M. R. James has written that “Not long before the war…” makes for a proper sort of opening to a ghost story. The idea, I presume, being that wars are occurrences of sufficient gravity, not to say regularity, that they remain always an identifiable yet ambiguous point of reference. To begin in this way is to say, “My little tale took place some little time ago, before our little lives took on their current ugly contours.”
Yes, yes yes, it’s very charming, is Peter and the Wolf, I won’t deny it, a fine introduction to orchestral music for the young audience who must somehow be made to swallow that bizarre, tiresome manifestation of human genius, those fireworks of polished brass and varnished wood, that spectacle of austere, black-dressed personages waggling their mallets, their sticks, their bows, as if it weren’t enough for a man to know how to handle a shovel, a drill, a saw, a ladle, an oyster fork. Sergei Prokofiev believed—rightly, cleverly, underhandedly—that some manner of sop had to be thrown to those little sprites, who might very well whine and carry on without some naïve little tale to distract them from the stiff-necked, solemn, symphonic tedium.
Alyson Waters: But then where does the first sentence come from, if it doesn’t come from your imagination? I’m thinking, in particular, of some first sentences from your novels that are too long to be quoted in full but which are utterly delightful: “Boborokine was not a big man, though not preposterously small, he must have stood, amounted to, or measured a head shorter than me, judging from his uniform…” (Prehistoric Times) or “The thickest clouds are gray, the tallest, mightiest cities are gray, the elephant, the hippopotamus, all the pachyderms are gray; they can be seen from a much greater distance than the garish hummingbird or butterfly, and yet the prejudice persists that gray is the more minimal manifestation of visibility . . .” (On the Ceiling); or a far shorter sentence, the one that opens Dino Egger: “Finally, I’ve got one, and now we’re going to find out.”
Éric Chevillard: The beginning is always a feat of willpower. I’ve often had to deliberately set down—like an absurd premise, an indefensible principle—a first sentence so bizarre that it opened up a wholly unexplored space. At least then I could be sure I was the first to land on this shore, to tread on this snowy stretch. I remember very clearly the moment when I started my novel On the Hedgehog by writing these words: “It seems exactly like a naive and globular hedgehog, this animal, there, on my desk.” It was practically automatic writing. I didn’t yet have any specific aim. But the impetus was there. I will maintain that any other formulation could have served my purpose just as well. It’s a matter of surprising myself in order not to repeat those worn-out phrases that have not only been put to use already in literature, but also come to dictate our very existence. I believe that art in general and literature in particular offer us the chance to broaden the range of our awareness as well as our areas of experience, to leap from a moving train of thought as if to free ourselves from the specific conditions imposed upon us. So the first words count quite a bit; here the words really do give the orders. If a writer isn’t careful he will innocently formulate the words that already dictate the world, whereupon everything will start over as it always has and, as Beckett puts it at the beginning of Murphy, the sun will shine “on the nothing new.” A mysterious or extravagant first sentence must, on the contrary, be justified. A different world order must be invented in which it makes sense.
I began ejaculating when I was seven.
It came to me one morning, just like that. I started ejaculating feverishly all over my schoolbooks.
My parents disapproved. You’re not old enough to ejaculate. You’ll put an eye out.
So what. I continued ejaculating in secret.
I ejaculated, I ejaculated, I ejaculated, without fatigue, without boredom, without deviation, come hell or high water.
I held in my hand a magic wand. I ejaculated certain that I was creating marvelous things.
It was in my blood, to be sure. At the first free moment, did I play with marbles or chase girls? No. I did not watch television. I didn’t help my father in the garden. What did I do? I ejaculated.
At sixteen my ejaculations were strongly influenced by Rimbaud, but they weren’t very good now that I think about it...