he’s the only author with that many), the National Book Award Foundation medal, and somewhere in their he snagged himself the Nobel Prize. Sufjan Stevens even wrote a song about him! Pretty impressive right? I thought so in the summer of 2009 when I read his novel The Dangling Man. The small book told the story of a Canadian living in America during the Great Depression. The story, written in journal entries of the main character, follows him in his struggle to overcome immigration laws in order to fight as an American soldier in World War II. Despite its shortness, the book took me almost two months to get through. I didn’t hate it but I definitely didn’t love it. But what about all the acclaim? Didn’t I have to love it?

Well I decided to give Bellow another shot a few weeks ago. Motivated once again by the all-powerful opinion of a critic I got a hold of a copy of Seize the Day. In his book, How Fiction Works, the critic James Wood calls Bellow “one of the greatest stylists of American prose, a writer who makes even the fleetfooted (authors) seem like monopodes.” He justifies this bold claim using passages out of Seize the Day like this description of a man smoking a cigar:

“A long perfect ash formed on the end the cigar, the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency. It was ignored, in its beauty by the old man. For it was beautiful.”

The beauty of that passage alone, taken out of context, made me forget about my experience with The Dangling Man and seek out Seize the Day.

By the time I encountered that line in the book, Bellow’s style had already won me over. The novel is about a man in his forties named Tommy Wilhelm. The books starts with Tommy descending in an elevator to meet his father in the restaurant of the hotel they both live in. Tommy’s father is a successful surgeon while Tommy is a failed student, actor, and most recently salesman. As the story continues the roles of father and husband are added to his list of failures. Bellow uses the lunch conversation between Tommy and his father to show that Tommy is at the end of the rope and ready to try anything to pay his rent and alimony. The best hope he has his mercy from his tight-fisted but wealthy father, or the promises of an audacious and suspicious friend convincing him to “seize the day” by playing the stock markets.

Throughout the book Tommy's personality is torn by loyalties to both his father and his friend largely because there is a little bit of Tommy in each of them.

Tommy's friend, Dr. Tamkin, appeals to his brazen side, the side that motivated him years earlier to drop out of college to pursue acting. Despite his spectacular failure as an actor, Tommy goes into the stock market with Tamkin with his last $4000.

In Tommy's interaction with his father, on the other hand, he comes across as man who's learned to be sensible from a life full of mistakes. Its obvious that when he's with his father Tommy looks at himself with the same harsh judgment his father does.

Bellow uses a unique third person narration style to manages Tommy's complicated inner-duality. Unlike a traditional omniscient third person narrator, the voice of narration in Seize the Day seems to think just like Tommy. Instead of offering an authoritative interpretation Tommy and those around him, the narrator describes people with the same bias Tommy has. Using this style, Bellow leaves it up to the reader to decide, just as Tommy has to, how to read the people in the story. This makes the book feel more real and makes Tommy far more relatable.

By the end of the novel Tommy is worse off than at the beginning and he is left only with the option of begging his father for help. Tommy's desperation in the last pages of the book is heart wrenching. He completely unravels and transforms from a stoic victim into a desperate child seeking protection from his parent. As Tommy pleads with his father to help him financially it becomes clear that the story hasn't just been about a man who's down on his luck. The reader realizes simultaneously with Tommy, that his problems have nothing to do with money and everything to do with the fact that he is completely alone.

I probably haven't come even close to doingt the book justice so all I can say is read it!

If you want a smaller taste of Saul Bellow here is a link to a short story that's also great!