Title contenders

So you've just completed your literary magnum opus, but what do you call it? Even great writers like Tolstoy and TS Eliot could never make up their minds. Kevin Jackson examines the curious history of the book title
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Coming up with a suitable title for my new book took me ages, and in the end someone had to come to my rescue. But in the months before I finally threw in the towel, I beguiled many a harmless half-hour by seeking inspiration in the titles of other gatherings of essays, particularly those by some of my favourite modern writers, from grand and solemn Americans such as Lionel Trilling (The Liberal Imagination, Beyond Culture, The Opposing Self), Edmund Wilson (The Shores of Light, The Triple Thinkers) and Susan Sontag (Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will and - most beautiful - Under the Sign of Saturn) to the jokier or more oblique Britons: Anthony Burgess (Homage to QWERTYUIOP), Gilbert Adair (The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice), Bruce Chatwin (What Am I Doing Here; and what happened to the question mark?).

Coming up with a suitable title for my new book took me ages, and in the end someone had to come to my rescue. But in the months before I finally threw in the towel, I beguiled many a harmless half-hour by seeking inspiration in the titles of other gatherings of essays, particularly those by some of my favourite modern writers, from grand and solemn Americans such as Lionel Trilling (The Liberal Imagination, Beyond Culture, The Opposing Self), Edmund Wilson (The Shores of Light, The Triple Thinkers) and Susan Sontag (Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will and - most beautiful - Under the Sign of Saturn) to the jokier or more oblique Britons: Anthony Burgess (Homage to QWERTYUIOP), Gilbert Adair (The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice), Bruce Chatwin (What Am I Doing Here; and what happened to the question mark?).

Eventually, and inevitably, I turned to Cyril Connolly, who seemed able to summon up or track down titles for his collections of journalism (The Condemned Playground, Previous Convictions) that were almost as memorable as those of his through-written works: Enemies of Promise, The Unquiet Grave. The best of all his titles for the former group was surely The Evening Colonnade, with its subdued play on the journalistic and architectural senses of the word "column" and its pleasing assonance of "Colonnade" and "Connolly". He found the phrase in Pope: "What are the gay parterre, the chequr'd shade/The morning bower, the ev'ning colonnade/But soft recesses of uneasy minds/To sigh unheard in, to the passing winds?"

Pope was not, however, Connolly's first choice. His introductory essay to this late collection reveals that he had also toyed with, and rejected, Penultimatum, Iago's Nothing If Not Critical (which has since been bagged by Robert Hughes), The Meeting Rivers (too flat), The Voiceless Worm (from Wordsworth: too self-loathing), The Surface of Past Times (also Wordsworth: too Proustian), Time and the Bell (from TS Eliot: too suggestive of the boxing ring), The Downright Epicure (Vaughn: too downright) and others. In the course of his vain searches, he grew envious of the dead: "Some writers have no problem: their title descends in tongues of flame, it's just a matter of choosing a book. Paradise Lost, Vanity Fair, War and Peace, Farewell to Arms, The Waste Land ... "

Fine titles, all of them, yet Connolly's suggestion that this select band of writers had "no problem" in finding a name is as disconcerting as his slovenly omission of the indefinite article from that Hemingway title. Just about everyone who reads Eliot nowadays, and quite a few who don't, will recall that The Waste Land, far from descending in tongues of flame, was originally entitled He Do The Police in Different Voices. As a devotee of High Modernism, Connolly was almost certainly aware of this himself, since Faber had published the facsimile of Eliot's drafts, with annotations by Ezra Pound, in 1971, two years before The Evening Colonnade. And, in any case, The Waste Land wasn't exactly a coinage but - as one would expect of such an allusion-ridden work - a sort of double quotation, from Malory's Morte D'Arthur and from St Augustine's Confessions. Or, possibly, a triple quotation: the June 1915 issue of Poetry Chicago, which published "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock", also boasted a poem called "The Waste Land" by the now forgotten Madison Cawein.The Waste Land, incidentally, must be one of the most commonly misspelled titles of the century; I've lost track of the number of times I've seen it cited as "The Wasteland", but it must rival or exceed the number of times that Finnegans Wake is rendered as "Finnegan's Wake".

This odd lapse of attention on Connolly's part set me to wondering quite how fiery or tonguey the titles of the rest of his shortlist might have been. Paradise Lost? One of the early outline drafts of the poem suggests that Milton was considering the alternative title Adam Unparadized. Vanity Fair? Thackeray appears to have begun writing his novel in February 1845, and it wasn't until October-November 1846 - after it had been rejected by Colburn and other publishers - that the Bunyanesque title finally struck him. He was staying in Brighton, and according to John Sutherland in his introduction to the World's Classics edition of Vanity Fair, it "came upon him unawares in the middle of the night". He "jumped out of bed and ran three times round his room, uttering as he went, 'Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair"'. Before this revelation, Thackeray had referred to his work-in-progress as Novel Without a Hero and Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society; both of these, as Sutherland observes, "survive as subtitles" in the final version.

War and Peace? When Tolstoy began work on the novel, it was set in the 1820s, and he planned to call it 1825. Then, after it dawned on him that he would have a far more impressive tale to tell if he transported his characters back two decades to the height of the Napoleonic wars, he changed the title to 1805, and it was duly published under this heading in the Russian Herald. Still uncomfortable, and suspecting that it might be a good idea for all his heroes and heroines to enjoy happy endings, he resolved to lift one of Shakespeare's finest titles and call it All's Well That Ends Well. It was only when the epic implications of his theme became fully apparent that he settled on the stately, all-encompassing War and Peace.

A Farewell to Arms? On the face of it, another odd modern choice for Connolly, since Hemingway was well known to fiddle and fidget with his titles to a neurotic degree. He once claimed that, "I make a list of titles after I've finished the story or book - sometimes as many as a hundred. Then I start eliminating them, sometimes all of them." His memoirs of Paris, A Moveable Feast, were given their name by his widow, Mary, who discovered that he had referred to the City of Light in that phrase in a letter; the alternative titles Hemingway had contemplated included The Eye and the Ear, To Write It Truly, Love is Hunger, It Is Different in the Ring and The Parts Nobody Knows. Curiously, A Farewell to Arms just happens to be one example of a title which Hemingway settled on and stuck to unswervingly, but it certainly didn't come to him in a blinding flash - he set himself to trawling through Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse in search of inspiration when he had completed a 600-page manuscript of the novel. The phrase comes from the Elizabethan poet George Peele, and is a title or subtitle for the well-known verses which begin, "His golden locks time hath to silver turn'd ..."

Adam Unparadized, Novel Without a Hero, 1805, He Do The Police in Different Voices ... While it would be a trifle harsh to suggest that, with a strike- out rate of 80 per cent or higher, Connolly could hardly have picked a more wobbly set of titles had he tried, his feeble score can serve to remind us that memorable titles are much more likely to be the product of long deliberation, search missions and the application of talent than some painless Pentecostal descent.

Anyone interested in making a swift trawl through the lore of classic titles and some of their earlier avatars is warmly recommended to consult Andre Bernard's Now All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way (1996), an entertaining little volume from which I learnt that East of Eden was once called The Salinas Valley; Gone With the Wind was once called Pansy (also Tote the Weary Load, Tomorrow is Another Day, Jettison, Milestones and Ba! Ba! Black Sheep); Tess of the d'Urbervilles was once called The Body and Soul of Sue (also Too Late, Beloved! and A Daughter of the d'Urbervilles); and Bleak House was called, among several other scarcely less odd possibilities, Tom-All-Alone's Factory that Got Into Chancery and Never Got Out. Mr Bernard's book also includes some useful authorial hints on the nature of a memorable title, such as Walker Percy's maxim that it "should be like a good metaphor; it should intrigue without being too baffling or too obvious", or John O'Hara's proposal that one way to arrive at a haunting title is to juxtapose two simple words in an unexpected way, as he did for his own novel A Rage to Live - a juxtaposition he found ready-made in Pope's Moral Essays. Eric Korn, who collects such trifles, has pointed out that John O'Hara's earlier novel Appointment in Samara is one of that happy breed of books in which author and title rhyme: other examples include Omphalos by Philip Gosse and The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth.

Whether or not they indulge in public discussion of the subject as O'Hara did, however, most authors will be aware that a title is, or should be, a small work of art in its own right. Similarly, most publishers will recognise that, though an apparently uncommercial title need not sink a book that people want to read, a good title can be the commercial making of a book. One of Connolly's favoured quintet, TS Eliot, acknowledged this when he wrote that Nathaniel Hawthorne had possessed even that minor token of literary genius, the genius for titles.

Eliot's general proposition sounds right whether or not you agree with him that Hawthorne was a titular whizz. One working definition of a great title might be that it manages to pass into common literate currency, and only one of Hawthorne's titles, The Scarlet Letter, has achieved that distinction - you need to be fairly well read to be able to reel off two or three others without hesitation (The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, The Marble Faun - Hawthorne had a penchant for the adjective/noun template), and a fairly advanced student of American literature to dredge up the title of his first novel, Fanshawe (1828). By contrast, Edgar Allan Poe, whose prose can be garish and creaky, and downright silly compared to the best of Hawthorne's, had the gift of coining title after title that has lodged firmly in the popular imagination: "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Gold Bug", "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", "The Masque of the Red Death", "The Premature Burial", "The Purloined Letter", "The Conquerer Worm", "The Raven" ... but then, these were titles for short stories and poems: Poe's novel has a more lumbering, not to mention oddly punctuated title: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Of Nantucket. (I have no idea why. He put the full stop in the middle.)

And there is one sense in which both American writers must be regarded as primitive geniuses. However self-conscious they may have been about other aspects of their artistry, Hawthorne and Poe both wrote in the plain- dealing days before the rise of the modern title - the title, that is, which conspicuously puns or alludes or dazzles or provokes curious thoughts; the title that knows quite well that it should aspire to the condition of a freestanding work of art, rather than state its case frankly and let the reader decide about the attractiveness or otherwise of becoming acquainted with a chap called David Copperfield, a lady called Jane Eyre, a place called Wuthering Heights or the embodied interplay of pride and prejudice. Personal names, place names, statements of theme: the vast majority of classic titles before the 20th century fall into these ranks and files. By the time Eliot was reviewing Hawthorne in the early 20th century, such titular innocence had been lost. Indeed, the practice of calling a novel after its hero or heroine has now become so unfashionable among serious writers that when we come across such a title we suspect deliberate anachronism or pastiche, as in Peter Carey's recent reworking of themes from Great Expectations, Jack Maggs.

One quick way of watching the old order yielding to the new is to run through a chronological list of the works of Hawthorne's admirer Henry James. Places and people - Roderick Hudson (1876), The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1879), Washington Square (1881) and The Princess Casamassima (1886) - give way to abstractions and evocations: What Maisie Knew (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898), The Awkward Age (1899), The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904). This isn't just a matter of James's personal development. Broadly speaking, as the Victorian age wanes, book titles wax more lyrical, more loquacious, more conspicuously literary. A small emblem for the changing times: Samuel Butler's autobiographical novel, Ernest Pontifex, had grown up by the time of its posthumous publication in 1903, into The Way of All Flesh.Hasty as they are, such observations nonetheless hint that a sufficiently industrious scholar could write a critical history of the book title, one that might be broken down into quite clearly distinct periods, showing just which fashions and patterns prevailed where and when; and, therefore, that a sufficiently well-informed reader could work out the likely date of a book on the evidence of its title alone. It would have to include a discussion of the practice of double-titling, once commonplace - Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus; Twelfth Night, or What You Will - now perilously close to extinction.

Actually, some eras are already sufficiently distinct for ready identification by averagely well-tuned ears. Only the Sixties or early Seventies, surely, could have spawned the likes of Peter Weiss's The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (no room here, alas, for a discussion of preposterously long titles) or Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or Timothy Leary's The Politics of Ecstasy or Jerry Rubin's Do It! And it must have been some time in the late Seventies or early Eighties that the Modern Languages Association of America sent out its hit squads to knee-cap any academic in the humanities who refused to follow the iron rule that all monograph titles must use a present participle, preferably with some suitably lame pun on the word "gender": Engendering Possessions, Declining Genders, Gendering Genres, Generating Genders, Regenerating Gendered Genres from Genet to Genette ... that sort of thing.

One thing you're unlikely to find in any of these participled studies is the reason why at least one or two titles of films, books and songs should seem to exercise an appeal, even a magic, greatly in excess of their face-value merits. Some triumphs are easy enough to understand: Catch-22 entered the language of the lettered and unlettered alike thanks to its having, for the first time, memorably tagged a maddening double-bind from which almost everyone has suffered; The Right Stuff gave a laconic, macho label name to a complex of laconic, macho virtues that were easier to grasp instinctively than to define succinctly; The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was a little fable in its own right; The Female Eunuch managed to be at once oxymoronic and punchy.

And, of course, an otherwise unpromising or uncompromising title sometimes becomes widely known simply because it is blazoned across the spine and cover of a bestseller or a cult book. It hardly occurs to us now that Ulysses is hopelessly unsexy, or that Of Human Bondage is unsaleably pompous or - to take a brief canter through some culty American bestsellers - that The Catcher in the Rye isn't very eye or rye-catching, or that On The Road sounds like a manual for itinerant tarmac salesmen, or that Gravity's Rainbow ought to be the title of a slim volume of verse by a high school physics teacher. My Struggle (oh, all right, it's more chilling in the original: Mein Kampf) isn't particularly distinctive, either. Though some people dissent, I can see far greater commercial potential in Herr Hitler's more obviously loony ur-title Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.

Other titles attain a fame that is only partly due or reducible to their robust sales figures. What makes The Unbearable Lightness of Being, chunky mouthful that it is, such an unforgettable title? Why did the Savonarolan severity of The Bonfire of the Vanities set the world alight? (Talking of bonfires, why was Fahrenheit 451 so catchy? Or, to turn from the metropolis to the country, the down-home lilt of A River Runs Through It? Or Eco's Shakespearean/Gertrude Steinian The Name of the Rose? Why do Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn lodge in the mind so firmly, whether read or unread? Or Lord of the Flies? Or Waiting for Godot? Or A Long Day's Journey Into Night? Or The Caucasian Chalk Circle? Or almost any of William Faulkner's titles: The Sound and the Fury (yes, I know it's from Shakespeare; so was Music, Ho!, by Constant Lambert); As I Lay Dying; Absalom, Absalom!; Intruder in the Dust; Requiem for a Nun; and, probably the most lyrical of the bunch, Light in August?

Without resorting to questionnaires and teams of impoverished graduate students, it would be hard to establish reliable statistics for the tenacity and diffusion of these and similarly charmed titles, but a rough rule of thumb might be the number of times they have been cited or twisted in headlines, stand-up routines or political speeches - such as Mrs Thatcher's declaration that "The Lady's not for turning!" Hard to believe that she or her speechwriters are actually fans of Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning; easier to suspect that there is something in the turn of his title which has made it stick like a burr to the synapses of generations.

That bright elusive "something", Gilbert Adair has suggested in his essay, "On Titles" (from Surfing the Zeitgeist; a collection which was originally to be called Variations Without a Theme), is a quality of ambiguity, which gives The Lady's Not for Burning a "weird compacted force" that makes it the peer of six other exceptionally haunting play titles: The Importance of Being Earnest, The Playboy of the Western World, Six Characters in Search of an Author, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Trojan War Will Not Take Place and - in Adair's view, the most beautiful title in the English language - Mourning Becomes Electra, a phrase of which I hear a distant echo in the title of Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, which I find so spellbinding that I don't want to risk reading the novel in case the contents don't live up to it.

Adair's is a persuasive enough account of the play titles in question, but it isn't much help with those titles which seem to have become memorable almost despite themselves: Out of Africa is about as bland as a set of words can be, but I saw it used and punned on for dozens of newspaper headlines in the Eighties, when its closest rival was the not especially witty or remarkable paradox, Back to the Future. (Earlier cinematic and literary-cinematic contenders: A Bridge Too Far; Mean Streets; Rebel Without a Cause; From Russia With Love ...). This is neither the time nor the place to go into the vast subject of film titles, but there are a couple of oddities I can't bear to miss. Isn't it weird that the titles of a highly successful, intensely violent film of the Seventies and a highly successful, intensely violent film of the Nineties both contain the word "dogs" and are both incomprehensible to the uninitiated? (Neither film "explains" its cryptic title anywhere in its running time.) I refer, of course, to Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. The first is a recondite allusion to the Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tse; the second is a private joke about a mishearing of the title of Louis Malle's film A Revoir les Enfants.

Old-style methods of close reading might do a lot to unpack the reasons why a given title might tickle the ear, but I suspect that the only people who could hope to reduce this mysterious matter to more or less reliable and recyclable formulae are off making their millions in the advertising trade, and are too shrewd to share their secrets. You can sympathise with the authors cited in Mr Bernard's book who despaired of ever finding their own titles, and so farmed out the job to others, and you might suspect that a lot of authors have privately wished they could adopt the radical policy hatched by Enoch Soames, in Max Beerbohm's essay of the same name. Soames planned to issue a book of poems with no title at all: "Rothenstein," Beerbohm reports, "objected that the absence of title might be bad for the sale of a book. 'If,' he urged, 'I went into a bookseller's and said simply, "Have you got?" or "Have you a copy of?", how would they know what I wanted?'"

To the best of my knowledge, the only established author ever to have issued a book with no title was EE Cummings, who in 1930 published a 63- page volume with the house of Covici-Friede, which bibliographies list as "(Untitled)". Many of Cummings's titles pose headaches for the librarian or bibliographer - & and 1/2, among others - and even the ones that can be spelled are pretty rum: Is 5, CIOPW, ViVa, Eimi, 1 x 1, and the Greek xaire. His untitled work did not set the market on fire, and one major copyright library I visited did not possess a single volume, as though to slap Cummings down for his temerity.Instead of dreaming of such perverse escape routes, the suffering author should simply knuckle down to the task with a will, reflecting that every ounce of sweat expended on a title may one day prove to be worth it: sometimes all that survives in general memory of an author's entire oeuvre is a title or two. And those readers who lead busy and careworn lives can take a certain kind of heart, as well: even if you have never found the leisure to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Don Quixote or Faust, you can console yourself with the reflection that you have at least read - and, in the last second or so, just re-read - a minute but essential part of those books.

Extracted from 'Invisible Forms' by Kevin Jackson, published by Picador on 22 October, at £10. Kevin Jackson 1999.