I had always imagined that my life story, if and when I wrote it, would have a great first line: something lyric like Nabokov's "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins"; or if I could not do lyric, then something sweeping like Tolstoy's "All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." People remember those words even when they have forgotten everything else about the books. When it comes to openers, though, the best in my view has to be the beginning of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." I've read that one dozens of times and it still knocks my socks off. Ford Madox Ford was a Big One.
In all my life struggling to write I have struggled with nothing so manfully - yes, that's the word, manfully - as with openers. It has always seemed to me that if I could just get that bit right all the rest would follow automatically. I thought of that first sentence as a kind of semantic womb stuffed with the busy embryos of unwritten pages, brilliant little nuggets of genius practically panting to be born. From that grand vessel the entire story would, so to speak, ooze forth. What a delusion! Exactly the opposite was true. And it is not as if there weren't any good ones. Savor this, for example: "When the phone rang at 3:00 a.m. Morris Monk knew even before picking up the receiver that the call was from a dame, and he knew something else too: dames meant trouble." Or this: "Just before being hacked to pieces by Gamel's sadistic soldiers, Colonel Benchley had a vision of the little whitewashed cottage in Shropshire, and Mrs. Benchley in the doorway, and the children." Or this: "Paris, London, Djibouti, all seemed unreal to him now as he sat amid the ruins of yet another Thanksgiving dinner with his mother and father and that idiot Charles." Who can remain unimpressed by sentences like these? They are so pregnant with meaning, so, I dare say, poignant with it that they positively bulge with whole unwritten chapters - unwritten, but there, already there!
Alas, in reality they were nothing but bubbles, illusions every one. Each of the wonderful phrases, so full of promise, was like a gift-wrapped box clutched in a small child's eager hand, a box that holds nothing but gravel and bits of trash, though it rattles oh so enticingly. He thinks it is candy! I thought it was literature. All those sentences - and many, many others as wel - proved to be not springboards to the great unwritten novel but insurmountable barriers to it. You see, they were too good. I could never live up to them. Some writers can never equal their first novel. I could never equal my first sentence. And look at me now. Look how I have begun this, my final work, my opus: "I had always imagined that my life story, if and when . . ." Good God, "if and when"! You see the problem. Hopeless. Scratch it.
This is the saddest story I have ever heard. It begins, like all true stories, who knows where. Looking for the beginning is like trying to discover the source of a river. You paddle upstream for months under a burning sun, between towering green walls of dripping jungle, soggy maps disintegrating in your hands. You are driven half mad by false hopes, malicious swarms of biting insects, and the tricks of memory, and all you reach at the end - the ultima Thule of the whole ridiculous quest - is a damp spot in the jungle or, in the case of a story, some perfectly meaningless word or gesture. And yet, at some more or less arbitrary place along the way between the damp spot and the sea the cartographer inserts the point of his compass, and there the Amazon begins.
It is the same with me, cartographer of the soul, when I look for the beginning of my life story. I close my eyes and stab. I open them and discover a fluttering instant impaled on my compass point: 3:17 p.m. on the thirtieth of April, 1961. I scrunch up my eyes and bring it into focus. Moment, moment on a pin, where's the fellow with no chin? And there I am - or, rather, there I was - peering cautiously out over the edge of a balcony, just the tip of my nose and one eye. That balcony was a good spot for a looker, a sly peerer like me. From it I could survey the whole shop floor and yet not be seen by any of the people below. That day the store was crowded, more customers than usual for a weekday, and their murmurs floated pleasantly up. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, and some of these people had probably been out for a stroll, thinking about this and that, when their inattention was diverted by a large hand-painted sign in the store window: 30% off all purchases over $20. But I wouldn't really know about that, I mean about what might have attracted them into the store, since I have had no actual experience with the exchange value of money. And indeed the balcony, the store, the customers, even the spring, require explanations, digressions that, however necessary, would wreck the pace of my narrative, which I like to think of as headlong. I have obviously gone too far - in my enthusiasm to get the whole thing going I have overshot the mark. We may never know where a story begins, but we sometimes can tell where it cannot begin, where the stream is already in full flood.
Excerpted from Firmin by Sam Savage Copyright © 2008 by Sam Savage. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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