How to Be an Incipit
by Paul Vacca
For a long time, the first sentence went to bed early, waiting discreetly under the cover of the book for someone to come and wake it up. Novel opened, first sentence awakened, it stood firmly in the front row to welcome readers with the heavy responsibility of taking them into a new world.
Then the first sentence had a craving for freedom. It took a liking to running away, proclaiming its autonomy, breaking its ties with the book that birthed it. To the point of seceding and flying with its own wings. It was thus found on T-shirts, posters, social media statuses, postcards, memes, animated gifs and other fun jpegs to be shared… And with great success: it became viral, highly Instagrammable, following the destiny of an influencer who collects likes or a K-pop band feeding its fanbase.
Unleashed on social networks, the first sentence becomes a sign of recognition, a knowing wink, a cabalistic sign between insiders. As soon as you say “For a long time I went to bed early“, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed” or “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife“, a connivance is established.
Under its Latin name of ‘incipit’, it is also dissected in erudite circles, collected like butterflies in awe of their different shapes, colours or shimmerings.
There are the majestic ones: It was in Megara, suburb of Carthage, in the gardens of Hamilcar.
Those that jostle: I hope this book will never be read.
Those that challenge: Life is not a novel.
Those that apostrophise: You are about to begin Italo Calvino’s new novel, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. Relax.
Those that open onto a great metaphysical overhang: Here we are, alone again.
Those draped in solemnity: Do not hope, Nathaniel, to find God here or there -but everywhere.
Those that take you on board: On 24 February 1815, the life of Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the three-masted ship le Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples.
Those that give you goosebumps: A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.
Those that doubt: Well, where do we start?
Those that wake you up: Boom!
Those that treat you familiarly: I went outside to take a piss.
Those that bewitch you: I came out of a theatre where every evening I appeared at the front of the stage in a suitor’s outfit.
Those that teleport you: It begins at the end of the world…
An endless variety, since there are obviously as many as there are books.
But what is the difference between an incipit and a simple quotation, an aphorism, an epigram or all the countless sentences that follow in the book? How can we recognise a first sentence? What is special about it that the other sentences do not have? Does it have its own essence? (Other than the simple fact that it was chosen as the first sentence by contingency: because it had to start with something…)
And if, however, there was a particular alchemy to the first sentence, an algorithm or secret code? A je-ne-sais-quoi that makes a first sentence not quite like any other. What could it be?
In short: How to be an incipit?
Perhaps it could be a particular vibration, an aura of evidence. Could “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”, “Calypso remained inconsolable for the departure of Ulysses“, or “Here’s how it started” be otherwise? Are they not irrefutable? As if they were uttered in an unconditionally confident voice, wholly sure of their facts: the quiet strength of the incipit. A form of imperium that perhaps comes from their sense of mission, which they all share: that of being a conduit for readers to a terra incognita.
It could also be a particular dynamic, an inner force that one feels when reading a first sentence: a tipping effect. The incipit is a trap door, it tips us into the world of fiction by suspending our disbelief. “Once upon a time…” is like a springboard that projects us into the story to come. Something that tells us – sometimes in the background – that something will definitely happen.
With a simplicity and assurance, it gives us the foreknowledge of a conflict, a subtle source of intranquillity. “Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.” And miraculously this tilting effect is produced with an remarkable economy of means: “The windows of the building opposite are already lit.” (“Already” carries on its own this ‘tipping effect’.) The first sentence does more than telling; it suggests that a story is coming.
But perhaps we can still recognise a first sentence by a state of mind, the one we show when we feel invested with a mission, a subtle mixture of arrogance and humility.
For it takes immense arrogance to be a first sentence. An unbearable aplomb to break the silence; facing the existential question: Why this novel rather than nothing? In this regard, the first sentence endorses all the author’s demiurgic pretensions.
The incipit gives birth to a world, and as such every first sentence is a Genesis. Some are openly creationist, with the ambition of giving birth to a new, as yet unknown fictional world (“As soon as you close your eyes, the adventure of sleep begins“); others are evolutionist, with the ambition of reproducing the world identically, like a 1:1 map laid out on the ground. “This morning of 11 June 1985 (it is five o’clock), as I write this on the little space left free by the papers on the surface of the desk.”
Miraculously, this arrogance is also worked by an extreme humility. The first sentence does not live for itself, it does not claim any self-sufficiency. It never seeks, like an aphorism, a paradox or a punchline, to shine for its own sake, to become an object of worship in itself.
The incipit accepts to humbly place itself at the service of the innumerable sentences that follow it and to which it passes the baton. It is in essence open to the others: it sets the tone, provides the initial vibration and gives the opening note so that all the other phases find their harmony like so many members of an orchestra. The first phrase sets the voice and opens the way. All the other phrases, without even knowing it, owe everything to it. Without it, perhaps they would not even exist. Would Albert Camus’s The Stranger be the same if this first sentence, “Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte“, had not distilled this heady intranquillity from the beginning?
Where aphorisms and epigrams can dream of absolutes or perfection in a form of Art for Art’s sake, the first sentence assumes its incompleteness with dignity. This is what makes it precious and unlike any other sentence. Like the baroque pearl that develops a magnetic attraction through its undetectable defect, the first sentence possesses a deceptive magnetism: it is worked by a lack. Therefore its perfection as a first sentence lies in its very imperfection.
And therein lies the Gordian knot for the writer when writing the first sentence. Seized with anxiety, she knows that everything is at stake here, right now, like a penalty in football, that it is here and now that the reader – or the publisher – will follow her or let her go. Fully aware that she will never, as Coco Chanel said, have two opportunities to make a good first impression.
Fatalistically, she dreams of that perfect first sentence. So perhaps she will make it too shiny, like neon lights or too much make-up, thus breaking the subtle alchemy of the first sentence: that it be noticed not for itself but for the charm it gives off.
She may dream of a perfect aphorism or a sparkling paradox, trying to replay the first sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina without realising that if “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is a perfection in terms of an incipit, it is precisely because it is – all in all – a rather poor aphorism.
So if you want to get your first sentence right, perhaps there’s only one piece of advice you can give to a wannabe writer: go straight to the second.
Incipits in order of appearance
- In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
- Ulysses, James Joyce
- Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
- Salammbô, Gustave Flaubert
- Fires, Marguerite Yourcenar
- The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet
- If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, Italo Calvino
- Death On Credit, Louis-Ferdinand Céline
- The Fruits of The Earth, André Gide
- The Count of Monte-Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
- The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
- Lumineuse césarienne, Vassili Axionov
- Guignol’s Band, Louis-Ferdinand Céline
- The Human Race, Robert Antelme
- Sylvie, Gérard de Nerval
- Requiem des innocents, Louis Calaferte
- Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
- Telemachus, Son of Ulysses, François de Fénelon
- Journey to The End of The Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline
- The Shining, Stephen King
- The Stranger, Albert Camus
- Anna Karenina, Leo Toltoy
About the Author
Paul Vacca is a novelist, essayist and speaker. He gives courses and lectures at the Institut Français de la Mode (IFM Paris), Technocité (Brussels) and collaborates with the think-tank Volta (Milan). He writes a weekly column for the Belgian magazine Trends-Tendances and for the French magazine Ernest. He is the author of 4 novels and 5 essays. His first novel La Petite Cloche au son grêle (Mum, Marcel Proust and Me) published in paperback at Le Livre de Poche in 2013 have met a great success and was translated in Japan, and won several prizes (Madeleine d’Or Marcel Proust 2009 – Laureate of the First Novel Festival of Chambery, Laval and Mouscron…). Recently published, two literary essays Michel Houellebecq, phénomène littéraire published by Robert Laffont (2019) and Les vertus de la bêtise (“On Stupidity – And How It Can Make Us Smarter”) by the Editions de l’Observatoire (2020). He is currently working on the adaptation of his latest novel Au jour le jour (“The Feuilletonist”) for the screen.