Post Road Magazine #25

You Can't Tell a Book by its Title

Samuel Reifler

There's something I call the title fallacy. The most blatant example is Arnold Bennett's unhappily titled The Old Wives' Tale.

My parents' bookshelves were my first source of adult literature. Their contents included a few books from my parents' impressionable years (whatever happened to that handy adjective which excused so much idiotic behavior?), such as my father's collection of eight slim, uniform volumes of Edna St. Vincent Millay (my father was the poetic parent), but consisted mostly of the same Book-of-the-Month-Club selections that seemed to be on everyone's parents' shelves. Here I found books I loved (Saroyan's The Human Comedy, Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, McCullers' Member of the Wedding), books that were okay, but uninspiring (Cozzens' The Just and the Unjust, Steinbeck's The Wayward Bus, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), one that I could not put down but scared me to death (Wright's Native Son), and many that I slipped back on the shelf after just a glance at the first page.

The Old Wives' Tale was there as well, but I never bothered to take it off the shelf. The title summoned up an image of old women knitting and telling stories beside a gloomy fireplace while in the shadows a ragged besom leaned against the wall. No, thank you.

As it turns out, Bennett's misleading title was meant to be ironic. The story is not as told by old wives but is about two women, sisters, who happen to end up as old wives – widows, actually. Published in 1908, it is a brilliant and sensitive account of how their lives were shaped by the social and economic transformations of the late 19th century – part George Eliot, part Thomas Hardy, part D. H. Lawrence, and as good as the best of theirs. Recommended, but not the book of this recommendation.

The thing about the title fallacy, of course, is that ultimately it rests on a misperception by the reader. An old wives' tale is an idiomatic expression that I'm sure turned off plenty of potential readers. But Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers (a direct translation of the German title) is a perfectly sturdy, neutral title, as dry and accurate as The Sisters would have been for the Bennett book. The problem with Mann's title was mostly my problem.

I've read The Magic Mountain three times. I think of it as the touchstone for the novel of ideas. It's a genre I enjoy immensely although, proportionately at least, it probably has been responsible for more crappy fiction than Regency and fantasy novels have. For fifty years I had assumed that Joseph and His Brothers would be another Magic Mountain, only relocated from a sexy and sophisticated Swiss sanatorium to the prehistoric Arabian desert, populated by dour biblical Jews with beards. Again – no, thank you.

But Mann is so good. I've read just about all of his fiction (I still haven't gotten around to The Transfigured Heads), so last year I decided to bite the bullet and plough through Joseph and His Brothers.

Plough through? It was a carnival ride, a trip through a fun house, on a ferris wheel, down a water slide – a ferris wheel being the most apt metaphor, with the way it continuously cycles you between the world of the comical hayseeds of the midway and a vista of far, far horizons. At times, reading Joseph, I literally whooped with delight. You thought Felix Krull was witty and clever?

I therefore recommend Joseph and His Brothers as a great comic novel, right up there with Tristram Shandy, Catch-22 and (by hearsay only) Don Quixote. (Will there ever be an English version of Don Quixote that does not bog down by Chapter Three, or is it one of those works, like Eugene Onegin, that defies translation?)

Some of Joseph in Egypt, the third book, in which Joseph must diplomatically fend off the advances of his boss's wife, is pure Feydeau. In Book Two, Jacob's obsessive preference for his youngest son (with homoerotic overtones) and the extreme bullying of the other brothers, which could have been lugubriously bathetic, is related with the insouciance of a boulevardier. Even the first chapter, Mann's vision of the synthesis of myth and reality, which is the Big Idea behind the book—the kind of philosophical exposition that might have put Hans Castorp to sleep during the day or kept him up at night—is set out with winning clarity and an unprofessorial bemusement.

I have a kind of tic which compels me to cast artists or particular works of art as Dionysian or Apollonian. I like to make lists of complementary pairs: Rembrandt and Vermeer, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, Whitman and Dickinson, Leadbelly and Robert Johnson, Don Giovanni and The Abduction from the Seraglio, for example. But I had not found the complement for Proust in the category "Greatest Novel of the 20th Century" until I read Joseph and His Brothers.

If you enjoy long books as I do (as long as they're habitable), you'll enjoy Joseph. And if, like me, your taste tends toward the Apollonian, that is, if you're one of those, scorned by Auden, "as read the bible for its prose,"* then Joseph and His Brothers is required reading.

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