An Essay from Herman Koch: The First Sentence
For me, a book is already finished once I’ve come up with the first sentence. Or rather: the first two sentences. Those first two sentences contain everything I need to know about the book. I sometimes call them the book’s “DNA.” As long as every sentence that comes afterward contains that same DNA, everything is fine.
When I start writing, I don’t have the entire book laid out in my mind. I never draw up outlines either. On the contrary: I sit down at my desk each morning, curious to see what’s going to happen next. Just like the reader. Without that feeling of curiosity, I wouldn’t be able to keep going. In the same way, readers often lose all desire to read on once they know how the book ends.
So for me, it’s all about those first two sentences. Twenty-five years ago I was traveling through Spain with a girlfriend. On a motorbike. That evening we had eaten somewhere and talked about old times, about our high school days. And that night in bed, those first two sentences were suddenly there. They were:
The story I want to tell is about the retarded boy. His name was Jan Wildschut, which is exactly the right name for someone who isn’t completely right in the head.
I didn’t have to write those sentences down. I lay awake all night. I’ve got a book, I thought. The next morning, I still remembered them. Two days later I wrote a note to my publisher, saying that I had a book and asking when I could turn it in. It took almost a year before that actually happened. I found myself forced to come up with all kinds of fibs. “I’m working on the second draft,” I lied. I was still writing the first draft. The book was eventually given the title Save Us, Maria Montanelli, and the first sentences are still precisely those two sentences that kept me awake all night.
On December 31, 2005, I was having dinner with a party of sixteen (family, friends, husbands, wives, children) at an outdoor restaurant in Barcelona (you can do that in Barcelona, have dinner outside on December 31). We were talking about all kinds of things: about jogging, health clubs; about adultery, Iraq, adoption; about eating too much, about drinking too much, etc. Everyone was chattering away at the same time, conversations split up into sub-conversations. I looked around, I was absolutely happy, the appetizer came, the main course came—and suddenly there came, as well, out of the blue, the first two sentences, this time along with the title. They were:
We were going out to dinner. I won’t say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we’re there.
I’ve got a book! I whispered to myself as I started in on my dessert and coffee with cognac. I saw the entire book before me, at a single go. I saw that it would consist of five sections, each section with a title corresponding to the headings on a menu: Aperitif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, Digestif. The book was going to be called The Dinner.
This all took no more than a minute. My heart was pounding, my face was flushed, my eyes began to glisten, someone in our party turned to me and asked whether I was all right. “Better than I could dare to hope,” I replied in my best Spanish, with a smile from ear to ear. It must have been the smile of a believer, someone who is being “reborn” and has just “seen the light.”
I didn’t have to write down the two sentences. For the rest of that evening and the rest of the night to come I repeated them to myself. They kept me awake. That they kept me awake was proof that they were the right sentences: that nothing about them needed to be changed. All I had to do was write the book.