The late Simon Leys, the great Sinologist and literary essayist, once wrote a little essay on the first lines of novels. He was inspired to do so by having picked up G. K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill in a second-hand bookshop and read its first words: ‘The human race, to which so many of my readers belong…’ He said that the rest of the novel did not live up to this glorious opening, but it would have been impossible for any extended piece of writing to do so.
It is not only the writers of novels who strive to arrest the reader’s attention by a first phrase or sentence: writers of non-fiction do so also. They want to establish either the importance or the fascination of their subject. A splendid example of this is T. D. Kendrick’s book on the Lisbon Earthquake, written in 1955 on the bicentenary of the disaster. The book begins:
In October 1777 John Wesley said in a letter to his friend Christopher Hopper, ‘there is no divine visitation which is likely to have so general an influence upon sinners as an earthquake.’
The type of earthquake to which Wesley refers in his letter is that of the tremors that twice struck London in 1750, rather than the type that destroys whole cities. The London tremors rattled The Napoleon of Nottin... Best Price: $1.79 Buy New $10.31 (as of 05:25 UTC - Details) windows, caused things to fall off tables, smashed a few mirrors, but were otherwise fairly harmless. Nevertheless, scores of thousands of Londoners panicked and flooded out of the city, only to crawl back a little while later feeling distinctly foolish.
I have lived through two earthquakes, in the Wesleyan sense of the term, but sinner that I am, they had no influence upon me or my behaviour. The first was in Guatemala, where of course seismic activity can be severe. I think there must be a sensory faculty for feeling the effects of earth tremors, a faculty I do not have, for everyone around me felt the earth move but I did not. The second was at night as I was sleeping in my house in England: I was woken up by a clattering noise coming from the roof. Of course, I immediately thought it was burglars since burglary is a far more frequent, and serious, hazard in England than earthquake, and I learned the true cause only on the morrow.
The Lisbon Earthquake, it goes without saying, was of a different order. It destroyed much of the city and it is thought that 15,000 people died in it. The meaning of the event became a matter of dispute immediately afterwards: was it just one of those things, or was it God’s vengeance on the wicked people of Lisbon, who appeared pious but in reality were given over to the whole gamut of human sins?
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