Titles do matter, at the very least in garnering desirable tables in restaurants, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. By this I mean titles both of people and of literary works, among other things. Neither kind makes the average person more purblind than a resonant title, hence even such fictional titles of import as muck-a-muck and Pooh Bah. Hence also the obsession of classless Americans with their British “cousins,” whether aristocrats or royals, to say nothing if it all devolves on a biracial American divorcee marrying into the Windsors.
Here my concern is with fictional or nonfictional works of literature on the marketplace, and by the interest generated by their titles. Still, I am not saying that Margaret Mitchell’s best seller would not have enjoyed its popularity had it been called, say, “Gone with the Old South” or “The Greys and the Blues.” But surely “Gone with the Wind,” deriving its title from a famous British poem, is a titular success. Most of us have had to fight off a literal or symbolic headwind, and lost precious things or loved persons to a windswept past.
I can think of any number of fictions and memoirs that sold themselves to me on their titles, whether or not I went as far as to actually read them. Take “As I Lay Dying.” “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” “How Green Was My Valley,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “The Sun Also Rises,” and so on and on. Even “Paradise Lost,” may profit from not being “Paradise Regained.” We lose our Paradises far more often than we regain them.
Europeans may even be better at this title thing. Think, for example, of a French jazzman’s “I’ll Go Spit on Your Graves,” about a young black’s vengeance on Southern whites. Or the German Hans Fallada’ s “Wer einmal aus dem Blechnapf frisst,” hard to translate but approximated by “Who Once Chows Down on the Tin Bowl,” about a man released from, but forced back into, prison. Even more effective is the title of the Great German poet–playwright Carl Zuckmayer’s memoir, “Als waer’s ein Stueck von mir,” with a pun on “Stueck,” which is German for both piece and play, and thus can be both “As if it were a piece of me “ or “a play of mine.” Guillaume Apollinaire has a comic-pornographic novel entitled both “The 10,000
Virgins” (vierges) and “The 10,000 Rods” or Penises (verges), with something for both lechers and pedophiles. The great Hungarian satirist, Frigyes Karinthy, has parodies entitled “Igy irtok ti,” which sounds better than “That’s How You Write.”
I myself often have fun coming up with titles of works I’ll never write. Thus “The Angel of Accidence,” would play on the curiosity of readers not knowing the difference between accidence and accidents. But why this section of grammar should have an angel at all only Tony Kushner might know.
I might also have edited an anthology of modern poetry, emphasizing four of my favorites: Cummings, Ransom, MacNeice and Graves, whose poems I have recited in public, and which might make wholly new readers for poetry. At the very least I might have published a study of my beloved Robert Graves, who at a street corner meeting asked me whether I was a Welsh or a Jewish Simon, there being no other kind, what with Graves not allowing for converts. I wonder how many fans even know “Horses,” his charming children’s play about a three-legged horse that beats out an arrogant champion.
I remain a champion of memoirs, even of such little-known figures as the English poets John Pudney, Humbert Wolfe, and A.S. J. Tessimond. I love memoirs with bizarre titles; thus I might call mine “Learning to Suffer Fools More Gladly,” or “Pencil Sharpeners”—explanation follows.
At one point in New York I decided to try for a low-level job at the United Nations, that of tourist guide. It required only a few foreign languages, but featured an elaborate questionnaire I found absurd. Under “Office Machinery,” for example, it questioned one’s use with office tools, such as typewriter or memo pad. Also “Others,” under which I listed pencil sharpener. When I reentered the room in which the examiner had scrutinized my submission, I could see from afar an entry furiously encicrcled in heavy blue pencil. It was, of course, pencil sharpener. My rejection came along with a homily on why I should refrain from such cheekiness in future if I ever wanted a job.
Or take the time when I applied for a teaching job at the University of Chicago. The professor interviewing me at the elegant Palm Court of New York’s Plaza Hotel, asked what I had learned from my previous teaching jobs. I replied, with reference to colleagues, “to suffer fools more gladly.” Whether or not he felt personally affected, I could smell No in the air. Why do such interviewers feel obliged to be humorless, I wonder.
But now for a real favorite title. It comes from a scion of an ancient aristocracy, Countess Franziska zu Reventlow (1871-1913), who escaped to Munich’s bohemian quarter of Schwabing for her craved liberty, consisting largely of merrily sleeping around. As she tells it in a chapter of her autobiographical novel “Ellen Olestjerne” (1903), there was a period when all her lovers were called Paul, Das Zeitalter der Paeule” (The Era of Pauls).
Apropos Countesses, I wonder about the famous romance between the troubadour Jaufre Rudel and the Countess of Tripoli. He is said to have seen a portrait of her with which he fell in love, finally making the arduous and perilous journey to Tripoli, only to die in her loving arms. It is about this that the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho wrote her opera “L’Amour de loin” (Love from Afar, recently at the Met), and I wrote a long story for Robert Hillier’s advanced Harvard writing course in which a class mate was Norman Mailer. There is also a play about it by Edmond Rostand, the author of “Cyrano,” who upgraded the Countess to “La Princesse lointaine,” but downgraded the play to one of Sarah Bernhardt’s mere personal successes.
I myself was never involved with a titled lady, although one girlfriend complained to me about how having been involved with a British duke meant that she had to do most of the erotic work in bed. Though it may also be that compared to their Titanias, most men between the sheets are Bottom the Weavers.