Books: Cultural Amnesia — Sir Thomas Browne |
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Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682) is one of those minor English prose writers whose reputations are always rediscovered in times of crisis, because they had a gift for rhythm that forecast the language of the future, and it is in times of crisis that the English language is most easily seen to be a treasure house of humanism. During World War II, European exiles in London—the future Nobel laureate Elias Canetti was one of them—learned to value Browne’s style as an example of what English could do in a short space. Since written English can so easily run to specious prolixity, we can always use examples from the past to remind us that it doesn’t have to be like that. The English language has always made its main initial impact through the turn of a single phrase. Book titles, when they catch our attention, are a constant reminder that this is so. One of the earliest unforgettable book titles was devised by Browne himself: Urn Burial. No sooner seen but memorized, even when you don’t yet know quite what is meant.

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Dreams out of the ivory gate, and visions before midnight.

WHEN I FIRST read this magnificent line, the second half of it begged to be the title of a book. I copied the line into an early instalment of my journal, so it must have been when I was at Cambridge, where I had a brief period one winter of joining Browne’s collected works in Pembroke Library after the early nightfall, as if those moulting leather-bound volumes were a gang of old drinking chums. At the time I had no idea what kind of book mine would be. The phrase was a cap looking for a head to fit. Later on, when I was assembling my first book of television criticism, it took me a while to remember that there was a suitable title all set to go. Visions Before Midnight seemed just right: the television programmes were visions, they happened before midnight, and the falling phrase had something in it of a civilization coming to an end, which was roughly the way the BBC sports commentators made me feel.

Since Thomas Browne thought of it first, I need not fear a show of immodesty in saying that “visions before midnight” is an exquisitely balanced phrase. Browne had an infallible sense of cadence that could operate through a whole sentence, making it a long poetic line. Characteristically the first half of the sentence rolled up the hill and the second half rolled down, so the second half had more momentum. “It cannot be long before we lie down in darkness,” he wrote, “and have our light in ashes.” In that sentence the first half itself falls into two halves. (One of those halves was borrowed by William Styron as a title: Lie Down in Darkness.) Another three-part two-parter should be more famous than it is. “Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave.” Really there should be a colon after “animal,” and everything after the colon is a single clause, soaring first and then coming in to land. Browne’s section of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is full of lines like that, but they are best studied in context, in the oldest edition of his works that you can find. The musculature of his style should be appreciated through time, as the beauty of a leopard should be seen through trees. For a writer like him, an anthology is a zoo of the bad old kind, where the animals were stymied behind bars or on concrete islands.

Dreams out of the ivory gate—pause to consider the power of a single comma—and visions before midnight. I never contemplated stealing the first half of this particular sentence and thought that nobody ever would, but years later I found that someone already had. (These were still the days before “to Google” had become the infinitive that could search infinity.) There it was in a second-hand bookshop: Dreams out of the Ivory Gate, by J. B. Priestley. Why he picked the less dramatic half of the sentence is beyond comprehension, but he might have thought it the more poetic. I would call it the more poeticized, and thus the less durable. On its own, “dreams out of the ivory gate” sounds like an average moment from James Elroy Flecker’s Hassan or The Golden Journey to Samarkand. Not that Flecker is without his covetable jewellery impatiently waiting for the right burglar. “Tonight or any other night / Will come the gardener in white / And gathered flowers are dead, Yasmin.” As a title, all The Gardener in White so far lacks is a book to fit. It also has the virtue of being hard to misquote. Both in real life and in the media, I have had interlocutors wanting to talk about some obscure work called Visions at Midnight. Since they have probably been misled by nobody less than Shakespeare (“I have heard the chimes at midnight,” says Falstaff, as if aware that Orson Welles will come along one day to borrow the last three words), I ought to feel complimented, but actually it drives me to distraction. Similarly, my novel Brilliant Creatures comes back to me as Beautiful Creatures. When I lifted that title from a poem by Yeats (“The Wild Swans at Coole”) I thought it was fluff-proof. To hear it misquoted is like stealing a piece of Lalique glass for a high-maintenance girlfriend and then watching her drop it.

Book titles are not a true study, but they are a lasting interest. Often they are the first clue to the sensibility of the author who chooses them. In my novel The Remake (much excoriated by critics, and therefore cherished by me) I indulged myself with two separate passages of clever-dick dialogue in which characters vied with each other to name the best book titles ever. Before re-creating the game on paper I had played it many times in real life, and I am still ready to play it with all comers. From any contestant, the author most often drawn upon, as an adept of the seductive title, turns out to be Hemingway. Sylvia Beach, founding proprietress of the legendary Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Co., used to say that one of the secrets of Hemingway’s commercial success was his unerring choice of titles, which resonated across the bookshop to ensnare the customers with their silent music. Some of his best titles, whether for novels or short stories, were made up: “A Way You’ll Never Be,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Across the River and into the Trees. (The last, probably his worst book, inspired a telling critical parody by E. B. White, “Across the Street and into the Grille,” and after White came the deluge: every hack had a stab at the same construction—across the this, or these, and into the that, or those.) But a surprising number of Hemingway’s best titles were borrowed from established literature, and among them were two of the very best: The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Thus to establish a continuity with classic English prosody was not only clever of him, it was appropriate. Eugene O’Neill worked an appearance of the same trick with the title of his play Mourning Becomes Electra: the use of “becomes” hints at a hallowed archaism, and also, when the meaning is grasped, encourages you to emphasize the right word, thereby releasing from a short sentence its endless melody. William Faulkner went all the way by choosing a biblical quotation that had the Old Testament written all over it: Absalom, Absalom! But it was just as characteristic of him to call a book Sanctuary, bringing the browser close by opening up the echo chamber of a single word.

A knack for titles is not necessarily the prerogative of genius. Gifted journeymen can do it too. Raymond Chandler’s titles were as good as his books: The Big Sleep, The Little Sister, The Lady in the Lake. Dashiell Hammett’s were better than his books: The Glass Key, The Thin Man, Red Harvest. Ira Levin’s can be poetic in the best sense: A Kiss Before Dying. Newly minted technical terms are an exploitable source for jobbing writers with no particular inspiration but a reasonable ear: Fail-Safe. The word “last” carries an automatically romantic charge which has made it too popular with title-seekers to be used now: The Last Romantics, The Last Tycoon, Last Exit to Brooklyn. The prolific inventor of the Saint, Leslie Charteris, got in early with the most lasting use of “last”: The Last Hero. There have even been outright bad writers blessed by the visitation of a poetic title. Ayn Rand had one with The Fountainhead, and another with Atlas Shrugged: a bit of a mouthful, but nobody has ever spat it out without first being fascinated with what it felt like to chew. Yet if those were not two of the worst books ever written—the worst books ever written don’t even get published—they were certainly among the worst books ever to be taken seriously.

A foreign title often loses something when brought over into English, but sometimes there is an even match—Der blaue Engel and The Blue Angel, La Peste and The Plague—and occasionally there is a substantial gain. Françoise Sagan got lucky in that respect: Those Without Shadows. So did Gabriel García Márquez: not for One Hundred Years of Solitude, a title I find as spongy as the book, but for The Autumn of the Patriarch. In the original German, The Tin Drum is Der Blechtrommel. Though it is always hard to judge the weight and balance of words in a language that is not one’s first, it is just as hard to believe that Günter Grass lost anything there, because the English phrase gives you two clear beats on the drum, while the long German word sounds like someone choking. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a faithful rendition of the Italian original, and is therefore ridiculous, because no Italian of any real literary judgement believes that Calvino, when he conceived that title, was doing anything else except putting on the dog, plus a feather boa, a plumed hat and a pair of platform shoes. (This is not to say that long titles don’t sometimes succeed: Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is still good, although it was never really a good book—it was an indulgence.)

When the language is so far away from English that the translator can afford to rebuild the title from the ground up, the results are more likely to be good, and in the case of Mishima they were marvellous. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is one of those ear-catchers that wear better than you think they might, and The Decay of the Angel is one of my favourite titles ever: desolate and lavish at the same time, like Cleopatra’s barge at the breaker’s yard. (The actual book, of course, has all the taste and judgement of a photo of Mishima in his posing pouch, pectorals oiled and motorcycle aching to be embraced between his bandy thighs.) Tanizaki, a far more important writer than Mishima, should have been as lucky with his titles, but apparently didn’t care. The title of his masterpiece The Makioka Sisters is just as lacklustre in the original. If only he could have borrowed something by Mishima: Spring Snow would have been perfect. It would also have been irrelevant, but good titles often are. George Barker called one of his poetry collections Eros in Dogma. In the more than forty years since I first bought a copy in Tyrrel’s second-hand bookshop in George Street, Sydney, I have found the title of the book as impossible to forget as the poems in it were impossible to remember.

The title that screams quotation is rarely right, although few go as wrong as Anthony Powell’s notorious O, How the Wheel Becomes It!, which not only makes you not want to read his book, it makes you not want to hear anything else that Shakespeare’s Ophelia ever said. (The same man, we should remember, invented a book title to beat the band: Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant.) All the best quoted titles sound invented, with just a hint that someone else once coined the phrase: A Long Day’s Dying, The Strings Are False, All the Conspirators. (The word “all” is too cheaply tempting: All My Sons turned out well, like All the Brothers Were Valiant and All the Rivers Ran East; but All the Sad Young Cannibals made all “all” titles suspect.) When writers take their titles from previous literature, the previous literature doesn’t have to be all that previous: just as long as it is not contemporary. T. S. Eliot was still very much in business when Evelyn Waugh raided The Waste Land for one of his best titles: A Handful of Dust. But The Waste Land had been just long enough established as a canonical text for Waugh to pick a plum. Eliot’s own idea of a terrific title was Ara vos prec: a sure-fire hit with any bookshop browser who spoke medieval Provençal.

Poetic titles ought to be easy for poets, but few of them make the effort, or notably succeed when they do. Auden made a point of choosing titles that would radiate art deco glamour even as they lay sideways on the thin spines of his early collections: the flamboyant side of his gift came in handy. Look, Stranger! is one of the best book titles in any genre. He took the title from one of his own lines: “Look, stranger, on this island now.” His American publisher—at Auden’s suggestion, strangely enough—pointlessly dissipated the effect by favouring the excerpt On This Island. (Decades later, the essayist Wayland Young, collecting a set of lectures about the state of contemporary Britain, realized that somewhere in the middle of the contretemps there was another good title going begging: This Island Now.) Another bank-raid title by Auden came straight out of the American colloquial language, in the same way that the Broadway lyricists picked up temptingly ambiguous phrases from conversations overheard in the street: Another Time. It means better luck next time, it means a different era, and it means regret. It also means that any reader who picks up the book can already feel his skin prickling before he opens it. I feel the same about the title of Galway Kinnell’s great long poem—his great short long poem, an important consideration—The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World. Kinnell’s title has the effect of a trouvaille: he probably found it attached to a painting of Spanish troops and priests advancing into a territory they were fated to lay waste. But it was an American find: a big find, the size of a house. Auden’s finds were micromanaged, appropriate to his way with a phrase. When young he could invent phrases like “The earth turns over, our side feels the cold” and string them together in a headlong rush, thus producing his trademark early tension, between the locution begging to be pondered and the impetus declining to be stopped. In his later, austere manner, he invented less, but could hear just as well. What he wanted to hear was the plain statement with a wealth of implication behind it—well behind it, so that you had to dig. The idea that his American exile was poetically barren would be sufficiently rebutted by attention to one little poem: “The Fall of Rome.” In my own mind, that title is etched as one of his richest, although there is almost nothing actually in it: everything is to come. The whole poem leads you back to it, and almost everything you read about in the daily news or hear about in your daily life will lead you back to the poem. The poem’s “unimportant clerk” is you, here, today. Elsewhere in the world, the mutiny of “the musclebound marines” will affect you tomorrow.

As Auden’s poetic corpus takes up its place in literary history, it stands ready to be mined for titles by later writers. I myself was one of the first in: the title of my autobiographical volume Falling Towards England came from an Auden poem that features Sir Isaac Newton watching his apple exemplify the law of gravity. (In a letter to me which is now in the State Library of New South Wales, Philip Larkin wondered why none of the reviewers had spotted the theft, and concluded that they were too young to have known the thrill of Auden’s first impact.) Risking solipsism—not for the first time in my life—I can extrapolate from my own example to suggest that many writers feel the need to find their titles in the literary past, whether as a claim to seriousness, a desire for legitimacy, or just a childish wish to stick close to mother. There is also the consideration that if you pull off the heist successfully then at least one part of your book will be worth reading. Long ago, in the seedy heyday of Sydney’s Downtown Push, I was told the story of an unrecognized but determined Push novelist who had completed a magnum opus bigger than anything by Tolstoy and thought she would have a better chance of getting it published if she could dig a good title out of an established masterpiece of English literature. On being told that Milton had been the author of several works that might conceivably be thought of as filling the bill, she searched his collected poems from end to end—as a slow reader, this took her almost a year—and finally announced that she had found something unbeatable: it encapsulated her theme, had an intriguing rhythm, came from an obscure secondary effort called “Lycidas,” and nobody had ever thought of using it before. She would call her book Look Homeward, Angel. But there had been nothing wrong about her instinct. She just didn’t know that Thomas Wolfe had got there before her, following the same instinct: to look for resonant phrases in the past, when writers like Sir Thomas Browne were minting new coin with everything they wrote.