Best opening to a book ever?

10 April, 2012

From Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).

The “brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” brings to mind Mark Twain’s observation:

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

This attitude explains why atheists are so sanguine at the prospect of the absence of an afterlife. Not surprisingly, Richard Dawkins picks up this theme in “The God Delusion”:

“Being dead will be no different from being unborn – I shall be just as I was in the time of William the Conqueror or the dinosaurs or the trilobites. There is nothing to fear in that.”

Reading Nabokov requires time and attention, but it’s usually time well spent.  It is a thing of wonder that he was capable of writing such remarkable prose in a language that was not his native one.  The opening paragraph of Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s memoir of his early life,  continues:

I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first-time at home-made movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby-carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

Although the memoir has perhaps too much detail on the various (and generally aristocratic) members of Nabokov’s family tree, and also a surfeit of reminiscences of particular butterfly-netting experiences, it contains much else that is a real pleasure to read.


One Response to “Best opening to a book ever?”

  1. Larry Says:

    That Mark Twain quote cracked me up! Penn Jillette said something similar:

    “You weren’t born in 1890, were you?”
    “Does that scare you?”
    “So why does 2090 scare you?”

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