A WEEK IN BOOKS

John Walsh ponders the bogus spirituality to be found in this autumn's book titles
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The Independent Culture
The autumn blizzard of new titles is well and truly upon us, and when I say titles, I mean it in the old-fashioned sense of the naming of books. One looks, wide-eyed, at the extremes of invention and vapidity that are arrived at, after presumably hours of labour, by authors and publishers determined to hook the passing-trade reader with the same force as that once exercised by the words Heart of Darkness or The Ragged- Trousered Philanthropists.

Of the vapid there are perhaps too many examples (does Winter Tales or A Patriot in Berlin or On the Road Reluctantly make your heart beat faster?). The inventive ones can generally be taken as the work of the author, his or her excitable new coinage (The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie, Jack Juggler and the Emperor's Whore by John Arden) redolent of gamey international myth-making as well as of a desire to have their title enter some lexicon of well-known phrases or sayings, to be later mangled and adapted by sub-editors looking for witty ("hospital closures? how about `The Silence of the Limbs'?") headings.

Elsewhere, the presiding titular genius is a fey, numinous thing, full of desperate spirituality. Its patron saint is William Blake, whose influence can be found all over the place. The biography by Peter Ackroyd is out next week. Michael Dibdin's new thriller is Dark Spectre, the title from Blake's Jerusalem, which itself turns up in the novel as the sacred text of a homicidal cult. The title of Justin Cartwright's new novel, In Every Face I Meet, derives from the poem "London" in Blake's Songs of Experience, as does that of the Bloomsbury author Steve Weiner's The Museum of Love, a pale variant of "The Garden of Love".

This nodding towards canonical works is, of course, standard practice in entitling books. Shakespeare, Keats and Milton are simply littered with titles, while three of James Lees-Milne's four volumes of Diaries have titles taken from Coleridge's "Kubla Khan". But what do you do when you run out of literary allusions? From this autumn's evidence, you look heavenward, or if not, inward. It's puzzling, but the nation's publishers give the impression of having spent the early part of the year in retreat at a Benedictine monastery. What else would explain their fixation with the divine (eg Tom Grimes's City of God, set in a gangsta-rap Armageddon, or David Ambrose's Mother of God, about a serial killer terrorising victims on the Internet) or with heaven (the composer John Taverner's Glimpses of Paradise, or Julie Chimes's true-life tale of her own attempted murder, A Stranger in Paradise) or with meditation (Sean French's novel The Dreamer of Dreams, say). Even a new Gollancz study of "the trainspotter as 20th- century hero" is entitled Platform Souls...

Spectres, heavens, souls, Blakean visions, dubious Gods - it's an odd Zeitgeist we appear to be in the middle of. But perhaps we shouldn't read too much into book titles. Historically they've often been a little naff or ill-advised. An amusing new book on this very subject, Now All We Need Is a Title by Andre Bernand, points out that, before it went into the language as the coolest-ever title of a thriller, Farewell My Lovely was christened, successively, The Second Murderer, Sweet Bells Jangle and Zounds, he Dies...

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