Dishonourable mentions

Sometimes the most waspish writing is at the back of a book. And often it leaves little need to read the rest. The novelist and index-addict Philip Hensher explains the fascination

Monday 10 October 2011 06:31
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After Edwina Currie's affair with John Major became public knowledge, Currie commented in hurt tones that, when she picked up his memoirs, she was distressed to discover that she "wasn't even mentioned in the index." She instantly gave the game away; it would, surely, have been more natural to have said "I wasn't mentioned anywhere in the book." It is obvious what she did; she picked the book up, looked at the index for her name, and put it down again.

After Edwina Currie's affair with John Major became public knowledge, Currie commented in hurt tones that, when she picked up his memoirs, she was distressed to discover that she "wasn't even mentioned in the index." She instantly gave the game away; it would, surely, have been more natural to have said "I wasn't mentioned anywhere in the book." It is obvious what she did; she picked the book up, looked at the index for her name, and put it down again.

Perhaps Major would have done better to have followed the example of Julie Burchill, who refused to have an index to her memoirs; she argued, with some plausibility, that a lot of people would pick the book up, see if they were mentioned in the index, and only read that passage. Other writers, facing this problem, have come to a different solution; it is said that one American memoirist, considering Norman Mailer somewhat vain, printed next to his name in the index the words, "Hi, Norm!"

Julie Burchill was probably right, but she missed rather a good opportunity. Indexes are not just neutral summaries, but occasions for ruthless wit, surreal juxtapositions, and sheer, brutal, revenge. If the index goes beyond a mere list of names mentioned, it often becomes a weird, loaded narrative of its own, with vicious agendas and grotesque jokes.

Indexing has its abuses, as well as its uses. Ostensibly something provided to help readers make sense of a long narrative, to reduce a story to its bare essentials in a neutral, analytical way, in reality many indexes have an element of heckling, of bizarre and tendentious judgement, of presenting a book's narrative in unforgiving summary. The book itself may make efforts to be balanced and generous; when it comes to the index, everything is clear.

A fine example came last year with Ruth Dudley Edwards's book about Hugh Cudlipp and Cecil King. The author had a very difficult time with King's appalling widow, Dame Ruth Railton, a woman for whom very few people ever had a good word. The book itself was a model of restraint when dealing with her excesses, but when it came to the index, the gloves came off, in part running: "marriage; psychic powers believed in by King; disliked by his friends; King wants as musical director of ATV; encourages his megalomania; increasing possessiveness... moves to Ireland with King; denounces Cudlipp; hatred of Ireland; gets rid of family correspondence; cocoons King from children and grandchildren; and King's death; disposes of his money; treatment of his family; traumatises Secker and Warburg."

Afair summary, but devastating in its final judgement. Such miniature narratives have a bizarre charm, occasionally threatening to make reading the book itself unnecessary. The Yale editions of James Boswell's journals are so fully indexed they provide a breathlessly exciting story on their own: "adventure with a monstrous big whore; Lady Northumberland sends polite letter showing she does not mean to do anything; JB makes jaunt to Oxford, is very unhappy; low-spirited; visits Newgate; sees an execution, terribly shocked, dares not sleep by himself; wretched; locked out of his lodging; meets S[amuel] J[ohnson]; alarmed by fear of another infection; solaces his existence with two girls..."

But the purpose of an index is not generally just to provide a plot summary of what has gone before. Rather, it is to reduce an argument to its essentials. If a biography is a reduction of a life's experiences to the span of a single volume, then the index is a further reduction, indicating the general characteristics, of recurrent themes, of the bare truth which a book cloaks in prose. Boiled down, like Dame Ruth Railton, many people do not look all that admirable in an index; even more harmless existences may take on a surreal appearance. The blamelessly respectable index to Michael Holroyd's life of Augustus John accounts for one poor fellow like this: "Cole, Horace de Vere: as Sultan of Zanzibar; 'blood brotherhood' with AJ; practical jokes save AJ; motor accident; invites himself to Alderney; masterminds Epstein conspiracy; survives war; rivalry and rages with AJ; walks with AJ through Provence; affair with Mavis; exiled to France; AJ's revenge; disappoints at his funeral."

Surely nobody could really have had such an exciting life as that? The potential for revenge and mockery in indexing is very high, and many apparently sober works have indexes of splendid absurdity; Sir Donald Tovey's Essays in Musical Analysis have an index of Monty-Python-like ludicrousness. Francis Wheen is an expert perpetrator of the preposterous index; his recent How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World has an index of delightful lunacy, including this entry for God: "accepted by Newton; angered by feminists and gays; appoints American coal-owners; approves of laissez-faire economics; arrives in America; asked by Khomeini to cut off foreigners' hands; believed to have created humans 10,000 years ago; could have made intelligent sponges; doesn't foresee Princess Diana's death; helps vacuum-cleaner saleswoman; interested in diets; offers investment advice; praised by Enron chairman; produces first self-help manual."

Incidentally, I was told by Wheen himself that his American publishers commissioned a professional, more sober index. Some people just can't see a joke.

But the art of indexing doesn't deserve our admiration solely on account of these curious, extreme examples. It has become an indispensable part of any serious work of non-fiction. If it can help a reader, of course, it is also susceptible of abuse; there are certainly scholars who approach their own work not by reading other people's books, but by rummaging through their indexes, never troubling to read a whole argument, just plucking out the relevant passages. Pope, long ago, came down hard on this sort of scholar in The Dunciad:

"How index-learning turns no student pale,/ Yet holds the eel of science by its tail."

We may not notice a really good index, but the lack of one can seriously inconvenience a reader. A year or two back, Penguin published a life of Wordsworth by Juliet Barker; excellent in every respect, apart from the index. All that was supplied was an index of names, with a long list of undifferentiated page numbers - several hundred in the case of Dorothy Wordsworth, say. Effectively, it made it almost impossible to return to the book with any kind of pleasure, or to find anything again. After complaints, Penguin did provide a proper index, but it is amazing that any publisher thought this form of index - which might be produced by a computer, and perhaps was - would do at any stage.

Real incompetence in indexing is surprisingly rare, however, and certainly the single worst example I ever came across has never, quite, been matched. In a previous life, I worked for the House of Commons, where I helped to compile the index to the Journal, the official summary record of the doings of the House. Normally, the headings of the index are so well established that a new heading never needs to be created each session. I did, however, come across a marvellous moment in a previous year's index when the indexer, faced with an opposition motion against "the disastrous economic policies of the Government" had completely lost his head. He had indexed it under D. For Disastrous.

Indexers, in general, are admirable, scrupulous people who undertake a task demanding great skill and intelligence. To provide an index to a long and perhaps complex work of non-fiction requires them to come to terms with the subject, to understand an unfamiliar argument which may not have been put forward at all competently by the author, and to master the significant points of the debate. It is inconceivable such a task could be done by mechanical means, and this arduous and demanding work will continue to be done by modest and highly intelligent people for very little money and no public acclaim whatsoever.

As a novelist, I find this sort of occupation naturally fascinating, and a few years ago started wondering about indexing. Kevin Jackson has written very amusingly about some of the quirks and eccentricities of indexers - sadly, he found no evidence that there ever was a Catholic encyclopedia with an index entry reading "Woman: see Sin". I came across, too, a letter by Evelyn Waugh in which he countered the suggestion that no-one had ever written an index to a novel by claiming to possess an edition of Tolstoy's Resurrection with an index of its ethical themes.

Indeed, there are works of fiction with indexes; Nabokov's Pale Fire has a sort of index, though its comic effect is diminished by not looking very much like any professional one. A reading of Proust is greatly helped by the exhaustive Pléiade edition index of names, places and works of art, and by Terence Kilmartin's more analytical index. There are surely novels, like Moby Dick, which are so intellectually inquisitive that they would benefit from the addition of a really thorough index.

These two ideas - the idea of the resentment which a really professional indexer might feel towards a slapdash and casual author, turning into a wildly misplaced megalomania; and the idea of something as amorphous and irresponsible as a novel which might be provided with an index - were the two kernels of my new novel, The Fit, and in indexing my hero finds a safe, orderly haven from a difficult life, a place where he can start to feel strangely ambitious. At one point he dreams of writing an "Index to a History of the World"; an index so beautiful and complete that there would be no reason whatever to write the book itself. The novel itself has an index, and though it finds itself providing entries for bizarre moments in the narrative, such as "HRH Princess Margaret, irrational fear of being transformed into," it was an incredibly demanding thing to put together, even in a spirit of jokiness. I know now that I could never in a million years write a serious index.

It may seem fanciful to think about an index which doesn't need a book, but sometimes, reading a really beautiful index, you do feel that it has expressed something perfectly and even poetically which the book has skirted around vaguely and imprecisely. Liberate the index! Set the incisive index free! This, for instance, is the part of the index of Francis Wheen's Karl Marx which deals with his finances: "at the pawn shop; attempts to find gainful employment; attempts to raise loans; borrows money off baker; donates money to German workers for arms; effects of poverty on work; estate; extravagances; flees creditors; fortunes improve; income from journalism; inheritance; lack of steady income; mother cancels debts; object of debt proceedings; on the edge of destitution; receives bequest from Wilhelm Wolff; reliance on Engels' charity; speculates on the Stock Exchange."

What more, frankly, do you want?

'The Fit' by Philip Hensher is published by Fourth Estate, at £15.99

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