Tuesday, November 20, 2012

`A Book Worthy of Human Veneration'

In Execution Eve and Other Contemporary Ballads (1975), William F. Buckley Jr. reprints a letter from his friend Hugh Kenner, author of The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett (1962) and The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy (1968), both illustrated by Guy Davenport. In the letter, Kenner describes something he calls the “Jane Chord,” named for the wife of avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage. You calculate it by combining the first and last words of “any book by any mortal,” and if it is “a book worthy of human veneration these words combined will state the book’s quality in a phrase.” A parlor game, of course, but one surprisingly useful. Kenner notes the “Virgilian chiaroscuro” of the Aeneid: “arma/sub umbras.” Ulysses renders: “Stately/yes.” His own The Pound Era: “Toward/labyrinth.” And La Divina Commedia: “nel/stelle” – in the stars. I've calculated a few others among my favorites: 

Invisible Man: “I/you?”

The Unnamable: “Where/on.”

My Ántonia: “Last/past.”

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: “Had/Johnson.”

The Wings of the Dove: “She/were!”

The Golden Bowl: "The/breast."

The Ambassadors: "Strether's/Strether"

Wise Blood: “Hazel/light!”

Tristram Shandy: “I/heard.”

Herzog: “If/word.”

Moby-Dick: “Call/orphan.”

The Geography of the Imagination: “The/Dictionary

Transparent Things: "Here's/son."

Seize the Day: "When/need."

Gulliver's Travels: "My/sight."

The Wife of Martin Guerre: "One/long."

The Man Who Loved Children: "All/bridge."

Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion: "The/L'enthousiasme!"

Gilead: "I/sleep." 

Try it yourself. Beware of translations. Beware of preliminary (copyright, dedications, acknowledgements, etc.) and ancillary (appendices and indices) matter. What to do with Pale Fire? Kenner cites Stéphane Mallarmé’s sonnet (“Le virge/cygnet”) as precedent for his “precious principle,” then gracefully lauds Buckley’s most recent volume (as of 1972), Inveighing We Will Go: 



Jeremy Norton said...

Wow! This is an interesting set of books! Thanks for the info Patrick!

D. G. Myers said...

And Lolita, of course: "Lolita/Lolita."

Anonymous said...

One could write a book by starting with the first and last words and trying to figure out the middle later.

Soccer Dad said...

out of all the interesting people in modern american letters, why can't we leave the racist buckley in obscurity