This begins a new series on this site called First Sentences about—as you’d imagine—the first sentence of particular books. With all kinds of lists out today—The Top 100 Best First Sentences, The Top 10, The Most Overlooked and all the like—I thought it would be just as fun to explore a few first sentences of well-known books at a time in order to figure out what makes good first sentences to good books good, or, what makes bad first sentences to relatively good books bad.
‘Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.’
What makes this first sentence great is that, in a very nuanced way, it sets us up for the theme of the novel to follow, which then unfolds and reveals itself in a very complicated manner. Throughout this novel, forgery and counterfeiting act as a mask for a much bigger message about sincerity and integrity. This sentence is just one among many that attempt some metaphor of the main point, but its genius is in its placing.
Dozens of characters come in and fade out of this novel with a thousand different voices, clipped, started and half-finished conversations at dinner parties, on the street, in churches and small-town pubs, and abroad in foreign lands. There’s so much going on in this book that it almost feels like a different book each time you read it. Gaddis pays the reader a kindness in letting her know—even if she’s not aware of it in the beginning—what will pick this story up and carry it along from the instant of the first sentence.
It’s the kind of experience that seems so unextraordinary until the whole book is finished and one flips back to the beginning to remember how such an epic book began and where it initially thought it was going. It turns out, the book always knew where it was going from sentence number one. Gaddis’s first novel (hardly fitting into whatever mold we’ve ever imposed on the metaphysical idea of a ‘first novel’ as genre) is a perfect eventuation of the kind of big ‘novel of ideas’ that became a model for ‘serious literature’ in the 19th century.
However, Gaddis wasn’t hindered by the journalistic or periodical method of writing that many of the greats like Dickens and Dostoyevsky were, often resulting in strange contradictions and narrative blunders. Rather, he wrote the full book in a lonely room, stacking hundreds and hundreds of manuscript pages up until he had a tight, wonderfully constructed gem in which everything that might have been accomplished in a great novel of 1860 was accomplished in 1955, but in a brilliant, original prose and a very definite sense of narrative structure that took its time, with long chapters, with a modernist gamesman-like execution and a seriousness of detail that rivaled most of his contemporaries.
The next sentence is a bit more problematic. This one is from Mickelsson's Ghosts.
‘Sometimes the sordidness of his present existence, not to mention the stifling, clammy heat of the apartment his finances had forced him to take, on the third floor of an ugly old house on Binghamton’s West Side—“the nice part of town,” everybody said (God have mercy on those who had to live in the bad parts)—made Peter Mickelsson clench his square yellow teeth in anger and once, in a moment of rage and frustration greater than usual, bring down the heel of his first on the heavy old Goodwill oak table where his typewriter, papers, and books were laid out, or rather strewn.’
For a man that put such emphasis throughout his career on rewriting and perfecting craft, this is a pretty cumbersome beginning. It attempts to say too much, as if Gardner is terrified that if he puts any more energy into dividing these mere background ideas into more than one sentence, the reader will loose his sense of the ‘narrative dream’, as he called it, which keeps us excited and reading.
This sentence, however, didn’t keep me reading in and of itself. It almost stopped me from continuing. It was only on the good faith that others had read the whole book, had gotten some enjoyment out of it and considered it his best work that I continued.
I am now very happy to have read the whole thing several times. It is a work I often return to with great pleasure. Often, Gardner does succeed at continuing his ‘narrative dream’ in such a way that I found myself wanting to pick up the book and read for hours at a time, not simply to ‘see what happens’ (I’m not sure I’ve ever really been that kind of reader) but because of the sheer power of his imagery and language.
But blunders like the above do occur, it’s just unfortunate that such a terrible, arduous blunder—a sentence with sentences inside of it and ideas inside of ideas—kicks off an otherwise wonderful book. I suppose something similar to ‘Call me Mickelsson’ had already been done, so he went the opposite direction.
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