Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Sixth Type

I was attracted to the review in the TLS of Peter Hobbs' collection of stories by the title of the book. I Could Ride All Day in My Cool Blue Train. It suggests a unique sensibility, even a wilfulness to write what needs to be written rather than just another set of stories. What is it about titles? Is there something to be discovered in the titles given to novels?

Reading David Lodge’s book Author, Author, I noticed that Henry James was always beginning works with titles taken from the name of the main character. Guy Domville, Daisy Miller, The Princess Casamassima. When his friend George du Maurier took up the pen, his first novel was called Peter Ibbetson, his second Trilby. Perhaps this had something to do with a general fascination with the rise of the individual and its isolation. "My prison cell - my fortress" as Kafka put it a little later.

There were also titles taken from the names of places - Washington Square - and, more familiarly to us, ‘poetic’ titles such as The Wings of the Dove. Whichever, they all indicate a close focus on one person or a group. Very little seems to have changed. Take Amazon UK’s Hot 25. There are examples of all three. First, the individual: The Time Traveller’s Wife, The 5th Horseman, The Last Templar; then there’s the location: Labyrinth, Brokeback Mountain, and finally the ‘poetic’, though in this list there's only one: The Shadow of the Wind.

The remaining titles can be included in sub-sections: For example, Saturday might well have been called Henry Perowne or Fitzroy Square. And I suppose Peter Hobbs' title could well be classed in two of these three.

There is a fourth type too. The appeal to scientific modes of storytelling: The History of Love, The Da Vinci Code. Like the ‘poetic’ title, it alludes to uncommon knowledge without the attendant pretentiousness.

Yet there is a type of title that usurps all three: the cliché. Be Careful What You Wish For, Malicious Intent, Second Honeymoon, Dead Simple, Making Your Mind Up.

I can't imagine ever being attracted to a book with a brazen cliché as a title. I seek the sixth type; the type of title that is as mysterious and as compelling as the narrative it shrouds.

PS: As it happens, Peter Hobbs' book was in my local library, so I'm now reading it.


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