By Bruno Noble
"The I is a thing of the moment, and yet our lives are ruled by it. We cannot rid ourselves of this inexistent thing." (John Gray, Straw Dogs, 2002) A novel on the nature of the self
Wednesday, 7 December 2016
Strap lines, titles, philosophy and two Unbounders
I sometimes think it harder to write the ‘blurb’ or strap line for a book than the book itself.
For the strap line, I had wanted two sentences from John Gray’s Straw Dogs: “The I is a thing of the moment, and yet our lives are ruled by it. We cannot rid ourselves of this inexistent thing.”
Clearly, that’s where my novel’s title is from but I had to wait for permission from The Wylie Agency (who owns the rights for use in the USA and Philippines) and from Granta (who owns the rights for use in the rest of the world) to be able to confirm that as my title. Fortunately for me, permission came through positively and quickly. And that - that “I” - is what my novel is about.
My working title had been Anthills and Coral Reefs from Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety: “Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don’t warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn’t differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring than anthills, and much less so than coral reefs.” While I agree with the sentiment, that’s not precisely what my novel is about. That sentiment, for me, has its roots in A Passage to India, in Miss Quested’s existential experience in the Malabar Caves and in Dr Aziz’s epiphany in the cemetery.
Had no permission been forthcoming, I would have chosen a title from David Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature. (You don’t need permission if an author has been dead for over 70 years.) “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic'd reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu'd, which he calls himself; tho' I am certain there is no such principle in me.”
Of all the possible titles (Entering and Stumbling, Intimate Stumblings, A Particular Perception, Light and Shade, Catching One’s Self, Without A Perception, Observing Perception, A Different Notion, Essentially Different, Simply Continued), I think my favourite would have been Entering Intimately.
As we’re straying into philosophy (of a kind) here, I should mention two fellow Unbounders whose writing has particularly impressed me and whom I would encourage everyone to support.
I consider Jet McDonald’s Mind is the Ride to be the ‘stand-out’ project on Unbound: he cycles from England to India while ruminating on western and eastern philosophy and on bicycle parts. I like the conceit whereby he travels both physically and cerebrally from west to east and completes his means of physical (and intellectual) vessel as he does so - brilliant! - and I like his writing very much. https://unbound.com/books/mind-is-the-ride is the link.
And then there’s Iona Lee’s Late Night Philosophy, a collection of poems that deliver far beyond the simplicity of her language - you can read three of them here: https://unbound.com/books/late-night-philosophy. A Nice Quiet Life is one of the most beguilingly effective and mood-shifting poems I have read in a long time.