the greatest opening line in modern english literature? . . .

. . . according to many, it is.

L. P. Hartley (1895-1972) is today best known for the first 11 words of his 1953 novel, The Go-Between, which in turn is best known through Harold Pinter’s brilliant screenplay for Joseph Losey’s film, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Hartley’s dystopian fable, Facial Justice, was chosen by Anthony Burgess for his 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939.




The famous opening:


THE PAST is a foreign country: they do things differently there. 

When I came upon the diary, it was lying at the bottom of a rather battered red cardboard collar-box, in which as a small boy I kept my Eton collars. Someone, probably my mother, had filled it with treasures dating from those days. There were two dry, empty sea-urchins; two rusty magnets, a large one and a small one, which had almost lost their magnetism; some negatives rolled up in a tight coil; some stumps of sealing-wax; a small combination lock with three rows of letters; a twist of very fine whipcord; and one or two ambiguous objects, pieces of things, of which the use was not at once apparent: I could not even tell what they had belonged to. The relics were not exactly dirty nor were they quite clean, they had the patina of age; and as I handled them, for the first time for over fifty years, a recollection of what each had meant to me came back, faint as the magnets’ power to draw, but as perceptible. Something came and went between us: the intimate pleasure of recognition, the almost mystical thrill of early ownership—feelings of which, at sixty-odd, I felt ashamed. 

It was a roll-call in reverse; the children of the past announced their names, and I said “Here.” Only the diary refused to disclose its identity. 

My first impression was that it was a present someone had brought me from abroad. The shape, the lettering, the purple limp leather curling upwards at the corners, gave it a foreign look; and it had, I could see, gold edges. Of all the exhibits it was the only one that might have been expensive. I must have treasured it; why, then, could I not give it a context? 

I did not want to touch it and told myself that this was because it challenged my memory; I was proud of my memory and disliked having it prompted. So I sat staring at the diary, as at a blank space in a crossword puzzle. Still no light came, and suddenly I took the combination lock and began to finger it, for I remembered how, at school, I could always open it by the sense of touch when someone else had set the combination. It was one of my show-pieces and, when I first mastered it, drew some applause, for I declared that to do it I had to put myself into a trance; and this was not quite a lie, for I did deliberately empty my mind and let my fingers work without direction. To heighten the effect, however, I would close my eyes and sway gently to and fro, until the effort of keeping my consciousness at a low ebb almost exhausted me; and this I found myself instinctively doing now, as to an audience. After a timeless interval I heard the tiny click and felt the sides of the lock relax and draw apart; and at the same moment, as if by some sympathetic loosening in my mind, the secret of the diary flashed upon me. 

Yet even then I did not want to touch it; indeed my unwillingness increased, for now I knew why I distrusted it. I looked away and it seemed to me that every object in the room exhaled the diary’s enervating power and spoke its message of disappointment and defeat. And as if that was not enough, the voices reproached me with not having had the grit to overcome them. Under this twofold assault I sat staring at the bulging envelopes around me, the stacks of papers tied up with red tape—the task of sorting which I had set myself for winter evenings, and of which the red collar-box had been almost the first item; and I felt, with a bitter blend of self-pity and self-reproach, that had it not been for the diary, or what the diary stood for, everything would be different. I should not be sitting in this drab, flowerless room, where the curtains were not even drawn to hide the cold rain beating on the windows, or contemplating the accumulation of the past and the duty it imposed on me to sort it out. I should be sitting in another room, rainbow-hued, looking not into the past but into the future; and I should not be sitting alone. 

So I told myself, and with a gesture born of will, as most of my acts were, not inclination, I took the diary out of the box and opened it. 




it said in a copperplate script unlike the lettering of today; and round the year thus confidently heralded, the first year of the century, winged with hope, clustered the signs of the zodiac, each somehow contriving to suggest a plenitude of life and power, each glorious, though differing from the others in glory. How well I remembered them, their shapes and attitudes! And I remembered too, though it was no longer potent for me, the magic with which they were then invested, and the tingling sense of coming fruition they conveyed—the lowly creatures no less than the exalted ones. 

The Fishes sported deliciously, as though there were no such things as nets and hooks; the Crab had a twinkle in its eye, as though it was well aware of its odd appearance and thoroughly enjoyed the joke; and even the Scorpion carried its terrible pincers with a gay, heraldic air, as though its deadly intentions existed only in legend. The Ram, the Bull, and the Lion epitomized imperious manhood; they were what we all thought we had it in us to be; careless, noble, self-sufficient, they ruled their months with sovereign sway. As for the Virgin, the one distinctively female figure in the galaxy, I can scarcely say what she meant to me. She was dressed adequately, but only in the coils and sweeps of her long hair; and I doubt whether the school authorities, had they known about her, would have approved the hours of dalliance my thoughts spent with her, though these, I think, were innocent enough. She was, to me, the key to the whole pattern, the climax, the coping-stone, the goddess—for my imagination was then, though it is no longer, passionately hierarchical; it envisaged things in an ascending scale, circle on circle, tier on tier, and the annual, mechanical revolution of the months did not disturb this notion. I knew that the year must return to winter and begin again; but to my apprehensions the zodiacal company were subject to no such limitations: they soared in an ascending spiral towards infinity. 

From Colm Tôibin’s introduction to the New York Review Books edition of The Go-Between:


L. P. HARTLEY put everything he knew, and everything he was, into The Go-Between, which he published in 1953 when he was fifty-eight. He managed to dramatize his own watchful and uneasy presence in the world, his abiding concern with class and caste, and his very personal mixture of alarm and fascination at the body and the body’s sexual needs and urges. It allowed him to evoke a past, a time half a century earlier, a golden age, as he saw it, of Victorian morals and manners, an age of innocence in the short time before its shattering. In The Go-Between he found the perfect way of making sense of his own complex relationship to class and sexuality and memory, but the novel’s intensity also suggests that, working in a time when he alone seemed to possess rigid feelings about these matters, he was writing to save his life. 

Leo [Colston], the narrator of The Go-Between, arrives at Brandham Hall in the hot summer of 1900 to stay with his school friend Marcus. A cautious boy being brought up frugally by his widowed mother, he enters the brave new world of the English aristocracy as Marian, the daughter of the big house, is having a love affair with Ted Burgess, a farmer at the other end of the class system. Leo, the outsider, becomes the bearer of messages between the two lovers… 

A novel is a thousand details, and any novelist will raid the past for moments that have resonance or ring true or may be useful, or simply come to mind easily and quickly. In his book The Novelist’s Responsibility (1967), Hartley mused on the relationship between fiction and autobiography. He wrote that the novelist’s world “must, in some degree, be an extension of his own life; its fundamental problems must be his problems, its preoccupations his preoccupations—or something allied to them.” He also warned that while it is “unsafe to assume that a novelist’s work is autobiographical in any direct sense,” it is nonetheless “plausible to assume that his work is a transcription, an anagram of his own experience, reflecting its shape and tone and tempo.” 

His experience when he began The Go-Between in Venice in May 1952 was that of a man who remained uncomfortable in his chosen milieu, who had learned a set of rules to help him belong. Nothing was taken for granted. He had studiously avoided intimacy. Thus he would have no difficulty describing a middle-class boy’s visit to a grand house, a boy with a brittle consciousness who was wearing unsuitable clothes, open to ridicule, watching everything so he could learn and not be laughed at, a boywho would be mortally wounded by a display of intimacy. Hartley was ready to explore what he described in The Novelist’s Responsibility as “this idea or situation” that goes on in a writer “like a kind of murmur; it is what their thoughts turn to when they are by themselves.”…  

It is, in any case, written between the lines of the book, which turns out not to be a drama about class or about England, or a lost world mourned by Hartley; instead it is a drama about Leo’s deeply sensuous nature moving blindly, in a world of rich detail and beautiful sentences, toward a destruction that is impelled by his own intensity of feeling and, despite everything, his own innocence.


chandler’s law—the world is a jungle; it is cynically given a veneer of order by the corrupt police

Anthony Burgess sums up Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye: “If this is not literature, what is?”

The Long Goodbye
Raymond Chandler (1953)

Cover of the first English editon

Chandler was once considered an admirable writer of low-class fiction, the story of crime and detection (despite the example of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone) being regarded as ineligible for inclusion in the ranks of the serious novel. But Chandler is a serious writer, an original stylist, creator of a character, Philip Marlowe, as immortal as Sherlock Holmes, and of an ambience—Southern California—which colours one’s attitude to the real location. This is perhaps the best of the Philip Marlowe series. Here Marlowe, the stoical and rather quixotic private eye, attempts to lose his old detachment from people and make friends with Terry Lennox, a weak but amiable man who is married to the daughter of a multimillionaire. The marriage is unsatisfactory; Lennox calls his wife, Sylvia, a tramp. The story becomes complicated when Sylvia is found bloodily murdered. Bribed heavily by his father-in-law, Lennox agrees to take the blame for the murder: he disappears into Mexico and is later reported dead. The case is officially closed and the great family name of Potter (that of the tycoon) cleared.

Marlowe now meets a popular novelist, Roger Wade, sick of his meretricious craft, a drunkard and former friend of Sylvia. Marlowe considers the possibility that Wade may have killed Sylvia when drunk and then blacked out the incident. Then Wade is found dead. Marlowe learns that his wife, Eileen, was once married to Lennox. She killed Sylvia out of jealousy and then killed Wade because of his unreliability: "He talked too much." At the end of the book Lennox reappears. Marlowe is disillusioned with him: his weakness of character has produced an unnecessary murder. Marlowe is hurt, but he soon reverts to his old cynicism. He needed friendship, but he is not going to get it. The world is a jungle; it is cynically given a veneer of order by the corrupt police. You can say goodbye to everybody, but never to them.

Romantic, tending towards a sentimentality it never quite reaches, The Long Goodbye is beautifully composed, with a taut economical style exactly suited to the narrator Marlowe. If this is not literature, what is?

from Anthony Burgess, 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939. Allison & Busby, 1984.



“every decision you make is a mistake”—an edward dahlberg miscellany

Edward Dahlberg was admired by and a friend to an exceptionally diverse group of writers: Jack Kerouac, Lydia Davis, Guy Davenport, Paul West, Anthony Burgess, Charles Olson, Samuel R. Delany, Gilbert Sorrentino, Thomas McGonigle, Jonathan Lethem… 

edward dahlberg biography (from wikipedia)

Edward Dahlberg (July 22, 1900 – February 27, 1977) was an American novelist and essayist.

Dahlberg was born in Boston to Elizabeth Dahlberg. Mother and son wandered through the southern and western United States until 1905, when she opened a barber shop in Kansas City. In April 1912 Dahlberg was sent to the Jewish Orphan Asylum, Cleveland, where he lived until 1917. He eventually attended the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University.

In the late 1920s Dahlberg lived in Paris and in London. His first novel, Bottom Dogs, was published in London with an introduction by D. H. Lawrence. He visited Germany in 1933 and in reaction briefly joined the CommunistParty, but left the Party by 1936. From the 1940s onwards, Dahlberg made his living as an author, and also taught at various colleges and universities, most notably Black Mountain College. He married R’Lene LaFleur Howell in 1950.

Dahlberg died in Santa Barbara, California, on February 27, 1977.


assorted quotations

life, truth & the self

Every decision you make is a mistake.

Everything ultimately fails, for we die, and that is either the penultimate failure or our most enigmatical achievement.

So much of our lives is given over to the consideration of our imperfections that there is no time to improve our imaginary virtues. The truth is we only perfect our vices, and man is a worse creature when he dies than he was when he was born.

Men are mad most of their lives; few live sane, fewer die so. The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered. Man is driven to justice by his lunacy.

Ambition is a Dead Sea fruit, and the greatest peril to the soul is that one is likely to get precisely what he is seeking.

There is no place to go, and so we travel! You and I, and what for, just to imagine that we could go somewhere else.

The people who think they are happy should rummage through their dreams.

Genius, like truth, has a shabby and neglected mien.

We cannot live, suffer or die for somebody else, for suffering is too precious to be shared.

What most men desire is a virgin who is a whore.

When one realizes that his life is worthless he either commits suicide or travels.

It takes a long time to understand nothing.

Man hoards himself when he has nothing to give away.

I would rather take hellebore than spend a conversation with a good, little man.

merica & society

We are a most solitary people, and we live, repelled by one another, in the gray, outcast cities of Cain.

No people require maxims so much as the American. The reason is obvious: the country is so vast, the people always going somewhere, from Oregonapple valley to boreal New England, that we do not know whether to be temperate orchards or sterile climate.

Intellectual sodomy, which comes from the refusal to be simple about plain matters, is as gross and abundant today as sexual perversion and they are nowise different from one another.

One of the weaknesses in the cooperative is that it has never been sufficiently leavened by the imagination. This is a quick-silver faculty, and likely to be a cause of worry to any collective settlement.

The ruin of the human heart is self-interest, which the American merchant calls self-service. We have become a self-service populace, and all our specious comforts — the automatic elevator, the escalator, the cafeteria — are depriving us of volition and moral and physical energy.

There is a strange and mighty race of people called the Americans who are rapidly becoming the coldest in the world because of this cruel, man-eating idol, lucre.

A strong foe is better than a weak friend.

One cat in a house is a sign of loneliness, two of barrenness, and three of sodomy.

Men are mad most of their lives; few live sane, fewer die so. The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered. Man is driven to justice by his lunacy.

Nothing in our times has become so unattractive as virtue.

The Americans have always been food, sex, and spirit revivalists.

The ancients understood the regulation of power better than the regulation of liberty.

The machine has had a pernicious effect upon virtue, pity, and love, and young men used to machines which induce inertia, and fear, are near impotent.

The majority of persons choose their wives with as little prudence as they eat. They see a troll with nothing else to recommend her but a pair of thighs and choice hunkers, and so smart to void their seed that they marry her at once. They imagine they can live in marvelous contentment with handsome feet and ambrosial buttocks. Most men are accredited fools shortly after they leave the womb.

It is very perplexing how an intrepid frontier people, who fought a wilderness, floods, tornadoes, and the Rockies, cower before criticism, which is regarded as a malignant tumor in the imagination.

writers & writing

The earnings of a poet could be reckoned by a metaphysician rather than a bookkeeper.

Herman Melville was as separated from a civilized literature as the lost Atlantis was said to have been from the great peoples of the earth.

Though man is the only beast that can write, he has small reason to be proud of it. When he utters something that is wise it is nothing that the river horse does not know, and most of his creations are the result of accident.

The bad poet is a toady mimicking nature.

Hardly a book of human worth, be it heaven’s own secret, is honestly placed before the reader; it is either shunned, given a Periclean funeral oration in a hundred and fifty words, or interred in the potter’s field of the newspapers back pages.

Writing is conscience, scruple, and the farming of our ancestors.

To write is a humiliation.

What has a writer to be bombastic about? Whatever good a man may write is the consequence of accident, luck, or surprise, and nobody is more surprised than an honest writer when he makes a good phrase or says something truthful.

We can only write well about our sins because it is too difficult to recall a virtuous act or even whether it was the result of good or evil motives.

Writing is conscience, scruple, and the farming of our ancestors.

Those who write for lucre or fame are grosser than the cartel robbers, for they steal the genius of the people, which is its will to resist evil.

Recognize the cunning man not by the corpses he pays homage to but by the living writers he conspires against with the most shameful weapon, Silence, or the briefest review.


Edward Dahlberg, Because I Was Flesh (1964)

Would to God that my mother had not been a leaf scattered every-where and as the wind listeth. Would to heaven that I could compose a different account of her flesh . . . Should I err against her dear relics or trouble her sleep, may no one imagine that she has not always been for me the three Marys of the New Testament. Moreover, whatever I imagine I know is taken from my mother’s body, and this is the memoir of her body…

Kansas City was my Tarsus; the Kaw and the Missouri Rivers were the washpots of joyous Dianas from St. Joseph and Joplin. It was a young seminal town and the seed of its men was strong. Homer sang of many sacred towns in Hellas which were no better than Kansas City, as hilly as Eteonus and as stony as Aulis. The city wore a coat of rocks and grass. The bosom of this town nursed men, mules and horses as famous as the asses of Arcadia and the steeds of Diomedes . . . Kansas City was the city of my youth and the burial ground of my poor mother’s hopes; her blood, like Abel’s, cries out to me from every cobblestone, building, flat and street…


When the image of her comes up on a sudden—just as my bad demons do—and I see her dyed henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric lights in the Star Lady Barber Shop, and the dear, broken wing of her mouth, and when I regard her wild tatters, I know that not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags. Selah.

Edward Dahlberg,
Bottom Dogs (1929)

The next five years were spent in a kaleidoscopic succession of occeupations, which took him all over the country. He has been a Western Union messenger boy in Cleveland, trucker for the American express, driver of a laundry wagon, cattle drover in the Kansas City Stockyards, dishwasher in Portland, Oregon, potato peeler in Sacramento, bus-boy in San Francisco, longshoreman in San Pedro, clerk in a clinic, and vagabond everywhere. . .

She moved from town to town, selling hair switches, giving osteopathic treatments, going on again when she felt the place had been played out. In this way she hoped to save a little money and establish herself in some thriving city. She had taken Lorry with her wherever she went.

Edward Dahlberg,
Do These Bones Live? (New York, 1941)

There are no abstract truths—no Mass-Man, no proletariat. There is only Man. When the Pulse has been nailed upon the crossbeams, lo, Reason gives up its viable breath and becomes a wandering ghostly Error. Truth and folly are ever about to expire, so that we, like our beloved Sancho Panza kneeling at the death-bed of Don Quixote, must always be ready to go out to receive the holy communion of cudgels and distaffs, for the rebirth of the Pulse, living anew, in our veins and bones, as the quickened Truth.

Finally, this Whitmanesque poem (in its entirety):

Edward Dahlberg, “The Leafless American,” (1967)

How old are we?

We are still a horse and buffalo
people, heavy, lumbering cattle, with
prairie and grain virtues, and our avarice
is primitive wigwam barter; we ought to
adore the great fish god, for we are a
costal people, and New Mexico and Arizona,
which are saurian undersea country, breeding
pine, cactus, and snakes, are Galilean land.

We are passing from a morning horse
innocence to unusual vices, and we are not

Is Pike’s Peak a hummock of old world
sin, or the Rockies Scythian debauchery,
or the mineraled Colorado dawn the Orient
pearl? It is hay and brook and sweet pony
corral, appled meadow garnished with odors
more virtuous than spiced Eden.

Take no stock in American turpitudes;
look to the Toltec of the Mayan for the
lascivious parrot and monkey.

The Platte River, the pine, the sage
brush are hardy character, but not history,
and I admit that nothing has ever happened
to me, and that I am mad for events.

Whatever we do is vast, unconscious
geography; we are huge space giants of the
mesa, surd, mad rivers that rush along, and
we do not care to be near each other; this
is not ancient wickedness, but solitary
prairie grazing.

We cannot bear each other because we
are immense territory, and our most malignant
folly was to closet us up in cities, and take
away our ocean past.

We should have the deepest reverence
for poverty, because we are New Testament
ground. Every day I offer a sacrifice to
the extinct bison, the horse and savage
Iroquois, who are our muse of cereal, yam
and maize, and when somebody strokes my
head, I walk to Mt. Shasta, or the Oregon
orchards which are my epistles to the

Who is my Father?

The rising sun-man disappeared,
and the step-father, the petticoat parent,
is rearing the children since the tent,
the wagon, and saddle have gone.

The great, grassy basin, the Catskill
eagle made us tribal and fierce; the Pawnee,
leading the sorrel of the Platte by a bull-hide
rope, lessoned us in poverty, for want too
is a tough, rude god make out of dried buffalo
skin, to which we must offer our orisons, lest
we perish of sloth and surfeit.

Our forefathers were giant volcano-horses;
we were a hot earth animal as the elephant
shaped mounds found in Kansas show.

Give us back our origins, for I am out
of season in any other land, or plant except
the corn seeds of Quetzalcoatl, the yucca,
the cactus, and the Mojave joshua tree,
dearer than the desert tamarisk beneath
which Saul sat.

We have lost ground, city-cursed
that we are, left it behind us like the
Quiche did the Yaqui for whom they wept.

Return the Platte, the bison, the hoof-print
of the deer, for I am as hungry for them as
the wandering Quiche who had to smell the points
of their staffs to deceive their empty stomachs.

Our Mother paps were rabid gulches
in which the white and gray wolves howled,
and now that the Toltecs and the Pawnee
are dead, we are their evil genius, looking
for a relic, a flint arrow, a teepee, a
harness, a piece of bread.

I need confidence, the antelope, the
pack-mule, the Indian apple, but we have
killed the old bread gods made of plums,
incense and the coca plant. Until we find
the Quiche bread idol, we are orphans.

The word together has become a tabu
devil; everything is public except guilt,
which is hidden like hands that are pursed
and pocketed lest they be demanded for
hand-shaking, which is some uneasy, first
sin; touch a man and blood goes out
of his cheek; the mountains, the hills and
the grass are turning against men, and
every man dreads every man.

The mating season that once cattled
the fingers of the marriageable now brings
the alley tree, cemented in the side walk,
and the tuberose poodle together. Aging
men walk through the macadam auto ravines,
until magnolia dusk, and then they go to
their rooms, walking from faucet to window-hole.
They crawl under a mealy blanket seeking that
primeval night that came before creation, and
fall at once into a water of sleep, void of
vegetable, animal or root.

The highways have no ancestors;
the 19th century American was kinless
iron, and these men of the
20th are houseless sepcters because
they have never claimed the continent.
They have destroyed the old, rooty
deities of the Cherokee and the Huron
which are now howling in their dead,
double-breasted coats and pants. The
city auto man has killed everything,
going through the unowned land without
branch, leaf, trunk or earth. The
autumn comes, and he has no foliage
to shed, and the winter appears, and
he cannot rest or sleep or die until
April, and his destiny star, too, is
dead. He has no green May shoots and
no loam in which to sprout. He feeds
listlessly and is alone when he genders
with his wife. He is an unseeding,
hating man who has forgotten to plant
a street, a blue-bell, a house.

Prophecy, O lost people without
a fate, is seeing the quick of the
instant. You have no porch, no yard,
no steps, you are groundless, and bitten
by gnats because you have slain the
earth. Can you die? Death is sweet
and dear, for it is quiet. But there
are no hills to appease you, and no
mountains to give you hard, striving
will, or rivers to wash your eyes to
make them see.

Homeless, denatured ghost of many
leafy races, where do you blow? who
will gather you up?

— from The Leafless American and Other Writings