Friday, June 15, 2012

First Line Friday

Greetings all!

Today, I'd like to look at the mediocre first line of a tremendous novel. Your rebuttal is welcome, as always. Here is the first line:

"There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills."
Fair enough . . . perhaps the road is lovely. But this first line just doesn't cut it for me. It offers nothing that is unique, intriguing, or edgy. Granted, it's simple, and there is beauty in simplicity, but . . .

The novel, of course, is Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved CountryNow, go ahead.  Rebuttal?

*** MacEvoy weighs in ***

A lot of our email and RSS followers won't read the comments, but looking back through the introduction of my copy of C,TBC  I discovered a couple things that are interesting enough to tack on here. Consider this my rebuttal. 

Paton wrote this book while on an international tour of penal institutions. I'll quote the account of the genesis of this first line:
"He also took a side trip to Norway to visit Trondheim, and to see the locale of a Norwegian novel that interested him, Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil 
Traversing the unfamiliar evergreen forests of the mountainous border landscape, Paton grew nostalgic for the hills of Natal... Jensen then brought Paton back to his hotel and promised to return in an hour to take him to dinner. In the course of that hour, moved, as he says, by powerful emotion, Paton wrote the lyric opening chapter beginning: "There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills..." At that juncture he did not know what was to follow. He had sketched no scenario for a novel.
So he was moved by a memory of his homeland, and he poured that emotion into writing. My own opinion is that his emotion can easily be felt by the reader, especially as his first paragraph continues: 
"...These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond the singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa."
But there's another reason I think it's a great opening line. The setting of South Africa, and the love of one's homeland are the major  themes of this novel. Read the passage we quoted in this post, for a taste of that. And here is Paton in his own words:
"So many things have been written about this book that I would not know how to add to them if I did not believe that I know best what kind of book it is. It is a song of love for one's far distant country, it is informed with longing for that land where they shall not hurt nor destroy in all that holy mountain, for that unattainable and ineffable land where there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, for the land cannot be again, of hills and grass and bracken, the land where you were born. It is a story of the beauty and terror of human life, and it cannot be written again because it cannot be felt again. Just how good it is, I do not know and I do not care. All I know is that it changed our lives. It opened the doors of the world to us, and we went through."
I think the simple opening line is the perfect way to launch that kind of book.

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