Monday, October 16, 2006

An Untitled Unquiry

I've just finished reading The Ill-Tempered Clavichord by S J Perelman. The titles of some of his other books are even better: Acres and Pains, or Underneath the Spreading Atrophy. He goes absolutely overboard when titling some of his chapters: 'The Song is Endless, but the Malady Lingers On', 'Sing Out, Sweet Opiate', 'Nirvana Small By a Waterfall.'

A few days ago, I even thought of making a list of the first words of Perelman titles: 'Up', 'Nesselrode', 'The', 'Cloudland', 'Chewies', 'Salesman', 'Cloudland', 'Personne' ... It is clever enough to use Latin words in your title, but 'Chewies' is sheer genius.

One or two had me stumped. 'Nesselrode to Jeopardy', for instance. What the hell does that mean? Is it a Spoonerism? Does it make any more sense if we swap the first letters around, so, 'Jesselrode to Neopardy'? Or 'Jeopalrode to Nesseldy'? Maybe it's a pun about somebody called Jessel (whoever he was) who rode to Lombardy (wherever that is) to do something important (whatever that was) for somebody else (whyever ... ah, to hell with it).

I love Perelman's writing, but I can't claim to understand it.

Ogden Nash, who once wrote a musical with Perelman, came up with some corkers of his own. 'Quick, Hammacher, my Stomacher!' 'What To Do Until The Doctor Goes, Or, It's Tomorrow Than You Think', and 'Polterguest, my Poltgerguest'. Maybe there was an American tradition in the 1950s to work in a mixture of clever popular and classical references into the titles. Woody Allen's titles are presumptuously unassuming, if that makes sense (and it's not supposed to). 'Lovborg's Women Considered' . Or 'The Early Essays'. Though when Allen comes up with a title like 'If The Impressionists Had Been Dentists (A Fantasy Exploring the Transition of Temperament)', you know you're in the hands of a master. Which might be a bit of a problem, if your name happens to be 'Mia Farrow' ...

P J O'Rourke wrote some of my favourite titles. 'How To Drive Fast While on Drugs And Getting Your Wing Wang Squeezed and Not Even Spill Your Drink' pretty much sums up the whole Gonzo journalism aesthetic. 'Harry Interviews a Grown Up', a wonderful early O'Rourke vignette, delivers what it promises. A personal favourite is the deviously titled 'An Intellectual Experiment' - in which O'Rourke reads the New York Times Book Review for three hours and then watches television for three hours 'in order to determine which is best: smart or stupid.'

Most of my favourite examples come from America, although that's not to say that British writers don't come up with some wonderful captions. One British paper - was it The Sun? - called Paul Keating 'The Lizard of Oz' in a headline after he placed his hand on the back of the Queen. Strangely, highbrow British and European papers seem to title their essays with whole sentences. You know, 'The rich West must stop grabbing the profits but ducking the costs', that sort of thing. This style isn't without its own humour. I like this one from a recent edition of The Spectator: 'Michael Foot: Gordon will do the job very well', although it really only works if you follow it up, as The Spectator did, with the caption: 'Michael Foot led Labour to defeat in 1983, the year Blair and Brown entered Parliament. He tells John Reynolds why Iraq was a catastrophe and why Brown will be a great PM.' Bitchy and polite at the same time - exactly the sort of thing you expect from a Tory mag!

Blog titling, of course, is an art all of its own. I like the following, for various reasons:

A spectre is haunting my brain ...
Interview with the Gempire
Primal Duckness
Ask a hyperactive fat kid

Tony T's blog titles are the best (and his posts are even better). I think he told me once that all he cared about was getting a good headline. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration. But here's just a few - all taken from the past few weeks on his blog:

Lausten Translation
Captain Dumpy
Away Caesar
And Justice for Hall
Post Lacks Visible Panty Line
Larvatus Owe-Deo

Of course, titling a blog post all about titles might just be a title too far. Maybe Tony would have been able to come up with a better title for this one. Maybe I should have just titled it 'Sir' and been done with it ...

What's your favourite title? At the moment, I'm rather fond of the Mel Brook's film with the grandiose nomenclature, 'History of the World: Part 1'. What the hell comes after Part 1? (Part 2 never will be made, but apparently contains episodes called 'Hitler on Ice' and 'Jews in Space'. Is there a part 3, do you think?)

More importantly still, how else am I going to end a post about titles but by saying that the book I'm currently reading is by an author who calls himself 'Lemony Snicket', and that it's the 13th and last book in a series titled 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'. So: not only is the book titled 'The End' the end of this post, but the book titled 'The End' is also the end of a series called 'A Series': of all fitting ends to this series about titles, no end is more fitting than to use the title 'The End' to bring this post to the end. The End.


Fatman said...

S.J.Perelman was forced onto me by my father who would tackle me to the ground and hit me with his books until I lapsed into unconsciousness. Years later, after I was old enough to resist his physical assaults, I´d be able to snatch the paperbacks off my dad and launch a counter-attack of my own. But by then my father was a feeble old man so the victory was somewhat hollow. Still, I do enjoy reading Perelman. His piece about detectives (´Somewhere a Roscoe´) was fantastic.

TimT said...

It sounds like you had a charming relationship with your paternal progenitor; he certainly had the right approach to culture (as something that should be FORCED upon children from a very young age, with physical violence, if necessary). Was it just Perelman you attacked the old boy with, or did you retaliate with counter-battalions of, say, volumes of Matthew Arnold?

Please don't tell me you held off as you felt sorry for him, or for 'moral reasons' ...

Tony.T said...

You're too kind, Tim. Too.

Fatman said...

My father had always drilled into me from an early age the notion that mercy was for the weak. Or did he say 'Please show me mercy this week.'? Can't remember now. Anyhoo, I'd generally start with a collected edition of Perelman and follow it up by slapping him over the head with one of Australia's most underrated writers, Lenny Lower. As he staggered about in a daze I'd hit him with one of the classics- a Voltaire, an Ovid, Rabelais or the Necronomicon. Then, as he was reeling from blood loss I'd generally go to the library and borrow something with a cool title (this, incidentally, was how I came across Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and finish him off. I owe my love of literature to my old man.

TimT said...

What a touching story. I would have finished off the old fellow with Samuel Johnson's dictionary myself, but that's just me. And we can't afford to be too picky.

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