August 30, 2008

"Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested."

The 100 best first lines from novels... or so says American Book Review.

The "truly" is the best part, right? Ah, I'm thinking of this part of Jonathan Franzen's "The Discomfort Zone."
[The teacher, Avery] began to mumble about "three different universes of interpretation" in which the text of The Trial could be read: one universe in which K. is an innocent man falsely accused, another universe in which the degree of K.'s guilt is undecidable... I was only half listening. The windows were darkening, and it was a point of pride with me never to read secondary literature. But when Avery arrived at the third universe of interpretation, in which Josef K. is guilty, he stopped and looked at us expectantly, as if waiting for us to get some joke; and I felt my blood pressure spike. I was offended by the mere mention of the possibility that K. was guilty. It made me feel frustrated, cheated, injured. I was outraged that a critic was allowed even to suggest a thing like that.

Franzen's whole book is worth reading. So is Kafka's.

And "The Trial" is only #13 on that first lines list, which is also worth reading.

IN THE COMMENTS: molly writes:
The "truly" isn't even in the original -- it's "etwas Böses," something bad/evil, which is meant to be a little ironic, I think.

I found my copy, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, and the first line is:
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

I guess Willa and Edwin are from the "universe" in which "K. is an innocent man falsely accused." Franzen is reading the untranslated book, and there is a lot in "The Discomfort Zone" about studying the German language.


UWS guy said...

first...honest I'm not refreshing every 5 sec...honest.

Ann Althouse said...

Uh, no one does "first" around here. You have zero competition. Get over yourself.

UWS guy said...

lol who pissed in your cornflakes this morning.

UWS guy said...
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bearing said...

Ah, it was nice to be taken back to my first reading of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller.

I had just given birth to my first child, and a friend had lent it to me along with a couple other books to read while I learned to breastfeed and recuperated from a difficult birth. I read most of it in the bathtub, soaking in Epsom salts. It positively enchanted me.

Don't read it, though, unless you like nonlinear narrative.

William said...

Has anyone ever finished reading Gravity's Rainbow or Finnegan's Wake? I think Finnegan's Wake is the most famous unread novel of all time. Das Kapital is the most influential unread book.

Bob said...

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.

molly said...

The "truly" isn't even in the original -- it's "etwas Böses," something bad/evil, which is meant to be a little ironic, I think.

rhhardin said...

Thomas Mann identified Kafka as a religious humorist.

Seven Machos said...


Also I find Kafka to be truly boring in the way that people caricature literature in general as being.

Bissage said...

I’m fairly sure I read “The Trial” cover to cover.

But these days I don’t remember it with much accuracy.

You see, a while back I went through this weird phase where I’d bang my head against the wall every time someone used the word “Kafkaesque.”

So a lot of remembrances of things past started running into each other.

Still, Sartre is one of my favorite authors.

john said...

Call me Ishmael.

Melville should have stopped there. Turgid, ponderous, boring. Emotions that Gregory Peck tried to emulate and sunk the movie long before the whale sunk the ship.

chickenlittle said...

I love reading Kafka, but mostly as a warm to reading Nietzsche in German out load to myself while cranking Wagner and quaffing shots of Schnapps.

vbspurs said...

I’m fairly sure I read “The Trial” cover to cover.

But these days I don’t remember it with much accuracy.

Wow, Bissage, just about to write the same. I remember "Metamorphosis" a little better, because who can forget a line like this?

"As Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from awful dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin."

I remember reading this in translation in Portuguese, and amused that they didn't spare any punches about the "vermin" he had transformed himself into.

Whereas in German and English versions, Kafka gives us an amorphous idea of the exact type of vermin, in Portuguese he was a "barata" (cockroach).



reader_iam said...

Reading that list makes me happy.

Joe Hogan said...

I agree with William. Anyone who has actually read all of Gravity's Rainbow and Finnegan's Wake is probably on the English faculty somewhere and is also very likely had some trouble with OCD.

Rereading number 9 on the list, Dicken's "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...," it strikes me that this could have credibly been written in the America of 2004 - 2005. It is perhaps slightly less resonant today, sitting as we do on the verge of some degree of civic change, or at least the widespread hope for same.

matthew said...

Das Kapital is the most influential unread book.

I would have actually thought it would be "The Wealth of Nations."

But yes, after reading one line of any of James Joyce's novels on this list, and you know you're not going to be having fun.

vbspurs said...

Das Kapital is the most influential unread book.

Anyone who thinks that, hasn't read Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom".

sembolina pilchard said...

Three lines, and I'm not sure about "best of all time" but it's my favorite of all time: "I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee." Lee Child's "Killing Floor"

Zeb Quinn said...
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Chip Ahoy said...

Damnit. I though this was going to be a Bulwer-Lytton Award or worst first line in a novel post.

My all time favorite winner is:

The one thought that kept running through Andre's mind as he crawled across the desert was, "crawl, Andre, crawl."

I'll never stop loving that.

Chip Ahoy said...

Please eel ree to insert "f" where needed.

Chip Ahoy said...

I'm suddenly hungry for corn flakes.

Ralph said...

My college roommate actually slogged through Ulysses--he was very conscientous.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man of good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Hard to believe she was 23 when she wrote most of that book.

Freeman Hunt said...

I'll have to read The Trial. Maybe I'll like it better than the Orson Welles movie. The movie seemed to have been made with a near hatred for the viewer which I doubt Welles actually possessed.

Joyce isn't all bad. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is great until he goes to college and becomes insufferable.

Ralph said...

I enjoyed Dubliners when I was young and in a Faulkner phase. Swiped my sister's copy last year and could not get through two pages.

Chip Ahoy said...

"Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. —Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha. That's a good one. 'Cept, it needs better editing. Dear should be capitalized because it's being used as a proper noun, and Aunt should not be capitalized because it's not a proper noun. Other that that, I lurv it. Aunt Dot riding a camel. Ha Ha Ha Ha.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. That's good too.

I loved reading I Clau-Clau-Claudius. Completely changed my thoughts about Rome.

Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. —Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye. Yuk. It's neither. It's a concept. I read A Handmaiden's Tale out loud to a blind woman. Hated it. The meter is completely bollox. Mary loved it and thought it was genius.

Other books I despised.

The Good Soldier Ford Maddox Ford. I'm mad at the guy at the store for recommending this. Supposedly, it's the most perfectly structured novel, but honestly, I don't see it. I found it irritating.

One Hundred Years of Solitude or Cien Años de Soldad, actually, Gabriel García Márquez. Talk about meandering. Wut? We weren't talking about meandering? Well, it meandered!

I believe books should start out abruptly. So they grab you. Like this:

I hate my mother. She made bad sandwiches.

vbspurs said...

The Good Soldier Ford Maddox Ford

Ford Maddox Ford is AMAZING! Chip, promise me you will revisit his writings one day.

I've noticed that as I get older, my tastes have changed dramatically at times (what a concept, I know).

I used to hate "Casablanca" and "Gone with the Wind" as a kid. I used to love Hemingway and hate Faulkner. I revisited both films in my mid-20s and was blown away. How could I have been so stupid? Unfortunately, what I loved about Hemingway then, I find insipid now.

As for Faulkner? Best American writer, full stop.


William said...

The Dubliners was great. It's the book that makes me think Finnegan's Wake is over my head and not a put on....I think economic majors actually read Hayek and Smith et al. Marxists just pretended to read Das Kapital. Some student actually read the book. He compared Marx's stats to the actual British blue book stats that Marx quoted. It turns out that Marx cooked the books. If the stats did not fit his thesis, he simply changed the stats in the blue books....For over a hundred years no one even noticed this. When it was finally revealed, no one even cared.....Who was the copy editor of Finnegan's Wake. There are so many misspellings in that book. A shoddy piece of work on someone's part.

John Stodder said...

Oh, Victoria, light of my life...

I love William Faulkner. I guess his "first lines" don't rate, although "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting." is a good one, especially to back to after you've figured out what's going on.

And then there's...

"From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that--a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward as wind might have blown them."

I know a lot of people put down "Absalom, Absalom" right at that moment, believing they can't take 300 pages of this. Too bad, it's a great novel.

I also liked "The Good Soldier" quite a bit. That first line is perfect for the kind of book it unfolds into.

P.S. I also have read "Gravity's Rainbow" in its entirety, although there are some pages where you simply cannot know what's going on. The first line is cool, but it's not better than all but two others. Please.

bill said...

I'll offer one. It's from Poppy Z. Brite's novel, Liquor, about life in the kitchens of New Orleans. I recently reread it and thought of it after reading her post about how she's stocked up on food and ammo and no matter how close Gustaf hits, she isn't abandoning New Orleans, this time.

It was the kind of October day for which residents of New Orleans endure the summer, sparkling blue-gold with just a touch of crispness, and two old friends were sitting on a low branch of an oak tree in Audubon Park drinking liquor.

ricpic said...

Why is - The one thought that kept running through Andre's mind as he crawled across the desert was, "crawl Andre, crawl." - such a bad opening line?

I'd say it's a grabber. Would make me want to read on. Rings true, too. I'd seriously like to know what makes it so awful. What say, Chip?

blake said...

Bang, bang, bang, bang. Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life.

But first let me tell you a little about myself.

Max Schulman, Sleep Till Noon

blake said...

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door...

--Frederic Brown, Knock

I should say, though, that both this and the Schulman lines are cheats that have nothing to do with the main narrative.

They grab ya, tho'.

Skeptical said...

How about a contest in which we combine the quality of the first and final lines? The Trial would come out pretty well there, too. Like a dog; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.

From Inwood said...

Good grief they left out Capote’s opening line to In Cold Blood:

“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there' ”.

Other ones that come quickly to mind include

James M. Cain’s to “The Postman Always Rings Twice”:

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon”

Dreiser’s to “Sister Carrie”:

“When Caroline Meeker boarded the afternoon train to Chicago, her entire outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snatch purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren street, and four dollars in money.

Sean O’Casey’s autobio, “I Knock At The Door” :

[Too long to quote here]

Evelyn Waugh’s to “Decline and Fall”:

Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr Postelwaite, the Domestic Bursar, sat alone in Mr Snigg’s room overlooking the garden quad at Scone College. From the rooms of Sir Alistair Digby-Vane-Trumpington, two staircases away, came a confused roaring and breaking of glass.”

[OK, two sentences.]

Waugh’s, also to “Put Out More Flags”:

“In the week which preceded the outbreak of the Second World War---days of surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace---and on the Sunday morning when all doubts were finally resolved and misconceptions corrected, three rich women thought mainly of Basil Seal. They were his sister, his mother, and his mistress.

[OK, two sentences.]

Ralph said...

Aunt should not be capitalized
Chip, "my Aunt Dot" is correct, "my Aunt" is not.

I enjoyed Faulkner & Edith Wharton short stories much more than their novels.

Beth said...

bill, I've been meaning to get around to Brite's kitchen series; first thing when we return from this storm, I'm going to find out where her husband, Chris DeBarr, is guest chefing and enjoy some of his excellent cuisine.

(sorry, no time to remember my a href stuff)

Kirby Olson said...

To my amazement, my friend Brian Evenson, who teaches at Brown U., is on the list of the 100 best first lines. He's one of the only living novelists on the list.

His books are incredibly scary -- Mormon surrealism gone toward Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Trooper York said...

The best first line of any book I ever read was:

"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,"

That is the first line of Joe Biden's autobiography.

vbspurs said...

Absalom, Absalom

Ooh, John, speak it to me, baby...

You won't believe how I revisited this book, which I had once dismissed so foolishly as a youth.

I read a magazine article where Julia Roberts was asked her favourite book. Yes, that Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman (the remake will be played by Sarah Palin).

I was intrigued, since she carries it wherever she goes. Remember, she is a Southern lady herself. They have the best ear for storytelling of all Americans.

So I went to the bookstore, bought it, and was rendered mute by Faulkner's wordcrafting.

I have many had many writing influences (Mann, Conrad, Schnitzler, Saki, Waugh, O'Connor), but I have only one writer I truly admire. Faulkner.


rcocean said...

"I used to be able to look at myself and grin without giving a damn about how ugly it made me look. Now I was looking at myself the same way those people did back there. I was looking at a big guy with an ugly reputation, a guy who had no earthly reason for existing in a decent, normal society. That's what the judge had said".

From Keith Olbermann's unpublished autobiography "Who's on First".

From Inwood said...

Trooper Y


Stewart Granger had better hair than Joe Biden.

Sarah Palin is better looking than Eleanor Parker & on a par with Janet Leigh, tho a tad older than they. Bet Sarah could do the big fencing scene all by herself.

Yanks & Mets both blow leads. Yanks’ one probably fatal. Mets’ one on a walk-off walk....

el said...

"Mother died today, or maybe it was yesterday..." L'Etranger by Albert Camus.

"Habel habalim amar Koheleth; habel habalim Kol" "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, says the preacher." (tintinabulating in the original Hebrew)

"In a place in La Mancha, whose name I don't wish to remember..."

And the humblest and noblest of all...

"In A beginning..." Some say "In THE beginning..."

Jason said...

"When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin."

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis

That one and "The sky was the color of television." -Thomas Pynchon, Neuromancer.

blake said...

Er, Neuromancer was written by William Gibson, not Pynchon unless I'm very confused.