In many respects, of course, the first line is all important because it can be what determines whether a reader continues reading. Done badly, the first line of a book is an instant turn-off, the equivalent of finding out that cute boy you like has deeply held religious beliefs. Done right, the first line of a book is an advertisement for all the rest of what is to come: a promise that the book will deliver if only the reader can make it through the next 100, 200, 300 or 800 pages.
I don't go in for Charles Dickens chiefly because he tended towards the 800 page mark and was, let's be frank, Verbose As Fuck, but he got it right with A Tale of Two Cities:
"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."Or Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep. Who could read this opening paragraph and put this fucker down? Who would want to?
"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars."The opening line of Joseph Yeller's Catch 22, still probably the single funniest book I've ever read or hope to read, doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense at first but it sure made me want to read on:
"It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him."And Sylvia Plath nailed the tone of her strange, sad perfect little book, The Bell Jar, with just the first sentence:
"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York."A snappy one liner can be good too and personally I have always had a soft spot for Samuel Beckett's Murphy...
"The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new."Or Ray Bradbury's classic, Fahrenheit 451:
"It was a pleasure to burn."But I'm dancing around my point and being disingenuous because I don't believe the first line of a book is all important: for me it's always been about the ending: the bit that stays with you after you close the book and lean back, digesting the fates of the characters you've spent the past few hours/days/weeks following. Last lines are the ones that stay with me and I can forgive some dodgy plotting, iffy characterisation and worse if the payoff is a killer ending. Graham Greene's The End of the Affair has a snoozefest of a start ("A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses.... zzzzzzzzzzz") but is one of my all time favourite books in large part because it has one of my all-time favourite final passages:
"I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You've done enough, You've robbed me of enough, I'm too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever."I mean.... fuck. Fuck. I'm lying on the floor over here, Graham. For brevity there's the likes of Gone with the Wind ("After all, tomorrow is another day"), The Catcher in the Rye ("It's funny. Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody") and even bloody Catch 22 again ("The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off").
For all of these reasons, I found this Guardian list of the 10 best closing lines in literature pretty interesting, if also obviously infuriating. Some of the choices are, I must be honest, bullshit. And some of the omissions are glaring. Where is my Greene? My Eugenides? My Forster (Oh, Maurice!), my Chandler, again (this time for The Long Goodbye, by far my favourite Chandler and hands down the one with the best ending). Anyway, you can read the ones they came up with by following the link above. But, given that I've just wanked on for a bit about how the ending is all that matters, let me leave you with two of my favourites, both of which (phew) did make it into the Guardian's short list.
Some loveliness from The Wuthering Heights, the only Bronte novel I ever really loved (at least if you don't count some random adaptation I once saw of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that starred a young and basically unbelievably beautiful Rupert Graves - I don't really remember the plot but I could draw a diagram of his cheekbones):
"I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."Oh, swoon. I mean I know Heathcliff was kind of an abusive dick sometimes but Cathy was a pill so, you know, I sort of thought they were amazing together.
And best of all, some final sad words from the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - on and off again my favourite book for much of the past ten years for all the obvious reasons (read: it's brilliant)...
"And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our our arms farther... And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."