On the subject of one word titles (see below), it is, I think, worth mentioning the late English novelist Henry Green, who frequently went for the short, sharp option. Amongst his various book-titles we find: Doting, Loving, Living, Nothing, Blindness, Caught and Concluding. One imagines that Nothing might have been a hard sell.

‘I’ve just written a book’.

‘Oh yes, what is it called?’

‘Oh, Nothing‘.


(end of conversation).

We might also consider the work of the novelist Chem Kosgey, who names all of his books after animal noises. Quack was published in 1995, followed shortly by Moo (1997) Meow (2001) and, peculiarly, Rfffk (2005).

99 V 52

Ford Madox Ford recommended instead that readers “open the book to page ninety-nine and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you”. A new website, page99test.com, launches next month to test that premise. It will offer (courageous) authors and aspiring authors the chance to upload the 99th pages of their works and invite readers to comment on whether they would buy, or like to read, the rest… [From The Guardian]

I’ve yet to hear Jean-Pierre Sertin’s view on this, but I suspect that he will be cynical of the enterprise. After all, is not p.52 the key to a book’s heart?

It Could Also Be Called Carousing

It is Monday – for many, the start of the week. Let us begin said week, therefore, with a few moments of reflection. You may wish to reflect on nothing in particular; to let life’s waves wash over you gently; to be brushed by the gentle breeze of carelessness. Or you may want to reflect on something quite specific; to roll a tangible ball of thoughts around the open palm of your mind; to poke one’s head through the leafy hedge of knowledge.  Here, then, is a bit of writing:

A foggy Sunday morning on the Strand, two or more years ago. I had found myself there, so to speak; caught myself unawares, after a night of what could only be called revelry. I lie: it could also be called carousing, or maybe even wilful wassailing, but for better or worse, revelry will suit me fine. I was a little worse for wear, needless to say, and more than a little worried over things that might or might not have occurred the preceding evening. Had I really kissed that young Spanish poet?

The author? Miss Heidi Kohlenberg, of course: friend and critic. The source of the quotation? Here it is.

[Kohlenberg was, you will know, one of the more regular contributors to Underneath the Bunker. Various bits and pieces on her (and possibly by her) are collected here.]

Treacherous Loses and Thoughtful Dots

Amongst the most recent reviews to have re-appeared over at Underneath the Bunker we may find Sebastien Cheraz’s reaction to Jarni Kolovsky’s …And I Lost: a novel made famous by its rugged simplicity – and by the unbelievable regularity with which reviewers mistype its title. How many times, for instance, have I seen And I Lost…? Too many to count. Also: And, I Lost, And: I Lost, And… I Lost, And I… Lost, ……And I Lost, And.I.Lost, And… I… Lost…. The list could go on: critics have been creative in their idiocy (as critics almost always are).

Lesser writers might shrug off these middling misptints: Kolovsky, however, has never taken kindly to such lapses. Rage is the word that scuttles across the paving stones of one’s mind. Pure rage. ‘It takes him days to recover,’ his literary agent admitted to me once: ‘he simply cannot abide the error in question. Cannot abide it at all‘.

One may wonder why. Is it, perhaps, on account of the time he takes over his titles? Most probably. Kolovsky is one of a large brood of writers for whom naming a book is a deeply serious endeavour – one that times up as much time as writing the book itself. To blithely misquote the title of a Kolovsky novel is, therefore, an act of treachery: it shows a fundamental lack of respect for the writer and his craft. Rest assured – every one of the three dots that precedes the three words in the title of …And I Lost has been put there for a very good reason. These are thoughtful dots.

Too Much Cream on the Cake?

I won’t go so far as saying that p.52 is purposeless. I shall never read the fifty-second page of a novel in the same way again, I’m sure of it. But I am unsure as to how to deal with Monsieur Sertin. In the end, what is he good for? A lovely line, a funny idea or two: a writer of cheery confidence, with a tendency towards self-indulgence. An adjective too far, perchance? Indisputably, irrefutably, incontrovertibly, incontestably. p.52 is a depositary of spare words: too much cream on the cake, my dear sir: too much seasoning in the sausages, too much gravy on the pie, too much sugar in the tea. (Sebastien Cheraz)

Thus spake Sebastien Cheraz, in his review – not of J-P Sertin’s p.52 – but of Jarni Kolovsky’s …And I Lost. Cheraz’s fears were, however, echoed by other writers. Andrew O’Hara (whose own response to Kolovsky is collected here) also threw down some thoughts on Sertin’s experimental novel:

Sir, – It is with regret that I must express my alarm at your promotion of the very dangerous work by Jean-Pierre Sertin, ‘p.52’  Given my deep respect for you and your publication, I must assume this was a hasty decision made without careful thought as to the consequences, the consequences to our children, our purity of essence and our precious bodily fluids.

At first blush, ‘p.52’ might appear to be a simple and quite amusing exercise to be tackled by any person, particularly those who enjoy solving and even constructing their own convoluted puzzles.  I cannot help, however, but be disturbed by several aspects of this seemingly innocent game and what it truly represents.

First, it stretches the imagination to believe that the number 52 was chosen so randomly, so casually.  Why not 25?  Or 53?  Oh, we are assured, it was most likely chosen by this Mr. Booth for no reason at all. I would happily accept such a notion if I did not immediately recognize some alarming clues that I believe are being used by Sertin, surreptitiously and most maliciously, to promote  his own frightening agenda.  It is hardly coincidental, for example, that there just happen to be 52 Nag Hammadi ‘religious’ texts discovered in 1945 that now threaten the very moral fiber of our society by suggesting heretical Gnosticism replace Christianity and name Thomas as a fifth disciple (note the five again, coupled with a ‘second’ religion, equals 52)!  Such timing for p.52 to come out now, would you not agree?  And do you not find it interesting that it’s page 52 of the Satan Bible that describes how the Devil calls on the forces of evil to overcome the powers of light?

Further, the well known socialist, Pythagoras, in the 52nd verse of his ‘Golden Verses’ declared ‘Thou shalt likewise know that according to Law, the nature of this universe is in all things alike’ (i.e, from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs – familiar sounding, yes?). To be more scientific, as the sum of four combinations of the first 15 prime numbers, the number 52 has major significance to mathematicians, astronomers and tax preparers.

Finally, it has until recently been a closely kept secret that the British government has been stockpiling Adrenomudullin, a 52-amino acid peptide that is suspected of stimulating adenylyl cyclase activity in a platelet bioassay.  How many ‘natural deaths’ can be attributed to the undercover use of this volatile substance?  How is it that the author is so conveniently aware of what is, to most, a very obscure chemical?  Once again, I find all of these things, combined, to be hardly coincidental with his choice of the number 52.

And don’t think for a moment it went unnoticed that, in the index, a page number was deliberately left out (to divert us) for ‘wooden telephone box’.  I wasn’t fooled by Sertin’s little tricks.  It took me an hour of repeated readings but I found it on page 52.

No, 52 was not a casual choice at all.  It is a little noticed but highly significant number.  I fear – for us all – that Mr. Sertin actually taunts us by using it.  I can go on and on but will spare you further examples of the danger presented by this number.  I will only add, however, that I am immediately suspicious when sensing so transparently hidden an agenda, regardless of which it might be.  You will forgive me, I hope, for feeling a strong need to express my skepticism and refusal to be manipulated so easily.

I have an even greater concern.  Even if this particular exercise does not turn the weak of our society into atheistic anarchists (as well I suspect its purpose may well be), I am concerned for the health of those who might enter into this folly thinking it a mere amusement.  Bartlebooth is an excellent example – he goes blind and clearly quite mad, dying a miserable death, torn by frustration in which he forgot the number 52 and became preoccupied with the letter ‘W’.

I’m happy to point out that a recent study by Doctor Oskar Zweiundfünfzig of the University of California strongly suggests that forcing children to do puzzles (or complex exercises such as these) causes idiocy and hastens the onset of senility and even madness in adults.  There are 217 uses of the number 52 in this book – enough to drive anyone mad!  For these reasons alone, I feel measures should be taken to have this book removed from the market immediately and banned.

I am reluctant to take so strident a stance, for I do truly oppose censorship, but too few people are aware of the dangers inherent in this number 52 and what it can do in the hands of someone so reckless as Sertin.  Until public education can increase awareness and prepare people for the dreadful impact of ‘fiftytwoness’, we cannot allow the spread of books like these.  Think of the disruptions alone–people missing subway cars while trying to figure out which page to bookmark (52?) and MFA teachers trying to maintain order in their classes (‘Everyone turn to page…?’) Very truly yours,

J JIMSTON,  Editor, the Jimston Journal

Still further rumblings (and/or grumblings) on the topic of Sertin’s prose can be found here. And the novel itself? Why, here it is.

As for Mr. Sertin: more on him a little later…

In a Name

I wrote, below, of book titles that contrast with their content; Jakobi’s The Fake Ape being an obvious example (bearing in mind that it is a translation from the Hungarian). One might spend a merry afternoon compiling a list of further examples: Ramen Roo’s Charmed, for instance, or Lucia Raus’s Fog Falls Faintly, Over the Fields. The difficulty, however, is in weaning out the simply misguided titles from the subtly ironic. Pyetr Turgidovsky’s famous Delicious Air of Life is far too upbeat a name for the type of novel it is; therein lies its brilliance. For those who struggle to grasp the message, our favourite nihilist supplies a sub-title: The Ugly God-damned Wife. Now we see just what boat we’re in (a sinking tugboat).

Whilst we’re on the subject of book-titles – and, indeed, Ramen Roo’s Charmed – a word or two on the fashion for one-word titles. The winds of enthusiasm appear to be blowing around a recent publication by an American writer  (Franzen, I believe his name is) whose latest barrel of literary laughs goes by the name of Freedom. A brave, no-nonsense title, that. Amongst the other examples that spring, disappointingly slowly, to my mind are Roc Quarret’s Hewn, Pieter Herrson’s Righteousness and Simona der Wert’s excellent Lozenge. Surprisingly rare, however, these tight little titles, especially in the field of obscure european literature. I would, of course, welcome any other examples…

The Ape Explained

Several people have responded to my last postage with a query. And the query was this: why is the ‘sensational new novel’ by Hungarian writer Lilla Jakobi called The Fake Ape? The plot summary supplied gives the impression that it is a sentimental First World War story; the title, meanwhile, hints at something rather more amusing.

This is a fair point. This does seem to be one of many examples of a title failing to match up to a novel’s content. As far as it goes, however, I believe that there is some reasoning behind Jakobi’s decision. A clunky passage in chapter fourteen provides the relevant clue:

Claude watched them lumbering through the mist, like gorillas with grenades in their hands. Fighting machines – that’s what they had become. But is that what they were? There was yet something false about their movements; something perverted. It seemed to him then that humans only ever seem to play at things; to dress themselves with whatever catches their fancy at a certain moment. One cannot be true to a nature that no longer exists.

The Fake Ape = The Human Condition. It’s as simple as that (if you’re a young female Hungarian novelist, that is)…