BookerTalk

10 Book Titles Raided From Literature

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This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is “favourite quotes from books”.

I could make this really easy and just select examples from my 10 favourite Booker Prize winners. But where’s the fun in that?? So I’ve decided to go off on a tangent as it were, and choose book titles that are quotations from other works of literature.

I’ve long been curious how authors come up with titles for their novels. It can’t be an easy task. The title has to tick multiple boxes. It has to intrigue but not confuse, suggest a tone or a theme and be memorable yet not gimmicky.

Small wonder that some authors pontificate before making their choice. It’s rather like finding the right birth name for your child isn’t it? F Scott Fitzgerald famously dithered and wavered with at least six names before settling on The Great Gatsby. Faced with alternatives like TrimalchioTrimalchio in West EggOn the Road to West Egg;  Gold-Hatted Gatsby; and The High-Bouncing Lover, I’d say he made the right choice.

Other authors have turned to the past for help, raiding the great works of literatures for fragments and snippets that could become book titles. They’ve plundered Shakespeare, pocketed nuggets of gold from the Bible and dug deep into poetry, in search of inspiration.

Here’s my list of 10 faourites.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

The title of one of the best known of Hemingway’s novels comes from a seventeenth century prose work by the metaphysical poet John Donne. Done was recovering from a serious illness which had brought him close to death, when he wrote Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. The seventeenth Meditations is what inspired Hemingway:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

Huxley turned to the eighteenth century for the title of his 1954 book which deals with his psychedelic experience under the influence of mescaline. Two years later he published an essay called Heaven and Hell, which elaborated on the experience. Both titles came from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, by William Blake, a series of texts in which he expressed his intensely Romantic and revolutionary beliefs. 

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

I loved this book so much that I’ve been pushing my copy into the hands of all my friends. It’s only recently I discovered that the title comes from Samson Agonistes by John Milton, published in 1671. Incidentally Milton’s drama also inspired Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh took the title for his 1934 satirical comic novel from a poem widely regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century: The Waste Land by T S Eliot.

A Passage to India   by E M Forster

A Passage to India  featured in Time magazine’s “All Time 100 Novels” list. His title comes from Walt Whitman’s 1870 poem “Passage to India” in  his collection Leaves of Grass.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The landmark novel by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe uses a line from the first stanza of W.B Yeats’ poem The Second Coming. Yeats wrote the poem in 1919, in the aftermath of one conflict – the First World War –  and the beginning of another – the  Irish War of Independence. Yeats emphasizes that the present world is falling apart, and a new ominous reality is going to emerge.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck 

Every child who has had to study this book (it’s frequently on the UK school syllabus) will likely know where Steinbeck found his title. It comes from To a Mouse by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, a poem he supposedly wrote while ploughing fields and accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest. In the original version of Scottish dialect the line reads:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy  

Equally well known I suspect that Hardy found his title in the poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Cover Her Face by P D James

It isn’t only literary fiction authors who resort to the classics for title ideas. Crime fiction writers are at it too.

For the origin of Cover Her Face – the first PD James novel I read – we need to look to a revenge tragedy from the seventeenth century, The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster. The words

Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.

are spoken by a brother looking upon the body of his murdered twin sister. It’s a play about family conflict and greed, the perfect choice for James’ novel about the death of a young, ambitious maid, whose family has reasons to want her gone.  

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Crime fiction can also be an inspiration as Mark Haddon showed with his award-winning novel. The title refers to an observation by  Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”. The curious fact about the dog proves the key to solving the crime. But I’m not going to tell you what the fact is, you’ll just have to read the story yourself 🙂

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