To begin with, it was quite absurd...

WHAT IS the worst opening in the canon of English literature? The academics who run the English department at San Jose State University have no doubt about it. It's the first line of a novel called Paul Clifford, published in 1830, and it goes like this:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals when it was checked by a violent gust of wind that swept up the streets, for it is in London that our scenes lie, rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

Ghastly, eh? The author of this lolloping, twisting, U-turning, participle- dangling, parenthetical tirade of faux-elemental nonsense was Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the Victorian MP, novelist, playwright and fop. Though a prolific writer, he was no accomplished stylist; which is why the wits at San Jose University run an annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which contenders try to write the worst, most inept or unappealing opening sentence of an imaginary novel.

Entries come in from all over the world, including Saudi Arabia and the Far East. Some past winners cling to the memory with a horrible tenacity - like Janice Estey from Aspen, California.Her winning sentence in 1996 read: "`Ace, watch your head,' hissed Wanda urgently, yet somehow provocatively, through red, full, sensuous lips, but he couldn't, you know, since nobody can watch more than part of his nose, or a little cheek or lips if he really tries, but he appreciated her warning."

This year's winner is David Chuter, 47, a civil servant at the Ministry of Defence in London, whose entry reads: "Through the gathering gloom of a late-October afternoon, along the greasy, cracked paving-stones slick from the sputum from the sky, Stanley Ruddlethorp wearily trudged up the hill from the cemetery where his wife, sister, brother and three children were all buried, and forced open the door of his decaying house, blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that was soon to devastate his life."

Mr Chuter's hilariously miserable scene-setting equates bad writing with gloom rather than bathos. But some of the worst opening lines in the canon are promises of misery to come. One thinks of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and its cheerful opening: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Or Anita Brookner's intimations of hilarity at the start of Hotel du Lac: "From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore ..."

Gloom apart, the most off-putting novel openings are those that promise a close acquaintance with someone to whom you would rather not get any closer. It's hard to warm, for instance, to the narrator of Dostoevsky's Letters from the Underworld: "I am ill; I am full of spleen and repellent. I conceive there to be something wrong with my liver, for I cannot even think for the aching of my head ..."

The worst openings, though, are things of boredom. Like this one: "3 May, Bistritz. - Left Munich at 8.35 pm on 1 May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.45 but train was an hour late."

Or this scintillating suggestion from Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea: "The best thing would be to write down everything that happens from day to day. To keep a diary in order to understand. To neglect no nuances or little details even if they seem unimportant ..." (Would that really be the best thing? And if so, what would be the worst thing?) Or those endless first paragraphs of Thomas Hardy's novels, locating a single figure in a vast landscape in "the year of 18-" and "the town of D-".

For me the most annoying first sentence in modern fiction is from Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body. It's a one-line paragraph and it sits on the page with huge self-importance, getting more irritating by the minute. Ready? Here it comes: "Why is the measure of love loss?"

One you've worked out the syntax, it goes round and round your head until you want to call round to Ms Winterson's home and demand she re-writes it, there and then, balancing it, if necessary, on one knee ...

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing