Famous Last WordsThis feature first appeared in the Irish Examiner.
It’s one of the most understated finales of any novel, and yet the last lines of To Kill a Mockingbird, delivered after Atticus Finch consoles his daughter Scout in the wake of the Boo Radley affair, have an enduringly quiet resonance. “He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”
To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s classic coming-of-age tale, we asked a number of authors to tell us their favourite last lines from a novel.
“‘Murder doesn’t round out anyone’s life except maybe the murdered’s, and sometimes the murderer’s.’
‘That may be,’ Nora said, ‘but it’s all pretty unsatisfactory.’” - The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Declan Hughes, author of City of Lost Girls: “I like this because it sums up the complex, open-ended nature of the new type of crime fiction Dashiell Hammett was writing, where justice and order were not restored at the end.”
“Poor Eric came home to see his brother, only to find (Zap! Pow! Dams burst! Bombs go off! Wasps fry: ttsss!) he’s got a sister.” - The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Niamh O’Connor, author of If I Never See You Again: “To the very last line, The Wasp Factory manages to just keep the surprises coming.”
“Someone should tell a blind man before setting him out that way.” - Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
Adrian McKinty, author of Fifty Grand: “If the world were not a fallen place someone would help the blind man. And perhaps, eventually, someone will.”
“ … I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like made and yes I said yes I will Yes.” - Ulysses by James Joyce
Patrick McCabe, author of The Holy City: “With no contest, it’s Molly at the end of Ulysses. It makes a perfect circle of the narrative.”
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” - Middlemarch by George Eliot
Ruth Dudley Edwards, author of Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing: “Middlemarch is the wisest novel I know, and its ending is a wonderful tribute to all those fine but forgotten people to whom the world has owed so much down the generations.”
“I laid my cheek against his hand and breathed with him until the last breath. ‘You done good, kid,’ I whispered, when he was still at last.” - O is for Outlaw by Sue Grafton
Ava McCarthy, author of The Courier: “Snappy sound-bites are all very well, but they usually just deliver an intellectual impact. For me, the last line should capture the core emotional change that has occurred at the very heart of the story. An emotional ingredient is far more enduring.”
“When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.” - Peter Pan by JM Barrie
Eoin Colfer, author of And Another Thing: “This is a brilliant sentence at once romantic and cutting, which gets straight to the heart of how young people are and I think that was J.M Barrie’s gift; he understood children.”
“I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I know longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.” The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
Brian McGilloway, author of The Rising: “In a book about books and how we respond to them, where objects such as a Rose have become so symbolic that they lose all meaning, the final phrasing is beautiful.”
“Are there any questions?” - The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Val McDermid, author of The Fever of the Bone: “I like novels that leave space for my own imagination, and I like the confidence and wit of Atwood’s ending.”
“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.
“On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again.” - The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Ed O’Loughlin, author of Not Untrue & Not Unkind: “I love the way it aches.”
“Enough.” - Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
Aifric Campbell, author of The Loss Adjustor: “Updike closes his four volume ‘Rabbit’ masterpiece with one word, and with this masterful stroke, he captures the joy and pain and beauty that is at the heart of all endings for readers and writers alike: we cannot bear to say goodbye, but it is time to let go.”
“My dearest, said Valentine, has the count not just told us that all human wisdom was contained in these two words - ‘wait’ and ‘hope’?” - The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
William Ryan, author of The Holy Thief: “That last line is a neat encapsulation of the thousand odd pages that precede it, and a perfect finish to a book I love reading.”
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Deborah Lawrenson, author of Songs of Blue and Gold: “It’s just magical.”
“He told me what he was going to do when he won his money then I said it was time to go tracking in the mountains, so off we went, counting our footprints in the snow, him with his bony arse clicking and me with the tears streaming down my face.” - The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
Tana French, author of Faithful Place: “This line captures everything that’s punch-in-the-gut powerful about the whole book - that expert mix of black humour, vortexing insanity and terrible sadness.”
“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Famous Last Words
I had a piece published recently in the Irish Examiner called ‘Famous Last Words’, the idea being that writers nominate their favourite last lines from a novel. Declan Hughes, Tana French, Val McDermid, Eoin Colfer and Adrian McKinty were among the contributors, and it went something like this …