Monday, December 23, 2013


There are in my view both real sequels and quasi sequels. A real sequel is when the author of a book, say, Margaret Mitchell, or someone else writes a novel about what happened to Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler after Gone With the Wind. A quasi sequel is really a repeat appearance, as when Conan Doyle or J. K. Rowling writes another Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter fiction, about the hero’s further, new adventures.

Both phenomena come about when a beloved protagonist elicits a repeat performance of some kind. Personally, I am no great fan of these procedures. But sequels of either kind have been wildly successful, and are in fact a tried old stratagem, as the careers of, for example, Balzac and Alexandre Dumas pere compellingly illustrate.

All very understandable, given the hard world in which fiction writers operate, although the same phenomenon prevails in spades at the movies and, to some extent, even in the theater, just ask Neil Simon. And now there is a stage version of Harry Potter in the planning. But isn’t a novel, say, a complete entity, self-sufficiently featuring a beginning, middle and end, and in no need of further elaboration any more than a lyric poem does. Although there is such a thing as a sonnet sequence—just ask William Shakespeare.

What is it exactly that hates endings and gives rise to sequels?  First of all, it is popularity. Why wouldn’t the cherished scoundrel Vautrin figure in several Balzac novels? Why shouldn’t beloved Harry Potter make more millions for J. K. Rowling? Why shouldn’t there have been a series of ever longer novels about the three beloved musketeers—really four, counting d’Artagnan—and their descendants?

Popularity, i.e., sales, have much to answer for, as well as the fact that it is safer to bring back a well-regarded fictional hero than to invent a new one. But something else also plays a part here: human inquisitiveness. Just as we are curious to know more about friends, enemies, celebrities, we are curious about what happened to fictitious characters after, say, they married and “lived happily ever after.” Tolstoy to the contrary, happy families are not all alike, if for no other reason than that, in real life, they seldom remain blissful forever. If, God forbid, there were a sequel to War and Peace, would everything be hunky-dory for Pierre and Natasha?

And to think that even Goethe saw fit to write a sequel to the so very satisfactorily completed Faust part one with a Faust part two. And, as we all know, Shakespeare brought back the rogue Falstaff in a sequel, The Merry Wives of Windsor, whether or not, as reputed, at Queen Elizabeth’s request, hardly matters. (The groundlings’ request, more likely.) Success plus curiosity begets sequels.

But there is a further trigger for sequels: our fear of mortality, our conscious or unconscious wish to live forever. Somehow or other, the persistence through sequels of a fictitious character translates into a sense of our own not coming to an end. I fully believe that young persons reading about Huck Finn’s striking out for the Western Territories suggests to them that he is immortal, and that they themselves will be around reading about his further adventures someday, somewhere.

To be sure, there are readers who don’t want sequels of contemporary novels. They are the ones aware of the backlog of great classics they haven’t read yet and want to catch up with more Dickens or Dostoevsky or D. H. Lawrence. They are very happy that, for instance, Robert Graves stopped at two Emperor Claudius novels: one sequel was quite enough.  But young readers especially crave sequels, and thus for example Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking novels have had sequels upon sequels in print, film and television series. For young German readers, there were (are?) the Wild West novels of Karl May that kept bringing back the great white hunter Old Shatterhand and his Indian chief friend, Winnetu. They can be thought of as very persistent, very numerous sequels.

And sequels persist. They may have not much more in common than an imaginary town or region, as the audiences of Horton Foote or readers of William Faulkner well know. It could be argued that a Steinbeck locale is at least as real as his characters, and that geography itself can provide sequels. In any case, continuum is a great human desideratum, and sequels of whatever kind cater to it.

Speaking for myself, I’d be perfectly happy if there were no more sequels, though I can also live with them. Among sequels I now include also revised second editions of previously published books. Scholarly works, dictionaries, encyclopedias keep coming out in new, more up-to-date, or merely expanded, improved editions, and such reissues can be infuriating.

What am I to do if I spent a tidy sum on, say, a history of the printed book, or of Shakespeare stagings, or of the Paris underworld through the ages, and out comes a new, presumably improved edition a few years later? Throw out the previous version, even though it was a first edition, and maybe had a finer binding, wider margins, better paper and larger print? Do I simply ignore the revised version and merely scowl at the one on my shelf as a sort of intellectual coitus interruptus?

I count myself lucky for not being a completist, and can ignore such sequels as the complete Waverly novels of Sir Walter Scott. Yet I cannot but admire anyone who  has read them all. Then again, there was the fellow who, seeking employment in a college English department, spouted excerpts from the least known ones among them, thereby conveying the impression that he knew the whole lot intimately from alpha to omega--without even having glanced at the rest.

And then there is that most pernicious kind of sequel, as when a major author revises a lengthy fiction of his own and both versions are considered important enough for us, if we are serious academics, to have to read hundreds of pages in quasi duplicate. This is very much the case of Moerike’s Maler Nolten. Or what about Great Expectations, for which Dickens first had a less happy ending, but at Bulwer-Lytton’s urging came up with a happy one? We have here a work that is its own sequel, and are we now, as teachers, responsible for both versions?

Nor let us forget that late nineteenth-century novels tended to come out on the installment plan, several chapters at a time over a long period, earning payment for each segment, and so prompting the author to make his novels doorstoppers. Robert Graves memorably came up with a considerably shortened version of one of the Dickens novels (David Copperfield, as I recall)) just by cutting the word “little” each time it occurred.

The matter of sequels makes one wonder: Is shorter better? Would Proust’s magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time, be better if it were less literally magnum? It is really a series of novels, each a sequel of the preceding and sizable in itself, with quite a parade of more or less ancillary characters. Yet these sequels with their large casts are in order, for we thus get a panorama of how personalities evolve and relationships change, and how memory in pursuit of the past rounds out our brief term on earth. Better than perhaps anyone else, Proust has validated the sequel.

But this does not mean that we want sequels from lesser writers. Do we need a tetralogy from Jeffrey Eugenides? Do we want Erica Jong to dredge up her checkered past for us in ever more novelistic searches? How many times do we wish Margaret Attwood to reinvent herself? Isn’t even late Hemingway an unnecessary sequel to  earlier Hemingway? To say nothing of Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels, of which even one may be de trop. How many epigones will grind out posthumous James Bond tomes? How often did Updike have to go Rabbiting without a strong case of sequelitis?  But at least his are bona fide, thought-through sequels. We have too many writers nowadays who don’t even know that they are writing sequels. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013


If we are going to deal with epigrams, we must first distinguish between wit and humor. Humor makes you laugh, as with every good joke that someone tells you. Like the loony in the bin telling the other loony who is painting the wall, “Hold on to your brush, I am about to move the ladder.” Or James Thurber writing, “Poe . . . was perhaps the first great nonstop literary drinker in the American nineteenth century. He made the indulgences of Coleridge and De Quincy seem like a bit of mischief in the kitchen with the cooking sherry.” Humor’s most renowned achievement may be the slip on the banana peel.

Wit is something else—something, if you will, much more serious while still funny. Unlike humor, which at most makes you slap your thigh, it pierces to the quick, wherever your quick may be, and elicits laughter almost as a byproduct. The epigram, witty rather than humorous, needs an object to skewer.

To be sure, that is a slight oversimplification. Not all humor is a thigh-slapper or a roller in the aisle. And not all wit must wound. Take Oscar Wilde’s “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going now for three hundred years.” This is a good-natured spoof that does not really hurt. Or take this, again from Wilde, “Truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Very often it is the inversion of a truism, as in his “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” Sometimes an epigram is downright melancholy, as in Shaw’s “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” Or in Rochefoucauld’s “We have all enough strength to bear other people’s troubles,” and in his even stronger “In the misfortunes of our best friends, we find something that’s not unpleasing.”

The epigram, when it’s truly great, is the shortest, snappiest work of art or philosophy, and a burr to the memory. Take Stendhal’s “The only excuse for God is that he doesn’t exist.” Thus the epigram tends to be the funny way of insulting  someone, in this case God. When it doesn’t offend, it is rather a mere aphorism, i.e., pregnant saying, than a witty epigram, as, for instance, in Lichtenberg’s “Nothing contributes more to peace of soul than having no opinion at all.”

Let us first look at the straight insult, usually merited, which embodies some kind of truth. Take this, to an overeager actor being directed by either Noel Coward or George S. Kaufman (multiple attribution is quite frequent): “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Even more succinctly, W.S. Gilbert commented on he Hamlet of Henry Irving or some other stage star (alternative targets are also frequent): “Funny, but never vulgar.” Manifestly, terseness adds impact to the epigram. Take this by Beachcomber, the nom de plume of a British humorist, “Wagner was the Puccini of music.” A double-edged sword that cuts brilliantly in two directions.

Such double duty we get also from Wilde’s “Poor Danton, to have come to such grief for having once in his life taken a bath.” That hits not only the victim of Charlotte Corday, but also the French in general, not known for their regular use of the bathtub as opposed to that of the bidet. Two for one we get, also from Wilde, in “[George] Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.” A whole profession can be skewered, as in Christopher Hampton’s “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.”

But back to the double whammy: Ava Gardner, about her ex, Sinatra, upon his marrying Mia Farrow, “I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a little boy.” Or take Noel Coward, about Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the movie version of his “Bitter Sweet”: “Like watching an affair between a mad rocking-horse and a rawhide suitcase,” with the only problem trying to figure out which is which. Sometimes the wit and his target are both made fun of, as in Charles Widor about a dissonant work of Milhaud’s: “The worst of it is that one gets used to it.” Or take Heine: “There is nothing on earth more horrible than English music, unless it is English painting.”

Music has yielded some memorable epigrams. Thus Shaw, early on as music critic: “There are some sacrifices that should not be demanded twice from any man, and one of them is listening to Brahms’s Requiem.” Such things elicit amusement even without our agreement. Or take this, from Ravel: “Berlioz is France’s greatest composer, alas. A musician of great genius, and little talent.” (Reminiscent of Gide on who is the greatest French poet, “Victor Hugo, alas.” Which, in turn, suggests Cocteau’s “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.”) After playing a violin piece, Albert Einstein asked the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky “How well did I play?” Answer: “You played relatively well.” Some epigrams are answers to a question.

Here is Stravinsky: “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” Or Sir Thomas Beecham, asked if he ever conducted any Stockhausen. “No,” he said, “but I have trodden in some.” And Stravinsky again, “Why is it that whenever I hear a piece I don’t like, it’s always Villa Lobos?”

Sometimes an epigram comes in duplicate. Take this dialogue: “Shostakovich: What do you think of Puccini? Britten: I think his operas are dreadful. Shostakovich: No, Ben, you are wrong. He wrote marvelous operas, but dreadful music.” Now take Britten talking to W. H. Auden about Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”: “I liked the opera very much. Everything but the music.” Who plagiarized whom? I suspect the rather humorless Britten. And here is one to enshrine in music history, Oscar Levant about Leonard Bernstein: “He uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting.”

Literature, expectably, also offers some of the wittiest epigrams. Take this rather poetic one by Edith Sitwell about F.R. Leavis: “It is sad to see Milton’s great lines bobbing up and down in the sandy desert of Dr. Leavis’s mind with the grace of a fleet of weary camels.” Here the subtractable epithets “sandy” and “weary” contribute the necessary cadence. Or this from Philip Larkin, “’The Wreck of the Deutschland’ would have been markedly inferior if Hopkins had been a survivor from the passenger list.” Or Evelyn Waugh, somewhat less funny about himself than about others: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being.”

Here again is Waugh on Stephen Spender: “To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.” Or consider Gore Vidal on Hemingway, “What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke?’ Or, more succinctly, about the death of Truman Capote, “Good career move.” An effective device is starting out as if in praise, and then sticking in the knife, as in Wilde’s “Shaw has not an enemy in the world; and none of his friends like him.”

About actors and actresses, theater and movies, there is such a wealth of epigrams as to merit a separate blog post to begin doing them justice. I confine myself to repeating a couple of my favorites. Thus Kenneth Tynan about Vivien Leigh in “Titus Andronicus”: “As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.” And Margot Asquith at lunch with Jean Harlow, who keeps sounding the T in Margot, “My dear, the T in Margot is silent, as in Harlow.”

Finally, I come to my own modest contribution to the epigram, which comes down to a single entry in the anthologies, always misquoted, even by Diana Rigg herself, as follows: “Diana Rigg is built as a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” What I wrote was “Diana Rigg . . . is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This concerning a scene in Ronald Millar’s “Abelard & Heloise,” where Ms. Rigg knelt nude in profile. Now “basilica” is obviously not something with which the misquoters are familiar, hence “mausoleum,” which, however, has nothing to do with anything. But neither, I confess, has basilica, a type of church that never had any buttresses. “Inadequate,” though, does make sense for what the actress herself has described as “I was only ever a B-cup,” referring to size; whereas “insufficient” refers to quantity, as if two were not enough. What I should have written is “cathedral,” an edifice that does have flying buttresses.

Isolated quotations of another Simon epigram do crop up now and then, but for an epigram to count, I firmly believe that it has to appear in several anthologies. So I find a couple exclusively in “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations,” and even there one misquoted and another cut to shreds. And I certainly haven’t made it to Bartlett’s even once. Something to look forward to.