by Jordan A. Rothacker
When I think of my favorite first lines in literature, there is one that haunts me most often. This particular line is from a fairly recent read in my life with books and yet it casts a shadowy influence backwards into memory and forward into future reading and writing. The first line I am referring to is from Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky.
It’s so simple:
He awoke, opened his eyes.
Just five words. Two more than “Call me Ishmael,” which is also one of my other favorites. And I really like the first line of One Hundred Year of Solitude (“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon that his father took him to discover ice”), which could not be more different. So what is it about this line by Paul Bowles, five words that start a novel of 246 pages. A novel set in Morocco, from the city of Tangier out into the desert, about a husband and wife, Port and Kit Moresby, and how environment and Otherness can threaten a relationship more façade than truth. The book is in three sections, the first called “Tea in the Sahara.” The sections have chapters and the chapters have subset. Subset one of chapter one is nothing more than this “he” from the first line waking up, groping for grounding and awareness of consciousness.
Port and Kit are traveler’s, not tourists, “The difference is partly one of time… whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another,” as Port explains in chapter one’s second subset. So why this beginning for a book about westerners, Americans, finding themselves when faced with Otherness in Morocco, a novel that verges on travel narrative? The second and third lines make the first more ominous and relevant to the travel experience: “The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had just come. If he had not the energy to ascertain his position in time and space, he also lacked the desire.” And each subsequent line continues to explode the first, He awoke, opened his eyes.
This first line isn’t just utilitarian; it isn’t just a necessary sentence to get a man awake with his eyes open so in further sentences we know he is awake with open eyes. It serves two other functions that are clear to me. It creates a mood, a mood that extends through the rest of the subset. It is cinematically third person and intimately engaging and relatable. The other lines that follow continue this. And what’s the point of creating this mood? That is the second function I see. The Sheltering Sky is about travelers, Port most specifically. This subset, beginning with these five words, is about that feel of perpetual limbo the travelers can thrive on. Each waking, each eye-opening, is a moment of where am I, who am I (for who I am is often in relation to where I am), and what is going on. And the room in which one wakes is the traveler’s weigh-station, a physical expression of the bardo that sleep can be. The “he” of The Sheltering Sky’s first subset (Port) is waking to the world, the dream from moments ago is fleeing from him memory, but he knows in a few seconds he will know where he is, and he is savoring the ambiguity. He can hear his wife in the next room and realizes he was entering another level of consciousness. This wonderful process begins with five words.
Since The Sheltering Sky was Bowles’ first novel and first attempt at a novel, I have always felt that these five words were exactly how he began the whole book (like Haruki Murakami saying in interview that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle began from the image of a man making spaghetti and the whole story flowed from there). As the novel begins with these five words, Bowles’ identity as a novelist begins with these five words, and with the birth of Port’s consciousness in these five words we actually have the birth of the whole character. This is also the birth of the reader’s experience of reading the book.
When I started this essay I mentioned that this line casts a shadowy influence backwards into my reading memory. What I meant by this is that when I finally read The Sheltering Sky this first line reminded me of other wonderfully similar first lines that I had read before it, but had been written and published after it. Mostly I find these opening lines in one of my favorite living writers, John Banville. Two works in particular begin in this fashion, with haunting and brief first lines of Doctor Copernicus (1976): “At first it had no name”; and Shroud (2002): “Who speaks?” Both lines make you want to keep reading like few other short first lines could. Like Bowles’ opening line to The Sheltering Sky, they might not actually say much, but they begin a conversation, a wonderful conversation that takes hundreds of pages to finish.