Maybe in another time and place, we would have been gathered ‘round a campfire, talking quietly late into the night. There might have been a bottle of whisky or wine to pass, or maybe someone would have been smoking a cigar. The fire would be crackling, sending sparks up into the cool night sky, the stars bright above. Maybe we could hear the river moving gently by.
But not in this time and place. We were each at home, working (as the new lingo goes) remotely. Instead of a campfire, we were each lit by a computer screen. There may or may not have been a bottle somewhere to hand; each to his own. Instead of the sound of our own voices or the wind in the trees, there was only the quiet tapping of the keyboard, but nevertheless, I could distinctly hear each friend’s familiar voice, the tone and content of the ‘conversation’ rising and falling like the tide.
It all started with an innocent question, provoked, I think, by an article Bootsie had read in the The Washington Post earlier in the day. The article made the case that in times like these, reading was not only good, but could also be soothing, instructive. It lobbied for rereading classic novels, particularly one by Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises.” Much of the action in that book takes places in the crowded cafés and nightclubs in Paris or amid great arenas in Spain surrounded by throngs of cheering men who had come to watch a bull die. Such venues might recall happier times, happier places. But our socially distant book club opted for another perspective: which classic novel had the greatest opening paragraph, immortal words to draw the reader into the story and keep him or her glued to the page?
Dan went first. He has some pretty impressive credentials—a couple of Pulitzer Prizes to be specific—so I sat up straight at my computer and paid attention. Dan’s vote for Best Opening Paragraph (hereafter BOP) went to another novel by Papa Hemingway, “A Farewell to Arms.” It goes like this:
“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
I had to admit that was a pretty powerful opening. But then Bootsie nominated another BOP, the one penned by Charles Dickens that begins his “A Tale of Two Cities.” It’s familiar but if you need to refresh your memory, it goes like this:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Wow; we were two-for-two. Then Dan upped his own bet with the opening of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” It’s short, but oh-so-sweet:
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Crumpets, over in London, nominated an even shorter BOP; I’m sure you know it; it’s the one that begins Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick:”
“Call Me Ishmael.”
Suddenly it was my turn. I considered the opening paragraph of a short story by Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” when the narrator finds the frozen carcass of a leopard at an unusually high altitude and wonders what it was doing there but discarded the idea; Hemingway already had two nominations. My next thought was the one-sentence opening paragraph of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 novella “The Oxbow Incident”: “They crossed the Continental Divide about two by the sun,” but as good as that is, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Hemingway, Dickens, Tolstoy, or Melville. So I dug a little deeper and came up with the flowing first lines that begin Alan Paton’s novel about apartheid in South Africa,“Cry The Beloved Country.” I read the book many years ago but still find its opening paragraph especially lyrical. It goes like this:
“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any 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. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.”
Well, you get the picture. The fire—or its virtual electronic counterpart—was getting low. Time for bed. But I invite you, dear reader, to give the idea some thought. Maybe you have a BOP to nominate. Have at it! Lord knows we have the time to read a good book!
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with a home in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.
Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com