The recent release of Peter Carey's new novel had me thinking about titles. If I am ever capable of a title as soppy as The Chemistry of Tears I hope the people around me have the good grace to pull me up. I have no idea what's between the covers of that book, perhaps it's very good. I haven't read Carey since I was in my late teens, when for some strange reason all things quirky seemed artistic.
Once I was working with a pleasant American lady in her sixties and it was Friday afternoon. Knock off time.
'Thank God,' she said swinging back on her chair.
'Too right,' I said.
Said the American lady, 'I'm going home to put a hot water bottle under my knees, a cat on my lap and watch Midsummer Murders.'
'My God,' I thought, 'You and I have a different idea of fun.'
That is how the title of Peter Carey's book makes me feel.
While it's rare that a really great writer is capapble of a title as poor as that, good book's don't necessarily have
wonderful titles. Dostoyevsky wasn't great at it: Crime and Punishment sounds like an American TV series; Tolstoy seems
not to be even trying: War and Peace could be an undergraduate history essay - it needs only the sub-title 'in 19th Century
Ireland' to make it perfect.
Graham Greene was hit and miss, the very ordinary titles Heart of the Matter and Honorary Consul (both superb novels) are
counterweighted by the Power and the Glory, which manages to be both ironic and sincere by turns, and the subtly beautiful
and also ironic, The Quiet American.
Hemingway was superb: A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Death in the Afternoon, A Moveable Feast all beautiful and strange phrases with deep resonances.
Who is making great titles today? So far as I can see, no well known writers - at least, none consistently. Just one film maker comes to mind: the director or Bottle Rocket, The Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited. In books and films good titles are thin on the ground.
And yet, I have noticed that composers of contemporary electronic ambient music are uncannily good at it. Take
shoegaze outfit Belong: 'Remove the Inside' from the verse that says 'Remove the outside and you find the inside, remove
the inside and you see the soul' or 'I Never Lose, Never Really' .. Or Last Days: 'Saved by a Helicopter' or 'I remember When You Were Good'. Truly for the next book of stories I write I must pinch some of these.
If anyone needed any further reason - and they can't - to completely dismiss the Oscars as a genuine arts prize then the fact that Steve McQueen's Shame is not nominated for a single one of them should do it.
By my reckoning, of films released in the last 12 months, this one contains the best performance by both an actor and actress, the best direction, the best cinematography, the best score (albeit with a large tip of the hat to The Thin Red Line) and it is, without doubt, the finest film.
The subject matter is sordid. The treatment superb, The performances wrought with unspoken pain with McQueen apparently subscribing to Hemingway's dictum that 9 tenths of the iceberg is underwater, therefore a work gains power by what is unsaid as much or more than what is. This film speaks its depths with a series of subtle poetic gestures, not surprisingly as McQueen started out as a visual artist, and indeed its best scenes contain no dialogue at all (the one thing the director doesn't do terribly well is dialogue), but at told in the faces of Fassbender and Mulligan and the movement of McQueen's camera.
Tinker, Tailor ... is nominated plenty. Which is telling of the people who judge such prizes: I can only assume their thinking goes something like this: British intelligence in Cold War = serious; New York professional with a sex addiction = not serious. Ergo, the former goes through. Tinker, Tailr, despite the gravity of the men's faces in frame, despite the grandiosity, is nothing more than an amusing cerebral game, every Agatha Christie book is as good. And to make the whole business a complete joke, that great turkey slap of a film The Tree of Life is nominated.
In fifty years time people will still by watching Shame; they'll probably be remaking Tinker, Tailor or something very like it with concessions to the nostalgic tastes of the day (I was 4 years old in 1980 - people didn't dress like they do in that movie - didn't see any crimped hair or tie-dye in frame); and the Tree of Life will come on once a decade on a community channel in Venezuela at 2 in the morning.
Pensees - spelling and punctuation mistakes and all ... I believe at least three quarters of what I say. ... And the good stuff only stays posted for an hour or two.