Anybody who has ever written a blog, a story for a creative writing class or a letter, knows the moment when the sheet of paper is lying in front of you, the pen is in your hand and you are eager to begin. You cannot wait to read the whole piece afterwards and hear what your friends and tutor will think about it. And so you’re sitting and you’re playing with the pen, thinking about the brilliant idea you have in your head. But after the first ten minutes you realise that you have absolutely no clue what to write first and as time is passing, you are starting to sweat a bit, remembering the tutor’s words about the importance of the first sentence. How it sets the mood. How it encourages the reader to keep reading when it is ambiguous, intelligent or witty. Or all in one, preferably.
You think about Dickens’s opening line for A Tale of Two Cities and about Austen’s first sentence about the commonly acknowledged truth from Pride and Prejudice and you wait for the spark of genius. When that does not arrive, you try to remember any tips you received during class; you hope to remember something. And here it is, Hemingway’s advice to write one true sentence. That’s it. But what does true mean? True to you or to all? Is it something that you are certain of, something which is a fact? At this point you are convinced that there is not a single thing that you know for a fact except that you are not doing very well at the moment.
When I read the reviews of Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf I noticed that what a few critics paid special attention to was the novel’s first sentence: ‘This morning His Holiness summoned me to read to him from St Augustine, while the physician applied unguents and salves to his suppurating arse.’ They praised it and no wonder as it is truly a great opening and one which makes everybody struggling to write jealous. It is witty, provocative and throws you into a world of excess and multidimensional characters. Madsen’s first line makes you ask numerous questions – Where is it? Who’s telling the story? What will happen next? – and offers endless possibilities.
However, as I kept reading, the story was revealing even more humour and more interesting scenes and characters. I thought that although I admire Madsen’s ability to open his novel in such a powerful way, the overall opinion of the story would not be as positive as it is and the novel wouldn’t be placed on The Guardian’s list of ‘1000 Novels To Read Before You Die’ had it not been for the following sentences and chapters. In other words, it seems to me that it is the general idea for the story which makes you appreciate the piece and which makes it an excellent work. Let us all – students, bloggers and writers – forget about the perfect beginning, write whatever comes into our minds and piece it together later. Perhaps that’s how Madsen did it.