Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Stories Behind the Titles

Why is Joseph Heller's classic novel of World War II called Catch-22 (an expression which has now entered the English language) and not Catch-11 or Catch-21? Why is James M. Cain's novel called The Postman Always Ring Twice when it does not feature a single postman? Why is P.G. Wodehouse's man-servant called Jeeves? Why was Melville's whale Moby-Dick? Did Nabokov nick the title Lolita from another writer?

Telegraph columnist Gary Dexter sets out to uncover the stories behind the titles of 50 famous classics and comes up with some intriguing literary trivia. Extracts from the book appear in the Telegraph and the Independent.

One of the most intriguing questions (for us, anyway) is whether the orange in the title Anthony Burgess' famous dsytopian novel A Clockwork Orange was actually a play on the Malay word orang meaning man:

Anthony Burgess gave at least three possible origins for the title A Clockwork Orange, none convincing. The first was that he had overheard the phrase "as queer as a clockwork orange" in a London pub. He wrote in the introduction to the 1987 US edition: "The image was a bizarre one, always used for a bizarre thing."

Then, in an essay, "Clockwork Marmalade", published in 1972, he claimed he had heard the phrase several times, usually in the mouths of aged cockneys. But no other record of the expression in use before 1962 has surfaced. Several commentators have doubted it ever existed. Why an orange, in particular? Why not a clockwork apple? The phrase does not seem to have much wit or accuracy when describing something queer, odd or strange.

The second explanation was that the title was a pun on the Malay word orang, meaning man. Burgess taught in Malaya from 1954 to 1959. He wrote in Joysprick, his study of Joyce: "I myself was, for nearly six years, in such close touch with the Malay language that it affected my English and still affects my thinking. When I wrote A Clockwork Orange, no European reader saw that the Malay word for 'man' – orang – was contained in the title..." This conjuring of a clockwork man, central to the book's ideas, is clever, but sounds like an afterthought. Burgess wrote elsewhere that the orang echo was a "secondary" meaning – probably shorthand for a happy accident.

This leads to the third possibility, which is, as he wrote in a prefatory note, that the title is a metaphor for an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness, being turned into an automaton. This idea is built into the book. The story of Alex is one in which two unpleasant alternatives for future societies are contrasted. The first is one in which malefactors are allowed to exercise free will to torture and murder, and are, if caught, punished; the second is one in which they have their freedom of choice cauterised, resulting in a safe society populated by automata.

Burgess intended to contrast two ways of looking at the world, the Augustinian and the Pelagian. The Augustinian is that man's freedom is guaranteed, but original sin makes suffering inevitable. The Pelagian (heretical) view is that mankind is perfectible and original sin can be overridden. Burgess leant heavily towards the Augustinian side. The phrase "a clockwork orange", as representative of the Pelagian nightmare, appears in the book itself, in fact as the title of a book.

There is one other possibility. Did Burgess mishear that phrase in the pub? Terry's began making Chocolate Oranges in 1931. "Chocolate" and "clockwork" aren't homophones, but they might sound alike in a noisy pub. Perhaps Burgess misheard. Perhaps he knew it but liked what he had misheard. Perhaps – I speculate – he did not want to admit to the drab origins of his title.

I'm very tempted to buy this Dexter's book! (And I blame Aswan because he sent me a link to it.) As Marcus Berkmann in the Spectator points out:
No literary lavatory will be complete without a copy.


GUO SHAO-HUA said...

ever noticed how stories about whales always have dubious references to a certain part of the male anatomy in their titles?

Moby Dick

Free Willy

Azwan said...

Have you ever seen a whale's penis before? Hehehe... BTW, some people call it 'dork'. And there is interesting argument on this too. Go google. (And I know you gonna google 'the picture' first!)

Rob Spence said...

Hmmm- I really don't buy the Chocolate Orange theory. The first explanation seems as good as any- analogous with "as much use as a chocolate fireguard" or "queer as a nine-bob note".

Obiter Dictum said...

I am a sucker for such books.

Anonymous said...

Mpf.. I only fall for cheap trashy fiction.

Jiwa Rasa said...

Burgess and Bugis rhymes well...

Ben Hoogeboom said...

What a wonderful story! Especially the story behind Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’! I hope you won’t mind my spreading the news in Holland (I won’t forget to mention your first-class site!).

bibliobibuli said...

ben - would of course be glad if you did.

and do please send me any interesting snippets from holland as we don't get to hear much here.

Anonymous said...

Oh hmm.. Holland.. now there's a permissive country for you... bars where you can order designer drugs, kids legally having sex :)