We were talking about how beginnings work, how they grab our attentions like a hook, how they shape our expectations, introduce us to themes, character traits, features of fictional worlds like ours or not like ours. Consider George Orwell’s 1984 (publ. 1949): “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” How much of that novel is packed into that unexpected last word–the different yet similar story world, the ominous associations of the number 13….
It’s no wonder novels and films are often remembered for their first lines and opening sequences. I’m thinking of Lolita, or Mrs Dalloway, or Moby-Dick, or Catcher in the Rye, or Their Eyes Were Watching God….
Novels start in many ways, but their beginnings are never arbitrary, despite what Maurice Bendrix says in the first line of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951):
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
The 1999 film adaptation of this novel, scripted by Neil Jordan, begins with the rather more vigorous “This is a diary of hate,” smashed out on paper by the keys of a typewriter. For a lavish, expensive film production, that was probably a wise but not necessarily good move.
George Eliot, a more philosophical novelist than Greene, is more correct in saying the beginning is not chosen arbitrarily but rather as an act of make-believe, as she writes in the opening of Daniel Deronda (1876):
“Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is at Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in medias res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact with which our story sets out.”
Both Eliot and Greene self-reflexively begin their novels with reflections about the beginnings of stories. But some novelists, especially postmodern ones, can take that self-reflexivity into crazy directions:
“Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.” (Flann O’Brien. At Swim-Two-Birds. 1939)
And of course O’Brien’s narrator goes on to give us three different beginnings.
Beginnings can, and usually do, perform their function not with self-consciousness but with special efforts of intrigue (like 1984, above) or beauty, like John Banville’s opening to The Infinities (2009), which is narrated by Hermes, who is just one Greek God among others who watch and influence the lives of the novel’s characters:
“Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works.”
Of course, endings are just as important, and though they don’t need to catch our attention, they have the heavy task of making everything we’ve read retrospectively richer or different than we have assumed. For endings, just think of The Usual Suspects, whose ending basically forces you to re-watch the entire movie in your head. Or Lolita (again), whose ending builds to a back-tingling tour-de-force of poetry and underhanded psychological manipulation. Perhaps a long-winded joke is the best example of the work an ending has to do: if the punch line works, then the long joke was worth the telling; if not, we’ve been tricked. Because endings have so much influence over the novel (or film etc), over our memory of it and our holistic sense of its value, no wonder authors put so much work into these as well. Here is the famous last paragraph of James Joyce’s long short story “The Dead,” from his collection Dubliners (1914):
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
And a less famous and less gorgeous but perhaps more honest ending, from Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story (1995).
“And since all along there had been too many ends to the story, and since they did not end anything, but only continued something, something not formed into any story, I needed an act of ceremony to end the story.”