All's Well That Ends Well: Tales From The Arse End of a Novel

on Friday, March 28, 2014
A recent feature in The Independent got me thinking - why do we always fixate on literature's best opening lines? Yes, there is an incredible art to crafting the perfect hook. And a couple of obvious ones immediately jump to mind:

"All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

"When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect." Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis. (Obviously using the Bernofsky translation here).

Heck, I could rattle them off all day. I even know the beginnings to a bunch of books I've never read thanks, in part, to the constant deluge of articles about the best first lines in literature. The general agreement that seems to surround a certain few seem to suggest that they are self-perpetuating creatures much like The Most Photographed Barn In America from Delillo's White Noise. It's like a bloody mantra. For what it's worth, you might want to resist the intense gravity of consensus and branch out because there are some rather excellent openings that just don't get the recognition they deserve:

I'm Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it. Philippe Claudel, Brodeck's Report.

Looking back on it later it could only have happened because Budai had gone through the wrong door in the confusion at the transit lounge and, having mistaken an exit sign, found himself on a plane bound elsewhere without the airport staff having noticed the change. Ferenc Karinthy, Metropole

At the end of the twentieth century, the young Montano, who had just published his dangerous novel about the curious case of writers who gave up writing, got caught in the net of his own fiction and, despite his compulsive tendency towards writing, suffered a complete block, paralysis, a tragic inability to write. Enrique Vila-Matas, Montano's Malady.

Great. Now I've gone and got myself caught up in the very thing I'd come here to slag off. But it's so much fun!

I digress.

While the merits of a punchy opening are self-evident, spare a thought for the poor arse-end of a novel. Too often overlooked, a great last line can ensure the novel stays with the reader long after it is shelved/given to the Salvos/sold at your grandma's garage sale. You can blame Karl Marlantes for this latest obsession of mine. As I finally reached the end of his uneven but rather brilliant brick, Matterhorn, I was so blown away by the last line that I forgave all the book's imperfections. Spoiler alert: This will not spoil the book for you. Check it out:

"He knew that all of them were shadows: the chanters, the dead, the living. All shadows, moving across the landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things as they moved but leaving nothing changed when they left. Only the shadows themselves could change."

Sublime. Those three sentences have haunted me for two weeks now. What then of other last lines? To me there is a clear frontrunner. Nothing has punched me in the gut quite so hard as Jospeh K.'s cry of existential resignation at the end of The Trial.

"“Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him."

Among the classics, a few others stand out:

"For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of hate." Albert Camus, The Stranger.

"He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die." Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.

"The creatures outside looked from pig to man; and from man to pig; and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." George Orwell, Animal Farm.

Not that I'm offering anything new here. You can readily find all those with a basic Google search for "best last lines". I want to start a new mantra. Reload the canon, so to speak. So here are a few of my favourite closers from off the beaten track:

"And now, as he turned and joined in on the kicking and screaming, and the paddywagon had begun to pull away from the cemetery-in-shambles which would be the final installment in a ten week media blitz, he knew for certain that nothing was finished, that John was not in a better place, and that an object in motion tends to stay in motion. A lord at rest tends to roll in his grave." Tristan Egolf, Lord of the Barnyard

"A new legend will arise of a great flood sent by God upon a sinful humanity. And there will be stories of drowned mythical lands said to have been the cradle of human culture; there will perhaps be legends about some country called England or France or Germany...'
'And then?'
'... I don't know how it goes on.'
" Karel Capek, War With The Newts

"And the mouse took her own life." Jesse Ball, The Curfew.

"With a quick gesture he tosses back his straight greying hair, dragging his feet a bit, as if each step raised clouds of ashes, although there are no ashes in sight." Harry Mulisch, The Assault

"When he turned to look up for the last time at Ephraim, all he saw was a six pointed star turning slowly against the black sky." Michel Tournier, The Erl King (Also published as The Ogre)

"It all works out just right, and it turns out that you can get shot in the stomach and live, if you do it just right, and it turns out that I'm okay, it just happens to be the most excruciating pain I have ever felt in my life, and it feels really good." Charles Yu, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

That'll do me for now. Can't think of a punchy way to end this. (Insert best ever closing line to a blog post here)


Evan said...

The entire last page of The Great Gatsby does it for me. Also sublime.

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