What are some literary works that begin with an aphorism, then proceed without transition to straightforward narrative?
March 5, 2009 4:16 PM   Subscribe

What are some literary works that begin with an aphorism, then proceed without transition to straightforward narrative?

Example of what I mean:

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it. ¶ Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn't think I would have it easy when I took over. The country, like others in Africa, had had its troubles after independence. The town in the interior, at the bend in the great river, had almost ceased to exist; and Nazruddin said I would have to start from the beginning.

Another example:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ¶ Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys' house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him.

Doesn't count:

A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say "one chooses" with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who -- when he has been seriously noted at all -- has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did those images choose me? . . . It was strange to see Henry out on such a night . . .
posted by Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 


Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice begins with this aphorism: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
posted by amyms at 4:34 PM on March 5, 2009


Dash you, amyms. Dash you to heck. I had the same quote on my pasteboard when I thought I had better reload the page to make sure nobody had posted this yet. And you had, in the ten seconds, perhaps, that it took me to find a copy online. Dash you.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:36 PM on March 5, 2009


The word is epigraph.
posted by limeonaire at 4:50 PM on March 5, 2009


limeonaire, it's not an epigraph--Mummy is talking about an aphorism that's integrated into the prose, rather than offset from it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:00 PM on March 5, 2009


The word is epigraph.

No. Epigraphs are quotes from other authors (or purported quotes from fictitious authors). For example, the bit from the Satyricon at the beginning of The Waste Land or the chapter head quotes in Dune
posted by mr_roboto at 5:02 PM on March 5, 2009


Aight, fair enough.
posted by limeonaire at 5:18 PM on March 5, 2009








I don't know one if this one is famous as an opening, but it should be:

Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead...
posted by abcde at 10:17 PM on March 5, 2009


This doesn't seem to be quite what you are looking for, but I thought you may like to read the first paragraph of Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle because it parodies a rather horrible translation of your second example: "'All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,' says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R.G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880). That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858)."
posted by Houyhnhnm at 7:26 AM on March 6, 2009


it parodies a rather horrible translation of your second example

Actually, it simply parodies (or, better, reimagines) the sentence, as VV is parodying/reimagining almost everything in the novel; there's nothing "horrible" about the standard translation.

Great question, and I look forward to more examples!
posted by languagehat at 8:05 AM on March 6, 2009


Actually, it simply parodies (or, better, reimagines) the sentence, as VV is parodying/reimagining almost everything in the novel; there's nothing "horrible" about the standard translation.

There's nothing horrible about the standard translation, but what Nabokov quotes is a complete contradiction and not standard by any means. He says in Strong Opinions that he is parodying (perhaps mocking) bad translators here and in a few other places in the novel. (It's also interesting that he included the concluding "a" in Karenina because he was adamant that her family name should be translated as Anna Karenin.)


Also, this may not count either, but modern versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde begin with a preface of numerous aphorisms that are not explicitly related to the narrative. Wikipedia says that it "serves as an indicator of the way in which Wilde intends the novel to be read".
posted by Houyhnhnm at 11:16 AM on March 6, 2009


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