The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin

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9781451693249: The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin

A collection of more than 250 epigraphs from across 500 years of literature, a quick and lively way to immerse yourself in the world of books and ideas.

For many book lovers, there is no more pleasing start to a book than a well-chosen epigraph. These intriguing quotations, sayings, and snippets of songs and poems do more than set the tone for the experience ahead: the epigraph informs us about the author’s sensibility. Are we in the hands of a literalist or a wit? A cynic or a romantic? A writer of great ambition or a miniaturist? The epigraph hints at hidden stories and frequently comes with one of its own.

The Art of the Epigraph collects more than 250 examples from across five hundred years of literature and offers insights into their meaning and purpose, including what induces so many writers to cede the very first words a reader will encounter in their book to another writer. With memorable quotations ranging from Dr. Johnson to Dr. Seuss, Herodotus to Hemingway, Jane Austen to Karl Marx, and A. A. Milne to Marcel Proust, here is a book that allows us a glimpse of the great writer as devoted reader. This lively and distinctive literary companion traces not only the art of the epigraph but the history of the book.

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About the Author:

Rosemary Ahern is a writer and editor living in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

I’m always surprised when someone claims not to read epigraphs. To me, that’s an offering refused, a pleasure skipped. Those intriguing quotations, sayings, snippets of songs and poems, do more than just set the tone for the experience ahead: the epigraph informs us about the author’s sensibility. Are we in the hands of a literalist or a wit? A cynic or a romantic? A writer of great ambition or a miniaturist? The epigraph hints at hidden stories and frequently comes with one of its own.

In hunting for epigraphs, I’ve discovered them as far back as the fourteenth century, in The Canterbury Tales, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a more serious scholar traced the tradition back even further. The cumbersome (occasionally amusing) prefaces found in early novels like Don Quixote (1605) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726) can be considered the literary forebears of the crisp, succinct epigrams that became the fashion in the twentieth century. Glamorous modernists like Hemingway and Fitzgerald popularized epigraphs, challenging authors to appear as learned and clever in their use of them ever since.

Some of my favorite authors are purists who present their work without outside association or adornment, without a wink or a clue. Flaubert, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Patti Smith. I respect and admire their silence before their books begin. However, this book celebrates the generosity of authors willing to part the curtain and show us a glimpse of their mental furniture; to give us a preview of what they think is vital, funny, and true. George Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, C. S. Lewis, Lorrie Moore. Of course, their books would be every bit as memorable and important without epigraphs appended, but wouldn’t we miss that extra element of anticipation? It would be like going to see Vertigo or Midnight in Paris and not taking your seat until after the opening title sequence. I always want to see how mood is established—and to submit.

Epigraphs appeal to those of us who occasionally need the kind of bolstering an ingenious turn of phrase or inspiring piece of wisdom can provide. I’m with Dorothy Parker when she says, “I might repeat to myself, slowly and soothingly, a list of quotations beautiful from minds profound—if I can remember any of the damn things.” Thankfully, memory aides abound in the front matter of many of the world’s best books. All that truth, humor, and novelty of expression presorted for us by consummate artists and cherished friends.

So yes, The Art of the Epigraph can be enjoyed like any quotation book. Here you will find advice on how to live well, be brave, avoid mistakes, apply the correct etiquette, adjust your expectations, appreciate quirkiness (your own and others’), attract a lover, break out of a rut, and dodge obligations. But you will also encounter fascinating conversations conducted over centuries and across cultures and genres. Writers communing with other writers, sometimes resulting in odd but delightful coincidences, like the fact that Susan Sontag and Mary Higgins Clark both turned to Tennyson when selecting epigraphs for their books. Divisions disappear; ideas and affinities are more clearly revealed.

Epigraphs remind us that writers are readers. I suppose that is what I like best about them. The experience I have when I read, encountering lines that perfectly express what I believe but can’t articulate, that open up a new point of view, that make me feel understood or filled with joy, as brilliant and lofty as I might consider that book’s author—it happens to them too. And that’s what’s on display in the epigraph: an author acknowledging his or her place in the fellowship of readers.|LIFE

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever . . . The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose . . . The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits . . . All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

—ECCLESIASTES

In The Sun Also Rises (1926), Ernest Hemingway

Taking it slowly fixes everything.

—ENNIUS

In The Red and the Black (1830), Stendhal

One of the many pleasures of reading Stendhal is his liberal use of epigraphs, which offer wry commentary on the chapters they announce. The great translator Burton Raffel warns that Stendhal had a notorious habit of writing the epigraphs himself and ascribing them to elevated or otherwise unlikely sources. We could be skeptical, but why not play along? Hailed as the “Homer of Rome,” Quintus Ennius (239–169 BC) was born in southern Italy, in what is today Calabria, where Greek was then the language of the upper classes. He learned Latin as a soldier in the Second Punic War and was taken to Rome by Cato the Elder. Working as a teacher and translator of Greek, Ennius began writing poetry, eventually producing the epic Annales, which recounted Rome’s history from the fall of Troy to Ennius’s own time. It was the most famous poem in the Roman world until Virgil’s Aeneid supplanted it nearly three hundred years later.

Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime . . .

—KORAN, LVII 19

In A Sport and a Pastime (1967), James Salter

Somebody said lift that bale.

—RAY CHARLES SINGING “OL’ MAN RIVER”

In Beautiful Losers (1966), Leonard Cohen

Life treads on life, and heart on heart;

We press too close in church and mart

To keep a dream of grave apart.

—MRS. BROWNING

In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois

This epigraph opens the chapter “Of the Sons of Masters and Men,” in which Du Bois meditates on the history of colonialism and race relations, concluding that “only by a union of intelligence and sympathy across the color-line . . . shall justice and right triumph.” The quotation comes from “A Vision of the Poet” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861), who was outspoken in her opposition to slavery.

Some of it wasn’t very nice, but most of it was beautiful.

—DOROTHY GALE, THE WIZARD OF OZ

In Beautiful People (2005), Simon Doonan

O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.

—PINDAR, PYTHIAN III

In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mold me Man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?—

—PARADISE LOST (X. 743–45)

In Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was just nineteen when Frankenstein was published anonymously. Although the novel sold well, Shelley was too dogged by scandal and debts incurred by her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to receive any benefit from it. In fact, most people believed that Percy Shelley was the true author, doubting that a young girl could possess the kind of experience that would produce such a dark imagination. In fact, Shelley was well acquainted with death and the desire to resurrect life. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, had died of an infection two weeks after giving birth to her. Mary herself had already suffered the death of one child before writing Frankenstein, and the child she was carrying while writing the novel would survive less than a year. A journal entry from 1815 reads: “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lives.”

February 19. Hopes?

February 20. Unnoticeable life. Noticeable failure.

February 25. A letter.

—FROM KAFKA’S DIARY, 1922

In Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (2010), Avi Steinberg

Nineteen twenty-two was not a good year for Kafka. Suffering from tuberculosis, his health declined to such a degree that he gave up writing fiction. He instructed his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, to burn all his manuscripts and papers after his death. Brod can be forgiven for not granting his friend’s dying wish, as we wouldn’t have The Trial, The Castle, or Amerika otherwise.

All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere.

That is what the world is.

—ALEKSANDAR HEMON,
THE LAZARUS PROJECT

In Let the Great World Spin (2009), Colum McCann

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

—CHARLES DARWIN, ON THE
ORIGIN OF SPECIES


In The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008), David Wroblewski

The dirty nurse, Experience . . .

—TENNYSON

In Regarding the Pain of Others (2002), Susan Sontag

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

—GEORGE ELIOT

In Unless (2002), Carol Shields

Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things—air, sleep, dreams, the sun, the sky—all things tending toward the eternal or what we imagine of it.

—PAVESE

In The Comfort of Strangers (1981), Ian McEwan

Cesare Pavese (1908–1950), a towering figure in twentieth-century Italian cultural history, fell in love with American literature as a student in Turin. He wrote his thesis on Walt Whitman, and Moby-Dick was his favorite book. He began writing stories, poems, and novels, but his anti-Fascist activities landed him in one of Mussolini’s prisons for three years. With his own work censored, Pavese began translating Herman Melville, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, and others, and it is through his translations that most Italian readers first encountered these authors. After the war, Pavese’s novels Before the Cock Crows, August Holiday, and Dialogues with Leucò earned him great acclaim. Yet, at the height of his success, he committed suicide after a failed love affair. He was forty-one years old.

After all, my dear fellow, life, Anaxagoras has said, is a journey.

—BERGOTTE

In The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Nathanael West

The journey was cut short for Nathanael West (1903–1940), who died at thirty-seven, his literary talents unrecognized. He had spectacular bad luck as an author: one of his publishers went bankrupt, and his darkly comic vision never caught on with Depression-era readers. Broke, West went to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter. There he fell in love with Eileen McKenney, heroine of her sister Ruth’s popular book, My Sister Eileen. The couple was married less than a year when a car crash killed them both. This tragedy provoked interest in West and led to reissues of his novels and his posthumous fame. “Bergotte” is the author young Marcel worships in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; Anaxagoras was an influential Greek philosopher during the golden age of Pericles.

But there are two quite distinct things—given the wonderful place he’s in—that may have happened to him. One is that he may have got brutalized. The other is that he may have got refined.

—HENRY JAMES, THE AMBASSADORS

In Foreign Bodies (2010), Cynthia Ozick

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