Saturday, 3 July 2010

A whiff of camphor

Hi visitors,

This blog is mothballed. However, the posts are all still here if needed (click on the link to the right to see an index). There are 181 stories of how books got their titles.

In this blog I set myself three conditions for inclusion. Firstly, each title should be the title of a major work: a book or play, rather than, say, a poem or short story. Secondly, the title should not be explicable by reading the text of the book or play itself: some additional biographical or other information should be essential for full comprehension. Thirdly, I have not dealt with too many books that take quotations as sources for titles, unless there is some rather unusual reason for the quotation.

I have relied on the efforts of a great many scholars to write this blog, and a list of sources is given at the end of each post.

Please continue to comment on any of these posts as you see fit and I will certainly respond.

Many thanks to all the visitors and commenters so far.

Gary
Please have a free look inside my two new ebooks:

Alternative Reading:
44 Surprising Literary Ventures
of Well-Known Writers


How to Use 'A' and 'The':
The Challenge of Definite and
Indefinite in English Grammar

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

181. Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring

Here's one for the day they announce the UK general election.

The title of Howard Spring’s bestseller of 1940 — about the rise to power of a Labour politician — encapsulates the truth that all politicians seek to deny: that they seek personal aggrandizement first and foremost, and that serving the people comes second. It came originally from Milton’s Lycidas (a poem which incidentally also provided the title for Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel). But Fame is the Spur is not a ‘quotation-title’ in quite the ordinary sense that, say, Brave New World, The Grapes of Wrath or A Handful of Dust are quotation-titles (if you can name the sources for all three, award yourself the points that you need today). The key is in what comes after. The full quote from Milton runs:

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days.

The penultimate word of the sentence, bearing in mind the political affiliation of the hero, is the pun that Spring wishes the reader to find.
Please have a free look inside my two new ebooks:

Alternative Reading:
44 Surprising Literary Ventures
of Well-Known Writers


How to Use 'A' and 'The':
The Challenge of Definite and
Indefinite in English Grammar

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

180. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

What is the connection between Ray Bradbury and Robert Pirsig? We tend to think of Pirsig’s novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) as having a title of unique quirky brilliance. But it drew for inspiration on a whole corpus of earlier books, many of which had been extremely well-known and successful. They included Zen in the Art of Archery (Eng trans. 1953) by Eugen Herrigel, a German philosophy professor who popularized Zen in the West; Zen in the Art of Flower Arrangement (Eng trans. 1958) by Gustie Herrigel; Zen in the Art of Photography (1969) by Robert Leverant; and several others. These are all ‘Zen in’ rather than ‘Zen and’ titles: but Pirsig was not first in this either, since Ray Bradbury had written an influential and frequently-anthologized essay on the craft of fiction, ‘Zen and the Art of Writing’, as long before as 1958.
Please have a free look inside my two new ebooks:

Alternative Reading:
44 Surprising Literary Ventures
of Well-Known Writers


How to Use 'A' and 'The':
The Challenge of Definite and
Indefinite in English Grammar

Thursday, 4 March 2010

179. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford


The Good Soldier was published in the middle of the First World War, in 1915, and its title has misled many into thinking it is a tale of the trenches. It is not, of course: it is a story of romantic love and betrayal, set (and written) before the outbreak of war. The title came about by means of testy remark of its author. Ford’s original title was The Saddest Story, but his publishers felt that in wartime this would be a drug on the market, and asked for an alternative. Ford wrote back ironically: ‘Why not call the book “A Roaring Joke”? Or call it anything you like, or perhaps it would be better to call it “A Good Soldier” — that might do.’ In 1915 nothing was selling better than books about the war, and, to Ford’s ‘horror’, his publishers took up the suggestion. Ford saw that the real subject of the book had been entirely leached out; it was only partially restored by a new subtitle, A Tale of Passion.

Consulted:
Max Saunders: Ford Madox Ford: Volume I: The World Before the War (1996)

See a clickable index of all titles covered
Please have a free look inside my two new ebooks:

Alternative Reading:
44 Surprising Literary Ventures
of Well-Known Writers


How to Use 'A' and 'The':
The Challenge of Definite and
Indefinite in English Grammar

Friday, 19 February 2010

178. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The titles of Jane Austen’s first two published novels have a symmetry it is impossible to ignore. They are Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). Both feature two opposed abstract nouns, and in doing so they drew on a titling strategy common at the turn of the nineteenth century: abstract noun titles, either dual or single, were very fashionable, especially as productions of women writers. We have, for example, Nature and Art (1796) by Elizabeth Inchbald; Love and Fashion (1799) by Fanny Burney; Self-Control (1811) and Discipline (1814) by Mary Brunton; and Patronage (1814) by Maria Edgeworth. We might recall that one of Jane Austen’s earliest efforts at prose fiction was called Love and Freindship (sic) and that the first draft of Pride and Prejudice (completed in 1797) was entitled First Impressions. Jane Austen also wrote to her niece Anna in 1814 about Anna’s novel, tentatively entitled Enthusiasm, saying that such a title was ‘something so very superior.’

So in her early career Jane Austen was writing to capture a market, deploying her abstract-noun titles as fashionable bait. But with Pride and Prejudice something else was happening under the surface.

Jane Austen was a great admirer of the playwright and novelist Fanny Burney. Burney’s first two novels, Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782), were bestsellers, and she went on to have further success with Camilla (1796). In Northanger Abbey Austen referred to Cecilia and Camilla as the patterns of achievement in the novel form:

'And what are you reading, Miss — ?' 'Oh! It is only a novel!' replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda'; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
In a letter of 1796 Jane talks about an acquaintance, a Miss Fletcher, who admires Camilla – this being one of two ‘pleasing’ aspects of her personality, the other that ‘she drinks no cream in her tea’ – and in Persuasion she has Anne Elliot mention a character from Cecilia (‘the inimitable Miss Larolles’). And it seems that it was from Cecilia that Austen got the title for her best-loved novel. Cecilia ends with a paragraph in which the capitalized phrase ‘PRIDE and PREJUDICE’ recurs three times:

'The whole of this unfortunate business,’ said Dr Lyster, ‘has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. Your uncle, the Dean, began it, by his arbitrary will, as if an ordinance of his own could arrest the course of nature! and as if he had power to keep alive, by the loan of a name, a family in the male branch already extinct. Your father, Mr Mortimer, continued it with the same self-partiality, preferring the wretched gratification of tickling his ear with a favourite sound, to the solid happiness of his son with a rich and deserving wife. Yet this, however, remember; if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination: for all that I could say to Mr Delvile, either of reasoning or entreaty, – and I said all I could suggest, and I suggested all a man need wish to hear, – was totally thrown away, till I pointed out to him his own disgrace, in having a daughter-in-law immured in these mean lodgings!’


Austen, then, was an admirer of Burney, and in many ways was indebted to her. But as the critic Janet Todd has pointed out, Pride and Prejudice marks an important departure from the conventions of Cecilia – and indeed from the conventions of the eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century ‘courtship novel’ in general. In Cecilia the ‘pride and prejudice’ the unhappy lovers encounter are the pride and prejudice of society against their union. In Austen’s treatment, by contrast, pride and prejudice are internalized, existing within the breasts of the main characters: Fitzwilliam Darcy is the embodiment of pride, and Elizabeth Bennet the embodiment of prejudice. This represents a major psychological shift. No longer is the heroine a passive repository of virtue, as in the standard eighteenth-century novel (one might think in this context of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa): Elizabeth Bennet is a heroine of considerable personal charm and wit, but is not without faults. Jane Austen wanted a more rounded heroine. ‘Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick and wicked,’ she wrote to Fanny Knight in March 1817.

Pride and Prejudice therefore continues the Burney line but introduces new elements. They were new enough to make her more celebrated than any female novelist before George Eliot.

Consulted:
Austen, Jane: Pride and Prejudice, ed. Tony Tanner (Penguin Classics, 2003)
Todd, Janet M.: Jane Austen in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Austen, Jane, and Chapman, RW (ed.): Jane Austen's Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others‎ (OUP, 1969)

See a clickable index of all titles covered
Please have a free look inside my two new ebooks:

Alternative Reading:
44 Surprising Literary Ventures
of Well-Known Writers


How to Use 'A' and 'The':
The Challenge of Definite and
Indefinite in English Grammar

Monday, 15 February 2010

177. Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring

Arsenic and Old Lace is generally associated with the 1944 film starring Cary Grant, about two old ladies who murder their gentlemen-visitors. Before that, though, it was a long-running play on Broadway, the most successful of the plays of Joseph Kesselring. The play got its title from a previous, and now largely forgotten, sentimental novel of 1902, Lavender and Old Lace, by Myrtle Reed. Reed’s titles tended towards the fey (e.g. Old Rose and Silver; Threads of Grey and Gold) and were much parodied as a result. Now that her fragrant opus has dropped out of folk memory it is Arsenic and Old Lace that we think of as the original. The two titles were neatly conjoined by Carl Sandburg in his poem ‘Now They Bury Her Again’ (an elegy on the death of poetry): ‘Under the sod with regrets and embellishments/ they lay away a lady in lavender and old lace,/ in arsenic and old lace.’

Consulted:
Herzberg, Max John: The Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature‎ (1962)

See a clickable index of all titles covered
Please have a free look inside my two new ebooks:

Alternative Reading:
44 Surprising Literary Ventures
of Well-Known Writers


How to Use 'A' and 'The':
The Challenge of Definite and
Indefinite in English Grammar

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

176. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

When made into a film in 1976, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea was described by Punch as ‘an everyday tale of torture, scopophilia, copulation, masturbation, dismemberment and antique dealing’. All true, though the original title of Mishima’s 1963 novel was rather different. It was Gogo no Eiko, which hinges crucially on the homonym eiko, and can be rendered either ‘An Afternoon’s Glory’ or ‘An Afternoon’s Towing’. Mishima’s English translator, John Nathan, was stumped (all he could think of was Glory is a Drag) and went to the author for help. Mishima, who hungered after the Nobel Prize, decided he wanted ‘a long title in the manner of À la Recherche’ — perhaps to impress the committee — and chose The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, in reference to the (extremely gruesome) downfall of the main character. But it did him little good: sales were disappointing, even in Japan.

Consulted:
Nathan, John: Mishima: A Biography‎ (1975)

See a clickable index of all titles covered
Please have a free look inside my two new ebooks:

Alternative Reading:
44 Surprising Literary Ventures
of Well-Known Writers


How to Use 'A' and 'The':
The Challenge of Definite and
Indefinite in English Grammar

Friday, 5 February 2010

175. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest contains a pun, that much seems clear. Shaw said in his review of 1895 that the wordplay on Ernest/Earnest was not in fact a very good pun, and that the title as a whole was rather laboured and old-fashioned. But Shaw might have missed something. ‘Earnest’ quite likely plays on Urning, the German word for ‘homosexual’ coined in the 1860s by the sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and a term much in vogue in the England of the 1890s. That its derivative was ‘Earnest’ is borne out in the title of a collection of homoerotic love lyrics, Love in Earnest, by John Gambril Nicholson, published in 1892 (three years before Wilde’s play). One poem in the collection, ‘Of Boys’ Names’, makes the point clear:

Old memories of the Table Round
In Percival and Lancelot dwell,
Clement and Bernard bring the sound
Of anthems in the cloister-cell,
And Leonard vies with Lionel
In stately step and kingly frame,
And Kenneth speaks of field and fell,
And Ernest sets my heart a-flame.

One name can make my pulses bound,
No peer it owns, nor parallel,
By it is Vivian’s sweetness drowned,
And Roland, full as organ-swell;
Though Frank may ring like silver bell,
And Cecil softer music claim,
They cannot work the miracle,—
’Tis Ernest sets my heart a-flame.

Cyril is lordly, Stephen crowned
With deathless wreaths of asphodel,
Oliver whispers peace profound,
Herbert takes arms his foes to quell,
Eustace with sheaves is laden well,
Christopher has a nobler fame,
And Michael storms the gates of Hell,
But Ernest sets my heart a-flame.

Envoy.
My little Prince, Love’s mystic spell
Lights all the letters of your name,
And you, if no one else, can tell
Why Ernest sets my heart a-flame.

Consulted:
Craft, Christopher: Another Kind of Love: Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, 1850-1920 (1994)

See a clickable index of all titles covered
Please have a free look inside my two new ebooks:

Alternative Reading:
44 Surprising Literary Ventures
of Well-Known Writers


How to Use 'A' and 'The':
The Challenge of Definite and
Indefinite in English Grammar

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

174. Blood Wedding by Federico García Lorca

The Spanish title of Lorca’s great modernist play is Bodas de Sangre, or ‘Wedding of Blood’. The title and theme came from a murder committed in 1928 in the town of Nijar in the Spanish province of Almería, when a young woman, Francisca Cañada Morales, ran off with her cousin, Francisco Montes Cañada, moments before her wedding to a local man. The cousin was then shot dead by the prospective bridegroom’s brother. Lorca read about the incident in the Heraldo de Madrid newspaper and kept the cutting until he came to write the play in 1932. One odd titular circumstance remains to complicate matters, however. In 1927, a year before the murders, a film called Bodas Sangrientas (‘Bloody Wedding’) was shown in Barcelona and Madrid, based on the novel Beatrice Cenci by Luciano Doria. It’s not known whether Lorca saw the film; some critics are more sanguine than others.

Consulted:
Lima, Robert: The Theatre of García Lorca‎ (1963)

See a clickable index of all titles covered
Please have a free look inside my two new ebooks:

Alternative Reading:
44 Surprising Literary Ventures
of Well-Known Writers


How to Use 'A' and 'The':
The Challenge of Definite and
Indefinite in English Grammar

Thursday, 28 January 2010

173. A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift

A Tale of a Tub sounds simple, but isn’t. Swift explained that it derived from a nautical tradition in which sailors, when menaced by a whale, would throw a tub overboard for it to play with; symbolically, the whale was Hobbes’s atheistical tract Leviathan, and the tub Swift’s own book, intended to distract it from scuttling the ship of state.

But this can only be a partial explanation. The phrase ‘a tale of a tub’ was slang for ‘a cock-and-bull story’, and had been the title of a 1596 comedy by Ben Jonson, as well as featuring in works such as Webster’s The White Devil. A ‘tub’, too, was slang for a pulpit, and Swift was a clergyman.

Perhaps another important influence was Rabelais: Swift greatly admired Rabelais and modelled his prose style partly on him, and the phrase ‘a tale of a tub’ appears several times in the Urquhart translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel.

Consulted:
Jonathan Swift, Angus Ross, and David Woolley: A Tale of a Tub and Other Works (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)

See a clickable index of all titles covered
Please have a free look inside my two new ebooks:

Alternative Reading:
44 Surprising Literary Ventures
of Well-Known Writers


How to Use 'A' and 'The':
The Challenge of Definite and
Indefinite in English Grammar