Tom Sutcliffe: Opening lines that can be a giveaway

Share
Related Topics

Can you judge a book by its epigraph? That you do is surely true, since at the point when you turn that particular page of a new novel it's pretty much all you've got to go on. Yes – the book's cover will have started work on you already, but you know that to be the creation of the marketing department. It's inadmissible as evidence of literary intent. But now, here, you are for the first time in the presence of the author and you are entitled to weigh up what you've been given. That you are expected to judge a book by its epigraph is also true, since it would hardly be there otherwise. You know perfectly well that it has designs on your judgement. It would be impolite to brush past without a nod in its direction, even if you suspect that it stands at the door like a spin-doctor, trying to tilt the verdict in the right direction.

And it's startling how often the epigraph can start you off on the wrong foot, precisely because you sense it lingering there with transparent intent. Having read an awful lot of them over the last few months, as the Booker b.p.w needle (books per week) needle flickered into the red, I'd like to suggest a few dos and don'ts to writers who'd prefer their readers not to begin in a state of active irritation.

The first rule would be stick to one epigraph only. Two looks like indecision, three like intellectual greediness and four like a kind of despair – with the author opting for a shotgun spread in the desperate hope of hitting the target with at least one literary pellet. There are exceptions to this rule. Martin Amis just about gets away with three for The Pregnant Widow, but only because his first one (an explanatory quote from Alexander Herzen that explains the title) is so good and at least one of the others is a dictionary definition of a single word. Even there, though he'd have been better to go with his first choice – and avoid the jitter of indecision. Neil Mukherjee, though, who opts for three in his novel A Life Apart, clearly overdoes it. There may be a fantasy literary world in which Cynthia Ozick, John Milton and Rabindranath Tagore meet for coffee, but their rendezvous here just looks showily erudite. Even worse is the strategy adopted by the writer Richard Aronowitz in his book It's Just the Beating of My Heart, who pairs Walter Benjamin with Lloyd Cole and the Commotions in a transparent high-brow/low-brow combo.

The second rule is less clear cut and concerns the delicate judgement of literary proximity. The rough rule of thumb might be this. Never quote from a writer who will provoke invidious comparisons. Ian McEwan made this mistake at the beginning of Solar, taking an epigraph from John Updike ("It gives him great pleasure, makes Rabbit feel rich, to contemplate the world's wasting, to know the earth is mortal too") and unhelpfully raising the possibility that the book's ambition had already been achieved more pithily. Of course, it can be just as hazardous over-compensating in the other direction – like the chick-lit potboiler who opens with a quote from Racine or The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan. You don't want to look like the only person who doesn't realise you're playing way out of your league. Wit helps, though unhelpfully wit is sometimes only apparent after you've read the novel. Alan Warner's use of Kafka at the beginning of his novel The Stars in the Bright Sky looks like a classic case of gravity-stealing, but turns out to be slyly appropriate to his comedy.

The final rule would concern simplicity. Arcane and enigmatic epigraphs are all very well – but they leave you open to a charge of pretension and, since they create a knot which can only be untied by the book itself, there's a sense in which the tail is wagging the dog. Better dispense with them entirely I would have thought. My favourite epigraphs of the past year have both been marked by a daring – or even belligerent – straightforwardness. One was Lionel Shriver's epigraph for So Much for That – Ben Franklin's remark that "Time is Money", a cliché so familiar that she might as well have written "I can't be bothered to think of a smart epigraph". And yet both the quote and it's take-it-or-leave it attitude are perfect for the book. The other one was the dedication/epigraph for Howard Jacobson's novel The Finkler Question, which memorialises three recently dead friends and adds a Shakespeare-inflected question: "Who will now set the table on a roar." Both eschew cleverness in favour of mood – and they set the mood perfectly.

The Coen brothers depict the correct formula

I didn't get a flood of responses to my request for suggestions of lecture scenes in movies that aren't intellectually risible, though I did get at least one suggestion that made me laugh out loud at my desk, which I'll pass on later.

David Gleadhill reminded me of the excellent blackboard scene in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain, in which Geoffrey Hutchings sketches out Tim Roth's bleak life prospects, but, good as that is, it doesn't quite fit the bill, I think. I was after scenes that involve students and an academic setting. Tom Foley's suggestion of John Houseman's scene in the film Paper Chase, in which he tells his assembled students "You teach yourselves the law. I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush and if you survive, you'll leave thinking like a lawyer" meets that requirement, but surely counts as a representative of a slightly different cinematic trope – the eye-opening induction, a grouping which would include the first address from the Drill Sergeant in Full Metal Jacket (and, come to think of it, the Made in Britain scene as well).

However, Andrew Murray's suggestion absolutely hits the nail on the head. It's the sequence from the Coen brothers film A Serious Man in which Larry Gopnik introduces his students to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, a scene which begins with a close shot of Gopnik's hand, scribbling out mathematical formula as he recites them, and concludes with a longshot showing a vast blackboard entirely filled with algebraic symbols.

Gopnik's summary? "It proves we can't ever really know what's going on." That passes surely. Intellectually unimpeachable (I do hope his formulae are correct), and a great sight gag, too. Do yourself a favour and watch it on YouTube.

A victim of his own finesse

Watching Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue the other day I found myself thinking that he was a classic example of a self-redundifying writer (a concept that Sarah Palin hasn't explored yet but surely will, given enough time). The play looks a little creaky these days, but one of the reasons for that is that the querulous New York comedy it delivers has been so ruthlessly exploited by American sitcoms like Seinfeld and – in a form with more hugging and learning – Friends. And I think it's arguable that neither Seinfeld nor Friends would have looked quite as they did without Simon's example of bickering Manhattan relationships. Other stuff goes into the DNA of the later programmes, of course, but Simon is a good example of the kind of talent that paves a way for its successors and then suffers because it has enough staying power to look slightly old-fashioned alongside them.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

SEN Teaching Assistant needed for long term assignment

£45 - £55 per day: Randstad Education Preston: We are looking for an experienc...

Primary Teachers Required in King's Lynn

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teachers needed in King's Ly...

Primary Teachers needed in Ely

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teacher needed in the Ely ar...

Day In a Page

Read Next
<p><b>Mock the Week</b></p>
The newest of our quiz shows was created by Created by Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson, who also made 'Whose Line is it Anyway?'. This is more of a 'quiz' format, and for me, the best part about it is that it introduced me to Frankie Boyle.  

Shows like Mock The Week can’t understand why Ukip has so many supporters

Nigel Farage
The appearance of Miguel Arias Canete at a Brussels hearing last Wednesday caused 100,000 people to sign a petition to prevent his appointment  

TTIP is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the EU's suspect relationships with corporations

Lee Williams
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain