“The first sentence of a novel has to contain something of the energy of an unconscious cry that sets off an avalanche... It has to be a spark that unleashes a chain reaction... It is for this reason that the first sentence is never innocent. Within itself it contains, in a nutshell, the whole story, the whole plot. The first sentence is like an embryo packed with possibilities, like a lucky spermatozoid, if you will permit such a comparison... Ha, ha...”
I was listening to these words, out of politeness more than anything else, but in fact I was caught up in other thoughts. During the night I had had a strange dream, almost a nightmare: I dreamed I was making a list of the major problems facing mankind (crises, wars, epidemics, catastrophes), but I was unable to hit upon the right order and so I kept swapping them around, problem number one was relegated to fourth place, problem number five moved up to second place, and so on. Then, during the course of the morning, I had received a telephone call from Bucharest: a fellow writer asked me to sign a petition to save the Monteoru Building. All these things had put me in a strange mood of detachment from reality. To add to these disquietudes, I had also been disturbed by a rainstorm at lunchtime, which wracked the trees in the Champ-Elysées, a visible rain sent by an inimical destiny, eager to perturb the day on which I was due to be handed a prestigious literary award.
“The first words of a novel are like the cry of a sailor scanning the ocean from the crow’s nest when he sights land on the horizon... I know that such claims might seem rather overwrought to you, grotesque even. But all the same, if you grant them a little attention, you will see how just they are... A good beginning to a novel is a metaphysical trigger mechanism or it is nothing at all.”
Who was it that introduced me to that man? How had he battened on to me there in that secret garden, where finally there would take place a minor awards ceremony beneath the rather generous sun that had appeared from between the clouds at the last minute? The lawns, the rose bushes, the gravel paths were still sodden, but nobody seemed intimidated by that still cold and wet world. As if emerging from the very books that were to be awarded prizes there, all those writers and critics, magazine editors and literary agents seemed to me more like characters. I viewed them with astonishment as they took full advantage of that garden party, as they moved about frenetically, as they darted from one table of delicacies to another, from Japanese to Maghreb specialties, from the pyramid of fruit to the trays of sweets, but above all as they took advantage of the champagne provided without restriction and as they exchanged coded words and phrases, to the accompaniment of gestures and looks likewise full of subtle meanings and messages.
I myself was holding a glass of champagne and I forced myself to smile whenever somebody approached me to tell me how much I deserved to benefit from the jury’s attention at last. Of course, it was not an important prize, I was not among the first places on the list, but nonetheless I had taken an important step towards greater visibility.
“A finger squeezing a trigger, that is what a successful, intense first sentence means. A genuine opening of a novel is the outbreak of an inner blaze... But don’t forget that there are sometimes suicidal first sentences... Imagine a very strong opening to a novel, but which has the trajectory of a boomerang. What does it do? Well, at a given moment it comes back and hits you full in the face. But you already know that an author, an authentic writer, accepts certain risks when he begins to write... Including the risk of ending up beneath the rubble of his construction...”
It was as if the man who was spouting these words was faceless, his features shimmered in front of me and I could not manage to focus on them. For the time being he was nothing but a voice. But was he speaking to no one but me, or did his words ring in the ears of all those assembled there, around two hundred beings irremediably afflicted by the virus of literature? My attention was fragmented in two hundred little directions, because those people interested me, they were part of a certain Parisian artistic elite, absolutely all of them were more initiated than I was (“initiated in what?” “in everything”) and they exhibited themselves in that wet world with infinitely greater naturalness than I did.
Had I been able to gather my thoughts into a single bundle, I would have said the following to the voice that had battened onto my eardrum: can’t you see that my main problem now is my right hand? I’ve solved the problem of my left hand, I’m holding my champagne glass with it, but no use can be found for my right hand, no support, no meaning, I cannot manage to lend it any natural attitude.
“I could tell you about all this at greater length, if we find some time.”
“Sure. Time is no problem.”
“In any event, the first sentence of a novel has to be a kind of locomotive capable of pulling behind it the whole train of words, sentences, pages and chapters, the whole procession of characters and the whole series of events and metaphors. (Ah, bonjour and congratulations, I am reading your book at the moment, you know.) The first sentence is an explosion, in fact... (Bravo. Who is your publisher, in fact?) although sometimes this explosion can also be delayed. Anyway, sooner or later, it has to give birth to a world. Few authors are conscious of the special nature of this first sentence, of the fact that it functions as a veritable Big Bang...”
Satisfied with themselves, avid to be seen, all the protagonists of that social and literary spectacle were in ceaseless motion. Groups of three, four, five people formed with Brownian rapidity and disintegrated just as swiftly, since each participant in the game wished to experience as many combinations as possible.
I have always been a good observer of the world, a close and patient observer. If at the end of my life they were to give me a prize, it would have to be for the conscientiousness with which I have looked at everything, and above all at people. Yes, more than anything else, they, people, seemed to me worthy of being savoured, be they anonymous pedestrians or acquaintances, be they celebrities or minor participants in the urban rituals. People with their internal contradictions, contradictions visible or invisible, conscious or unconscious, they have been my passion. The human ballet on the streets, in the railway stations, in the shops, the markets, and all the places liable to draw more than a single person, has always seemed to me a spectacle of great power, comical in its unpredictable side, tragic in its pointlessness, poetic in its disorder.
“But few writers know that these essential first sentences can also be purchased,” concluded the man with the shimmering features. “This is in fact what I wanted to tell you. Our agency has been procuring the openings to novels for more than three hundred years. Let me give you my business card, who knows, maybe one fine day we shall meet again... And congratulations on the award...”
The dealer in openings to novels vanished, leaving me in a mood of inner comfort. Something beneficial to my equilibrium had occurred in the moment he left: my right hand found its meaning; in it I grasped the business card of a stranger.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth