Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

An aside on titles

Robinson Crusoe, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield. Novels used to have character names as titles, reaching its peak at the end of the 19th Century; a trend notable in David Lodge's novel Author, Author about the later career of Henry James. When George du Maurier discusses plans for novels and stories with his distinguished friend, the titles are surprisingly mundane: Peter Ibbetson, Owen Wingrave, Sir Edmund Orme and, of course, Trilby. Times have changed. Look at the Booker Prize archives and the only shortlisted novel you'll find with a character's full name as the title is Elizabeth Bowen's Eva Trout from 1970. Ten years later, Martin Amis hints at why there was a sudden fall off: "literature used to be about the gods, then it was about kings, then it was about heroes, then it was about you and me."

Thirty years on, popular novels titles tend to be advertising slogans using cliché and puns to mimic newspaper headlines or TV dramas – Hearts & Minds, Sweet Tooth, Bleeding Edge – while Booker Prize titles tend to use figures of speech to allude poetically to unifying qualities: The Lighthouse, Swimming Home, Umbrella. This might tell us more about one of the two paths fiction is taking. In 1981, Amis reckoned the novel's subject was becoming "about them", by which he meant sleazeballs such as John Self in Money and Rinaldo Cantabile in Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, yet those titles suggest the direction has always been toward something less apparent, beyond even them.

The obvious implication of the original trend is that the rise of the novel coincided with the decline of religion, authority and community, and what remained for writers was the sundered self. Each name in a title acts like the "Sir" in James' story, signaling the surviving context. Indeed, the very notion of a writer removed from his fellows and charged with this task is part of the same trend, which, according to the scholarly character Felix in Gabriel Josipovici's Everything Passes, is itself a product of the age of print: "[The miracle of print] meant you had gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You no longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing". This deepens the relevance of metafiction, otherwise considered a frivolous genre. In a letter of October 1900, James himself recognises the not-so-romantic fate of the writer in this new age of self:
The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life–and it seems to be the port also, in sooth to which my course again finally directs itself! This loneliness ... what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper about me, at any rate, than anything else: deeper than my "genius," deeper than my "discipline," deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep countermining of art.
That such pitiful awareness appears in a private letter rather than in a work of fiction is evidence of a fundamental rupture – though one can certainly imagine John Marcher telling May Bartram exactly this in The Beast in the Jungle, published three years later.

Perhaps a final cultural port has been arrived at with the publication of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle series, in which the mundane intensity of living a singular life saturates each page. Despite this, book one has a fascination with what writing cannot thematise, with what can be approached only as one approaches a mirage. This is what makes it "perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times". The original title for the series was Argentina, a distant, exotic land of promise; "a dream country" Knausgaard said. No wonder he now expresses discomfort and even shame about his remarkable work, since the domestic detail dominating critical reception has obscured the shimmering of fresh water on the far side of the desert.

6 comments:

  1. I wonder if it didn't have to do with those early novelists being enamoured with authenticity; a novel like Robinson Crusoe went to great lengths to make the reader believe he was reading about a real person, being written in the first person and as an alleged memory; so did Moll Flanders; and then we have Clarissa and Pamela, which inaugurate the epistolary novel: again, there's the artifice of authenticity in using letters to tell a story. I think the trend stopped in the 20th century because realism became a smaller concern and a subjective view of reality - think of Kafka - started taking precedence.

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  2. Yes, authenticity is sought as authority, so it's in keeping with what I wrote. By coincidence, this began as a post about Stach's biography of Kafka and I got sidetracked. But I'm not sure how Kafka's represents "a subjective view of reality", because that misidentifies the authority to which his fiction is subject, which is implicit also in the culture of definitive biographies of writers.

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    1. I mean that Kafka was not as interested in capturing reality as the naturalist/realist novelists of the previous generation. I don't even think he was as interested in people as he was in situations and ideas.

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  3. Interesting. I wonder what the age of the internet will do to titles? Your audience may not be known but it certainly has a voice. One of my favourite 'slogan' titles is William Golding's Fire Down Below, which has at least four separate meanings in the context of the story.

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  4. Thanks Elly. I think the proliferation of cliche or pun as title is probably a symptom of the internet - at least, a wish to appeal to an inattentive audience, not grabbing attention so much as being so bland so as to be consumed without upset in large amounts.

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  5. Then there is the manual/history approach: The Russian Debutante's Handbook (Shteyngart), A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Lewycka), and The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing (Bank), among others.

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