1. Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
Hurston accomplishes much with this evocative opening line, sets the tone for the novel’s intimate portrait of Janie Crawford. These ten words exemplify Janie’s epic longing, her lust for life and love, despite the pain, the struggle, the seeming senselessness of it all. Dismissed and disparaged largely on account of Hurston’s status as an African-American woman, Their Eyes stood the test of time long enough to become an American classic.
2. Mrs. Dalloway
by Virginia Woolf (1925)
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would get the flowers herself.”
Woolf plunges you into her protagonist’s life with such force, you feel an icy shock, as if diving into cold water. Woolf then proceeds to hold your head under—as you hold your breath—for the following two hundred or so pages.
by Lauren Slater (2000)
The first line of Slater’s memoir is also its first chapter. Two words, that’s it. A bold declaration of the narrator’s unreliable status, and yet it’s a confession that works against itself. In concise, lyrical prose, Slater throws jab after jab at the conceits of infallible memory and absolute truths. Ostensibly an illness narrative, Lying is more metaphor than memoir, and perhaps in that, it comes closer than many to rendering reality.
4. My Life
by Anton Chekov (1896)
“The director told me: ‘I only keep you out of respect for your esteemed father, otherwise you would have been sent flying out of here long ago.”
Since he rarely writes in the first person, it’s surprising to hear Chekov begin a story begin this way. The straightforward, unembarrassed admission both suggests the narrator is some kind of troublemaker and makes us want to hear what he has to say–and follow him as he tries, like so many of Chekhov’s characters, to figure out the best way to live his life.
5. The Razor’s Edge
by W. Somerset Maugham (1944)
“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.”
This intimate, confessional sentence sets the tone for Maugham’s most popular novel, which reads like a memoir—a really gossipy, juicy memoir.
by Leonard Michaels, From The Collected Stories (2007)
“When my Uncle Moe dropped dead of a heart attack I became an expert in the subway system. With a nickel I’d get to Queens, twist and zoom to Coney Island, twist again toward the George Washington Bridge—beyond which was darkness.”
These opening lines just grab the hell out of us. Uncle Moe drops dead and then we’re shooting around the New York City underground. It’s fast, it’s still fresh, and it comes out of nowhere.
7. The Loser
by Thomas Bernhard (1983)
Translated from the German by Jack Dawson (1991)
“Even Glenn Gould, our friend and the most important piano virtuoso of the century, only made it to the age of fifty-one, I thought to myself as I entered the inn.”
Jealousy, humor, death, a non sequitur, it’s all in Bernhard’s opening line, which kicks off this novel told in one unbroken paragraph.
8. The End of the Affair
by Graham Greene (1951)
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
Maybe only Graham Greene can begin a novel like this, but it’s his authority that gets us.
9. I’m Not Stiller
by Max Frisch (1954)
“I’m not Stiller!—Day after day, ever since I was put into this prison, which I shall describe in a minute, I have been saying it, swearing it, asking for whisky, and refusing to make any other statement.”
Just shout it: the declarative opening sentence by the Swiss master, Max Frisch, who, in I’m Not Stiller, took the unreliable narrator to new, glorious heights.
by Michael Herr (1977)
“There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’d lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. The map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn’t real anymore.”
Opening lines in italics often get a roll of the eyes (diary entry? stream-of-consciousness?) but Michael Herr’s classic on reporting Vietnam could do it no other way.
11. The Adventures of Augie March
by Saul Bellow (1953)
“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”
Bellow, of course, was Canadian-born. But about Augie’s origins there can be no doubt. Bellow writes him bounding and scraping and loving and rising and falling through the streets of Chicago and America. He goes to Mexico to train an eagle for crying out loud. An eagle! What more could you need?
12. One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)
Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa
“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.”
In just one sentence the reader is invited into a world where the unbelievable becomes the believed. García Márquez’s lyrical words are crafted into a soaring introduction to the magical and inventive world of Macondo, and an anticipation of the intimate characters and tragedies of Latin American life that await the reader beyond.
Tom McCarthy (2005)
“About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.”
This cut-through opening for McCarthy’s acclaimed debut is an instantaneous hook into a world flirting constantly with the uncanny. Acting as a catalyst for the protagonist’s resulting loss of memory, the “accident” propels the narrative into an allegorical exploration into the absurd paradoxes of the contemporary experience, as humorous as it is austere.
14. The Savage Detectives
by Roberto Bolaño (1998)
Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
“I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.”
A playful contradiction between stoic literary ideals and the ironies of the status quo. This opening to Bolaño’s debut novel, known for being overtly biographical, introduced to the world an author that would become the most influential new voice in contemporary Latin American literature.
by Don DeLillo (1997)
“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”
Through a young boy playing hooky at a baseball game in the 1950s, Don DeLillo hurls us into another history of ourselves—our most intimate hopes and fears set against the enormous sweep of the second half of the twentieth century. In stunning prose, DeLillo shows us that this history far outshines the “official” versions we’ve all learned.
16. Play It As It Lays
by Joan Didion (1970)
“What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”
In a novel whose characters make no concessions to morality, what is left but good and evil? Didion’s troubled protagonist is not the most sympathetic of literary leading ladies, but it’s her voice that announces the novel’s arrival with this simple, but telling, statement. The opening nod to Iago is at once a commentary on the nature of evil—Didion’s rattlesnake under the rock—as well as Maria Wyeth’s refusal to turn menace into meaning.
17.”In the Animal Shelter”
by Amy Hempel, From At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990)
“Every time you see a beautiful woman, someone is tired of her, so the men say.”
Classic Amy Hempel, a line deceptive in its simplicity, one that manages to encapsulate the entirety of what follows: the story’s problem and the shade of its resolution, twisted into a single, perfect sentence.
18. The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann (1924)
translated from the German by John E. Woods
“An ordinary young man was on his way from his hometown of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the canton of Graubünden. It was the height of summer, and he planned to stay for three weeks.”
Sounds simple enough, but in the seven hundred pages that follow, Mann undermines Hans Castorp’s ordinariness through a meticulous documentation of his meandering, yet thorough education. This Nobel Prize winning novel, in a great parade of irony, also pokes continuous fun at the notion that we have any control whatsoever over the nature and passage of time (three weeks…!)
19. Speak, Memory
by Vladimir Nabokov (1951)
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
In defiance of what common sense dictates, Nabokov writes the autobiography of a chronophobiac, recording a life lived before and after exile from his native Russia, a split that forms another abyss: diaspora and the constant pain of displacement. The remedy? Remember, in aching detail. Find here, his Russia, shimmering and sensuous, and the inspiration for much of his fiction—yes, even Lolita!—set against the impending bloodshed of political revolution and the irrevocable passage of time.
20. The Hundred Brothers
by Donald Antrim (1998)
“My Brothers Rob, Bob, Tom, Paul, Ralph, Phil, Noah, William, Nick, Dennis, Christopher… and the triplets Herbert, Patrick, and Jeffrey…”
Let’s assume you have purchased this book without reading the jacket copy, and so its title, The Hundred Brothers, pregnant as all titles are with a degree of mystery, sits like a question over the first page as you open the first page; then, realization: this man is serious, this book really is about one hundred biologically related brothers, and many of these brothers will have a speaking part. Antrim could have offered up a simple or merely ironic little gambit about fraternal relationships at the top of his book, but instead he decides to really hurl down the fucking gauntlet, and give us the names of all the brothers, as well as glancing but memorable descriptions of many of them, in one swirling, rhythmic, beautifully-sustained three-page sentence, which must have taken him a month or more to craft, by the end of which Antrim has slung-shot you right into the heart of his absurdist scenario and you can’t get yourself out.