Opening lines for a new year

Sylvia Plath did it in an oven. Virginia Woolf in a river. And Ernest Hemingway with a pistol. Or was it a shotgun? Something phallic, anyway.

What I like about these opening lines from the English version of Griet skryf ‘n sprokie by Marita van der Vyfer is the way they manage to be literary, funny and to hint at depressing possibilities for Griet at the same time. I can’t remember much of this novel (read years ago) but I was reminded of it sleeping in my sister and brother-in-law’s study on holiday. Not that I wanted to do myself in, mind you, but I spotted it on one of the shelves together with a lot of rather familiar-looking books which could well have been collected from the family home. I had to admire my sister’s audacity in making off with a good many children’s books as well (justified by the fact that she has, so far, produced the only grandchild in the family).

I was also rather pleased to find a copy (not stolen this time) of On Chesil Beach, which starts like this:

They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.

I thought this book was excellently done and I was drawn to the story from the start. I cringed as well as I waited to read how this terrible ordeal of virginal sex would end up for the newly married bride and groom. I can see that some readers might be put off by a possibly unflattering female lead character but I thought it was sensitively done. He hints at the reasons for her lack of interest in sex rather than spelling it out for us. And there’s so much regret bound up with what could have been for both of them.

To go with my opening lines theme, I’m adding in five more sets of opening lines. Some are very easy and some less so. Anyone?

1. When a house has been alarmed, it becomes explosive. It must be armed and disarmed several times a day. When it is armed, by the touching of keys on a pad, it emits a whine that sends the occupants rushing out, banging the door behind them. There are no leisurely departures: there is no time for second thoughts, for taking a scarf from behind the door, for checking that the answering machine is on …

2. It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Dr Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all its urgency many years before.

3. William and Douglas and Henry and Ginger, commonly known as the Outlaws, were coming home from school together. There was real excitement in the village. A real, true Archaeological Society was excavating down in the valley and had discovered real, true traces of a real true Roman villa.

4. Ruya was lying facedown on the bed, lost to the sweet warm darkness beneath the billowing folds of the blue-checked quilt. The first sounds of a winter morning seeped in from outside: the rumble of a passing car, the clatter of an old bus, the rattle of the copper kettles that the salep maker shared with the pastry cook, the whistle of the parking attendant at the dolmus stop.

5. At eight o’ clock in the evening, the Baltimore airport was nearly deserted. The wide gray corridors were empty, and the newsstands were dark, and the coffee shops were closed. Most of the gates had admitted their last flights. Their signboards were blank and their rows of vinyl chairs unoccupied and ghostly.
But you could hear a distant hum, a murmur of anticipation, at the far end of Pier D. You could see an overexcited child spinning herself into dizziness in the center of the corridor, and then a grownup popping forth to scoop her up and carry her, giggling and squirming back into the waiting area. And a latecomer, a woman in a yellow dress, was rushing toward the gate with a armful of long-stemmed roses.

I’m looking forward to reading books 4 and 5, and 2 and 3 are dead giveaways. Book 1 is local so that will make it suitably obscure but I love the way it decribes the security-focused (some would say paranoid) nature of a middle-class South African house.

Lastly, apologies for my scarce blog-reading and posting. P and I had a good weekend away in Simon’s Town and today I had an uncooperative modem. I should be back in the routine this week. For a taste of summer in Cape Town, here’s a picture of Smitswinkel Bay.



9 Responses to Opening lines for a new year

  1. Bee says:

    2. Love in the Time of Cholera
    5. Digging for America
    Others: don’t know! Chesil Beach: Liked it a lot. Vyfer book: Never heard of her or it, but the opening lines immediately intrigued me.

    I liked your phrase regarding the “audacity” of your sister in making off with the precious childhood books. I’ve done the same, probably quite unfairly, but my (younger) brother is much less sentimental about such things (she rationalizes).

    Is that a beer you (?) are holding? Do South Africans say beer, lager or something else entirely? Your landscape is terribly seductive. Terrible for those who are locked in winter anyway.

  2. musingsfromthesofa says:

    i got 2 but don’t know the others. Liked On Chesil Beach a lot also.

  3. Evie says:

    4. I would know Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book anywhere, one of the best books I read in 2008.

    To anyone who hadn’t read it though, the “salep maker” and “dolmus stop” would be pretty strong clues that the book is set in Turkey.

    I’m not sure what any of the others are.

  4. Emily says:

    #2 was the only one i got.

    best opening line award still goes to jane austen for p&p

  5. I’m terrible at first lines. I have no idea what they are, except could the first one maybe be from The House Gun?

    Love the picture of Smitswinkelbaai, and wishing you a great 2009!

  6. Pete says:

    Bee – It looks like beer but is actually a tame grapetizer. And well done on getting 2 of the 5. I’ll give the answers to 1 and 3 later. 3 really is a giveaway but maybe it’s an English (and hence colonial) thing. As for the books, I’m glad my sister is enjoying them and I have no space for them at the moment so am not too jealous.

    Musings – 2 is a classic though, isn’t it. And I was surprised that Chesil Beach was so good.

    Evie – Welcome! And thanks for the Pamuk recommendation. If only I had another week’s holiday by the sea to enjoy his rich prose.

    Emily – Yes, P&P would definitely be the favourite. I also like the opening lines to anna karenina about happy families being alike but unhappy families being unique in their unhappiness (or words to that effect).

    Charlotte – No, but a good guess. Thanks, and cheers back to you!

  7. litlove says:

    3 is Just William, although I don’t know which one. My son has them ALL and I have heard them ALL on audio tape so often they blend into one. I guessed 2, knew 4 and 5, but 1 I have absolutely no idea. I’m so glad you enjoyed On Chesil Beach! And oh my, that picture. I’ll have you know that we’re in an Arctic snap here in the UK and it was minus seven last night. A balmy day in Russia, but pretty chilly over here.

  8. Pete says:

    Litlove – You’re the top score so far (80%) but I’m surprised William proved difficult. I loved them as a kid so assumed everyone read him too. On tape though – that’s class. Weather-wise it’s hot and muggy here so I’d quite happily trade with you. Arctic would suit me fine.

  9. Pete says:

    I forgot to add that 1 is the award-winning “Portrait With Keys: Joburg and What-What” by Joburg-based writer Ivan Vladislavic. Very good.

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