Sometimes it’s hard to say what is a novel, what is a short story or novella. One generally points to matters of quantity – length. Most agree that novels consist of at least 50.000 words, mostly somewhere between 80.000 and near infinity; from Hearts of Darkness to Stephen King.
In short stories, one is expected to write – or read – every word as if it is crucial to the larger meaning of the work, that if you take the word away, we shall all feel the loss. While in novels there is an assumption that there is more leeway, that other factors, such as rhythm and overriding plot can help the author to almost jazz the narrative away, to improvise incidents that has no final bearing on the outcome, and that the structure of the book will help him get back to the place he writes from. It is not always so, some books are tight like a fist, but the form can maybe help you get away with more, by saying that such and such event gives the novel colour, taste, and – often – weight. (I guess I’m thinking about Stephen King again, who doesn’t seem satisfied before he can rest assured that the reader will need medical help for wristproblems after finishing one of his latest Magnum (with a capital M) opuses. If Hemingway were to write, say, Cell – which certainly is a stretch of the imagination – it would never pass the short story mark).
But no matter the length, or the various incidents one fills one’s big novel with, it’s pretty much all for nothing if the reader suspects from the get-go that it is just that: dead weight in your hands, and not worlds worthwhile to immerse him/herself in. To ensure that quality can be readily comprehended by any reader, god gave the world a fabulous invention, which I like to call The Beginning. And we all know what was there.
So – in quite the round about way – here are at least two handfuls of great beginnings of some north-american novels (and one English one; can you spot it?). I will present them in no particular order. A couple of them are so well known that they’ve entered the world’s consciousness as being exactly that: great beginnings. Others might be of a more unfamiliar variety.
By the way, this is really just a chance to mention some great books that everyone should read, and I will try to include links to the coolest and best purchable (in quality) editions in print of each of them. You will find the names of the authors and the novels in the links, but half the fun is guessing the answers before peeking.
- 1- See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker fields beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him. (Summary here – Find here or here)
- 2- The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. (information here – find here)
- 3- It was a pleasure to burn. (find here)
- 4- We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child. (find here or here)
- 5- To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. (find here)
- 6- I’d finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him. The midnight freight had come in a few minutes before; and he was peering in one end of the restaurant window, the end nearest the depot, shading his eyes with his hand and blinking against the light. He saw me watching him, and his face faded back into the shadows. But I knew he was still there. I knew he was waiting. The bums always size me up for an easy mark. (hard to find other editions than this)
- 7- When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbour, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachussets, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again. (find here or here)
- 8- I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. (find here)
- 9- Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (information here) (find here or here)
- 10- In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. (find here)
- 11- Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. Buford had come along about noon and when he left at sundown, the boy, Tarwater, had never returned from the still. (find it here) (short information here)
- 12- He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. (find it here)
- 13- I scarcely know where to begin, though I sometimes facetiously place the cause of it all to Charley Furuseth’s credit. (find here or here)
- 14- One January Day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. (find here)
- 15- I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. (find here; supposedly 1st. ed.) or here; paperb.) (information here)