by John Barth

“Happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I happen not to agree with that famous opening proposition of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but I’ll carry it to my grave along with a clutch of other jim-dandy story starters.

A first sentence’s job is to draw its reader into the sentence after it—while at the same time, in the case of fiction, maybe establishing the tale’s tone and narrative viewpoint, introducing one or more of its characters, and supplying preliminary hints of setting, situation, and impending action. Some do that job so well that they remain in our memory long after we’ve forgotten most of the words that followed, even in a novel that may have changed our lives. A Tale of Two Cities is neither the best nor worst of Dickens’s novels, but it’s the only one whose opening—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”—has stayed with me. Likewise Melville’s disarming “Call me Ishmael” and García Márquez’s time-straddling fanfare that opens One Hundred Years of Solitude—“Many years later, when he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía would remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”—and a dozen more, from the bibliophilic beagle Snoopy’s “It was a dark and stormy night” in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip (a cliché opening that the poor mutt never gets beyond) to the slyly soporific first words of Marcel Proust’s multivolume Remembrance of Things Past. “Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure,” it reads in the original; the poet-translator Richard Howard renders it “Time was when I went to bed early,” so that Proust’s epic about time begins (as it will end) with that key word—and then, seven volumes later, outflanks its subject by having “Marcel,” at the saga’s close, set about to write the time-intensive tale we’ve finally finished reading.

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John Barth, the author of such seminal works as The Sot-Weed Factor (currently under option to film director Steven Soderbergh) and Chimera (winner of the National Book Award), is well known for his path-breaking fiction. He taught for many years in the writing program at Johns Hopkins University.

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