Untitled novel would like to meet catchy genitive title
In the case of `Nathaniel's Nutmeg' I never did get to find out who Nathaniel was
Tuesday 04 May 1999
Sometimes it's a new book, but it isn't always. Recently Stephen Fry did five readings from Les Lettres de Mon Moulin, or Letters From My Windmill by Alphonse Daudet, a book written more than a hundred years ago which I hadn't encountered since my schooldays, when it was freely prescribed as an exam set book and therefore detested by generations of schoolchildren, though I was a goody-goody and quite liked it.
(En passant, people seem agreed that children are often given an aversion to a text by having to study it for exams. So why don't they do the logical thing and set bad books for exams, so that it doesn't matter if people come to loathe them? It has always been my belief, anyway, that you learn more from bad art than from good art, from other people's mistakes than from their perfection...)
Last week they took excerpts from a new book called Nathaniel's Nutmeg, which seemed to be about the growth of the spice trade. I say "seemed to be", because I didn't listen to much of it. I was too entranced with the title, which seems to me to be the perfect end-of-the-century book title, combining two modern trends with unerring accuracy - the Genitive Title Trend and the Important Trivia Trend.
I am not the first to point to the Important Trivia Trend; others have noticed the habit of choosing very small subjects and setting them in a big context. Cod. The tulip. Longitude. The first giraffe to walk to Paris. There is a new book out about the potato. In the old days people wrote flower books, fish or vegetable books. Nowadays they write a cod book, a tulip book or a spud book. And now a nutmeg book.
Well, there is something to be said for this, as one does get weary of the over-arching view sometimes, and it's nice to get down on your hands and knees and survey the world from behind a blade of grass, though perhaps it is a mistake to stay there long...
But alongside the Important Trivia Trend there is the Genitive Title Trend. I hope you all remember what the genitive case is. That's right - it's the case which expresses belonging. The cat's whiskers. The bee's knees. The parson's nose. Or you can use the word "of" to express the same thing, as in "the nose of the parson", though that is a bit more stilted and formal.
Well, I don't know if you have noticed this, but there has been a recent powerful trend towards book titles which use the apostrophe-s genitive.
Examples? Certainly. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Stalin's Nose.
More? Certainly. Flaubert's Parrot, Voltaire's Coconuts, The Pope's Rhinoceros...
More? No. That's quite enough. The point is that this construction is very fashionable - and quite new. I have been delving back into the lumber room which I call my mind, and I can unearth only a very few titles of yesteryear which use the same format. King Solomon's Mines is one. Lady Windermere's Fan is another. That's about it. There are quite a lot of titles which could have used the format but went with the word "of" instead: The Castle of Otranto and not Otranto's Castle; The Portrait of Dorian Gray and not Dorian Gray's Portrait.
In almost all the modern titles it seems to be mandatory that the first half is as grand as the second half is trivial. The Pope, Stalin, Voltaire and Flaubert in the first half of the bill - noses, coconuts, parrots and mandolins in the second half. There should be no logical connection between the two, or not until the author has deigned to explain it. In the case of Nathaniel's Nutmeg, I never did get to find out who Nathaniel was, but I have got better things to do than sit around at 9.45am listening to books being read...
One of the better things I have to do, in fact, is inventing book titles. Using my new-found formula I have been compiling a list of new book titles, so if anyone out there has written a book and is stumped for a name, I think I can come to some arrangement. I have hundreds of unused titles to choose from, including The Queen's Corkscrew, Churchill's Underwear, Somerset Maugham's Other Handkerchief, Van Gogh's Aubergine, U Thant's Aspirin Bottle, Philip Larkin's Banjo, Erik Satie's Nice New Umbrella...
Thousands to choose from. Send for your free list now. I look forward to doing business with you.
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