When Hitler came to power I was in the bath

“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.”

allthatiamannafunder_reheatAs opening sentences go, this has to be among the best ever, so I’m pinching it to open this blog piece. After all, Anna Funder’s semi-factual novel All That I Am did rather well with that opening salvo.

I really wanted to open with a reference back to one of the very few English lessons I remember from my schooldays. We were studying Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Not, in fact, the first line, but the third:

  • The ploughman homeward plods his weary way

Why were the words in this order? The English language allowed many other ways of saying the same thing, but would it have worked any other way?

  •  Homeward the ploughman plods his weary way
  • The weary ploughman plods his way homeward
  • His weary way homeward plods the ploughman

And so on and so on. We looked at alliteration, rhythm, grammar, meaning, foregrounding and so on. I probably haven’t thought a lot about this since that time, and I won’t discuss it here. But something must have sunk in, because it came to mind when I wondered why Anna Funder’s line had hit me in the face so hard when I opened All That I Am. There is so much packed into this sentence that is worthy of a PhD all on its own. But why is it so good?

There is no doubt that the sentence has a lovely poetic rhythm: di dah di di di dah-di / dah di di di dah. But that’s not enough. It’s all about the precise juxtaposition of two ideas.

First of all, the daring matching of these two such contrasting and apparently unconnected ideas: the private, almost intimate event of little consequence, set against, arguably, one of the most momentous events in the public life of the twentieth century. Try some different, less daring pairings:

  • When Dora phoned I was in the bath.
  • When Hitler came to power I was living in the middle of Berlin.

Good starts to a story, but not really arresting.

I discovered I am not the only person to be fascinated by this sentence. Blogger Bryce Alcock cites New York Times writer, Stanley Fish,who says that first sentences need what he  calls “an angle of lean”. First sentences, says Stanley Fish, “lean forward, inclining in the direction of the elaborations they anticipate.” Funder’s book, based on two real characters who were active in the resistance to Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, weaves their personal stories around the historical events of the time with devastating effect. The opening sentence is a perfect demonstration of what is to come, and there isn’t long to wait before the connections are drawn. The text continues:

 try-this-404x229“Our apartment was on the Schiffbauerdamm near the river, right in the middle of Berlin. From its windows we could see the dome of the parliament building. The wireless in the living room was turned up loud so Hans could hear it in the kitchen, but all that drifted down to me were waves of happy cheering, like a football match. It was Monday afternoon.”

Next, consider the sentence order. It starts on the large scale, an event which took some years to complete and had effect around the world. The reader’s imagination is whetted: we are prepared for a story of grand ideas, but are drawn immediately into a brief unseen, otherwise unrecorded event, but one which involves the writer. In a film, the opening shot would start with a helicopter view of a great city and steadily shift down to street level and the assembled crowds, and then track into an open bathroom window.

Try the alternative:

  • I was in the bath when Hitler came to power.

Well, it’s grammatical, and clearly expressed. But this order of ideas suggests strongly that, as we move from the personal event to the public historical one, the novel is to be the narrator’s own view of the events of that time, rather than her personal involvement. There is a sense that the narrator wasn’t well placed to observe much, and so we are likely to be left with a personal memoir in which Hitler’s rise to power is nothing more than a context-setting reference to the period.

If we had opened the book and read:

  • I was a cleaner in the Reichstag when Hitler came to power.

It would all have seemed perfectly reasonable, and unsurprising that such a person could have been well-placed to give an account of the events. Equally, there would have been no point in reversing the order as Anna Funder did with such surprising effect.

  • When Hitler came to power I was a cleaner in the Reichstag.

If anything it is weaker than the alternative, but neither leaves us wanting any further explanation for the drawing together of the two events.

hitlerNow look at the construction of the sentence: two clauses, one subordinate to the other. Anna Funder subordinates Hitler to her narrator/observer. The principal sentence is “I was in the bath”, and the clause about Hitler is simply an adverbial clause which adds information by referring to a simultaneous event.

There’s another possibility: “When” can sometimes indicate a causal or a sequential relationship.

  • When Hitler came to power, many Jews rushed to leave Germany.
  • Hitler came to power when Hindenburg made him Chancellor.

Reversing the weight of the sentence, making bath time the adverbial clause, might have implied this causality.

  •  Hitler came to power when I was in the bath.
  • When I was in the bath, Hitler came to power.

Teasing and intriguing, but not really in the service of what is to come as the narrative unfolds.

Finally, like many other great opening sentences, it travels from the weighty proposition to the unexpected or seemingly inadequate resolution – we are thrown into the middle of a great feast and, being delivered nothing more than a snack, are left panting for more. Consider one or two other contenders for “best first sentence”:

And so I have started my career as a book reviewer. One thousand words, and I haven’t really got past the first sentence. I might need to reconsider this choice.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Bryce on February 26, 2013 at 3:47 PM

    Very thorough analysis, demonstrating that many varieties of magic can help create an arresting first sentence. And thanks for reminding me of the plodding poughman.

    Reply

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