Flattery and Whining

William Gass

  • The Book of Prefaces edited by Alasdair Gray
    Bloomsbury, 639 pp, £35.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 7475 4443 3

Alasdair Gray has opened his Book of Prefaces with what he calls an Advertisement and followed that with an essay ‘On What Led to English Literature’. Since he deliberately does not distinguish between the various sorts of front matter a volume may contain, both might be characterised as prefaces. I encountered this laxity with some dismay, although I understand it. The editor did not wish to inhibit his choices of materials by drawing lines none of his examples would obey anyway, or slow his process of selection with quibbles. Nevertheless, to protest sloppy common usage, I think the necessary distinctions should be made.

A prologue imparts information that is necessary for the reader to have before beginning a book or watching a performance. The narrative aria that opens Tristan und Isolde tells us the story up to the point at which the curtain rises. The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales describes the occasion for the tale it will frame and ‘introduces’ the cast of characters. Prologues are true ‘openings’ and therefore more essential to the main text than other introductory bits and pieces, which resemble those souvenir shops on the walk to San Michel that may entice readers to dally on their way. If the main text is in verse, the prologue will feel obliged to follow suit. It should never be by anyone other than the author, though it may be delivered by a ‘prologuer’ as in Henry V, or by a character in the book, play or opera, as in Pagliacci, or by the author under another name.

Carried away by prologomania, Chaucer writes prologues for his knight, his knight’s squire, his prioress, his friar, his monk, his lawyer, his clerk, his merchant, his carpenter, his cook and so on, including, thank heaven, his good wife from Bath, whose virtue most immediately is that she enables the poet to rhyme ‘deef’ and ‘Ypres’ within the first four lines – and internally to boot. Happily, Gray includes all of them in The Book of Prefaces, as well as the stirring Prologue to Piers Plowman. This is poetry which proves that powerful verse needn’t be politically puny and pusillanimous just because it alliterates, while demonstrating how the deserved vilification of a politician in one period will fit others in other times equally well, corrupt and incompetent governance being drearily the same for every age. Enjoy the lines in which rats consider belling the cat, for instance. An updated English accompanies the original text to facilitate the pleasure.

A prolegomenon is a simplified version of a more complicated text or theory; it is therefore something like an ‘introductory course’. It covers the main points, leaving out only subtleties and details. The prolegomenon can therefore substitute for the text if you are in a hurry, or can, in some cases, serve as the only text, because, for a prolegomenon, it is the ideas that count. A prolegomenon suggests an intimacy with the thoughts which concern it that only their author might be expected to possess. Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics is an example – maybe the only one.

A preface explains the meaning, nature, history or importance of the text, preparing the reader to engage it in a resourceful rather than a dilatory manner, as Granville-Barker’s Prefaces to Shakespeare do. A preface should mean business, but it is not a reduction of its text to bite size. Usually, the works of dead authors get prefaces written by scholars. Imagine the hyena explaining to the jackal the finer qualities of what it is about to eat.

Each of the addenda that concern us here could conceivably be published independently of its home text. This happens, particularly, to prolegomena. They are then said (by me) to be untethered. That is why some of the selections in The Book of Prefaces seem sufficient and complete in themselves and others feel fragmentary and rather lost. The selections are frequently abridged and sometimes both banks are omitted.

The forematter to a main text may on occasion be so forceful, so trenchant, so outrageous that it outcrescendos the piece to follow, and in after days only the overture is played, say it’s by von Suppé or Rossini, leaving the opera that occasioned it in wholesome oblivion. A literary example is Théophile Gautier’s preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, though it ignores all my splendid distinctions ‘twixt foreword, intro and preface as if I hadn’t made them yet. Gautier’s extended polemic has very little to do with the novel itself. It was, in fact, written to lengthen the total text so that it might be issued in two volumes, and would have been better called a fusillade. His attack on the utilitarian character of the bourgeoisie came to be regarded, after May 1834, as Modernism’s opening – well – fusillade. Synge’s preface to The Playboy of the Western World has known a fame equal to the play. Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads approaches it.

Although every one of these pieces of prior matter is made of language, only prefaces and forewords must announce an oncoming text. Persons can be introduced, prologues can precede plays, prolegomena run in front of theories. However, a foreword requires a written or printed work it can be the ‘fore’ of. I can say ‘Let me preface my remarks …’ but I cannot permit myself to foreword them. It has been said that the golfer’s cry of ‘fore!’ heralds the ball the way the ‘fore!’ of a text warns of the word.

An introduction should get the reader interested in the subject of the book by briefly describing it, praising its author and providing a fascinating curriculum vitae without necessarily explaining or parsing the work. The introduction is an extended blurb, a barker’s spiel, and hence it is like an old-fashioned advertisement, and may concern itself primarily with the personal history of the author. It permits reminiscence and gossip. Both preface and introduction can apologise for the public’s past neglect of the work. The author may write his own blurb but this is definitely bad form. He will pretend to be introducing his book to the reader, which is a little like introducing his dog. Ideally, it should be by another writer of fame if not distinction, because an introduction is an endorsement. Introductions are usually a lot of baloney. And there are far too many of them.

If some mushhead were still of the opinion that these aforementioned terms were interchangeable, especially in the mushhead’s world, consider this: I may introduce a speaker to an audience, or two people to one another, but I cannot prolegomenon or preface them. I can introduce you to roast quail or to miniature golf, to the prime minister or the Rotary Club, but I cannot even foreword mail.

An introduction presupposes ignorance. When Albert J. Guerard introduced John Hawkes’s novel The Cannibal in 1948, he could properly feel both Hawkes and his novel were unknown to most readers. But this is what Guerard begins by saying: ‘Many introductions exist to persuade the reluctant reader that the classic text under consideration is deservedly a classic, with hidden meanings and beauties.’ Guerard had been teaching too long and assumed rows of ignorant students were sitting in front of him. You can’t call a new novel a classic, however fine you think it is, without puffing a sail loose. An introduction is an introduction, not a nomination. ‘This is Helen Hoho, she teaches at Heehaw,’ is quite enough. Not: ‘This is Helen Hoho, and despite what you have heard, she isn’t bad in bed, is rather good with pilaff, and can darn cotton socks like crazy.’ Indiscreet praise is still slander.

Martin Samson says, endeavouring to ‘introduce’ The Ambassadors, that ‘the main purpose of an introduction, as usually written, seems to be the statement of a critical opinion of the literary work concerned. Possibly the best place for such an opinion would be not as prologue but as epilogue, to be read when the book was finished and when one’s own tentative judgment had been formed.’ His loose use of ‘prologue’ should leap out at us by now. In an introduction some innocuous praise is permitted: ‘This is Helen Hoho, she is a wonderful teacher, too bad she’s been stuck at Heehaw for thirty years.’

An epilogue, now that it’s come up, like its older brother, is a part of the text. It may satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the fate of the characters, or contain some acid account of the likely course of its tale, but remarks about the resistance of publishers to genius or the blindness of reviewers to subtlety and wit, as well as pleas for pity on the part of the author for his undeserved plight, should be reserved for an afterword.

A foreword should be written by the author, at the time of publication, explaining perhaps why the piece was written, anticipating difficulties, alerting the reader to its special qualities, removing current misconceptions, apologising in advance for defects it may be perceived – vengefully – to possess. Sometimes a foreword is added to later editions in order to attack previous reviewers, and defend the text from their criticisms (which the author, if shrewd, will never spell out), or to brag in a modest manner about why a new edition seemed necessary, and point to corrections and additions whose prior absence, as useful or required as they may seem now, did not prevent the book from being a big hit. Perhaps this is the place to warn the reader that the tome he might be holding, titled Oceans of the World, also includes seas because the difference between oceans and seas, let alone bays and gulfs, was to the author of Oceans never clear or never considered.

Forewords are so often self-serving that I tend to skip them, hoping to hold on to some regard for the writer at least until after the first pallid pages of his book have slipped away into the ‘nevermore to be remembered’. Their premature celebrations of genius are usually a proclivity of men, but a few are so wise and so just that their recommendations should be piously followed. Such is the case with King Alfred’s greeting to his bishops on the occasion of sending them his translation of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care. ‘Think how we would be punished in this world, if we neither loved learning ourselves or let other men love it: that we had the name of Christian only, and few of the virtues.’ He remembers how the Greeks translated every text into their own language, and he encourages this practice in his bishops, so that what is locked in Latin, and so kept from the people, will be set free in their understanding. A great good king indeed.

Early on, information we would now think properly put on the acknowledgment page was consigned to a foreword, as is the case here with the Venerable Bede, who is careful to inform his patron, King Ceolwulf, concerning the sources of the stories he is about to relate, so he may have the comfort of saying: don’t blame me; it’s what I’ve been told. ‘Of things known about the faith of Christ in Northumbria up to the present day, I do not use the authority of one person, but the words of many truthful witnesses, who knew and remembered the events.’

Addresses are of three kinds. The first (often a poem) is by the author to his or her issue: ‘Go dumb born book …’ etc, and explores the conceit, frequently invoked, that the book has been whelped the way mammals are, and is sent forth, now, like an orphan, to make its way. The second (often a poem) is directed to the author’s patron, or hoped-for patron (some highborn lowbrow nobleman normally), as Robert Herrick’s is posted to the Prince of Wales, and packed with obsequious lies: ‘Well may my Book come forth like Publique Day,/When such a Light as You are leads the way’; the third (often a poem) is from the author to the reader pretending to be a personal letter from one to the other, and often slyly performing some of a foreword’s business.

Caedmon considers his patron to be God. Naturally he addresses him, but he does so publicly, letting the rest of us overhear. The regularity with which this is done (in addresses to the Deity) suggests that there is a real concern that God may be turning a deaf ear, if he has any ear at all, so someone else had better be listening, if only for the record.

An author’s note or just a note usually serves as a foreshortened preface, though sometimes it combines this function with the task of an acknowledgment page. A note had better be a note – that is, a paragraph or two, max. And contain information – several facts per sentence – that may be ‘tucked away’.

Any one of these otherwise innocent textual members may be misused: for instance, when E.E. Cummings bestows a dedication on all the publishers who have rejected his work.

The above listed elements may not be explicitly named ‘preface’ or ‘foreword’. You have published, in the 1960s, a book for which you supplied a preface; now you are reissuing it with additional material called, perhaps, ‘A View from the 1970s’. Whatever it is labelled, if it takes account of the preface to the first edition (as it should), then it is a metapreface. With ‘metas’ all bets are off.

In times past it was customary to load a book with more of these burdens than is the habit now. Normally we save introductions for reissues. A fancy edition of The Way of All Flesh may contain a frontal essay by Theodore Dreiser while a cheap ‘just for study’ copy will be hawked by a professor from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. My treasured copy of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy has a preface by F.D. & P.J.-S. and an introduction whose Part I is by P.J.-S. and whose Part II, briefer, is by F.D., which suggests these initials know the difference. This is followed by Burton’s poem, ‘The Argument of the Frontispiece’, next by the ‘Frontispiece’ itself and another poem, longer, which is an address by the author’s pseudonym, Democritus Junior, to his book – ‘Go forth, my book, into the open day.’ This done, space is made for still another set of verses titled ‘The Author’s Abstract of Melancholy’ with its famous refrain, ‘Naught so sweet as Melancholy’, when, hard upon, I shall encounter an introduction, ‘Democritus Junior to the Reader’, of 93 pages. Have we got to grandmother’s house yet? No. We now turn a leaf headed ‘To the Mischievously Idle Reader’, written in both prose and verse, and subsequently find the four-page synopsis of the Anatomy’s ‘First Partition’ laid out like a densely ploughed field.

The Book of Prefaces is got up to resemble a book of bygone days, with much accompanying material in both red and black ink: endpapers with drawings resembling a mural, a decorative title-page that iconises the English-speaking nations these prefaces have been drawn from, an equally elaborate copyright notice and dedication, unexpectedly a sheet containing the pen-and-ink portraits of every soul who has been remotely connected to the project, and who would permit Alasdair Gray to draw them, including its First and Last Typists and the project’s only Sponsor. The margins are crowded with columns in two shades of red ink called ‘glosses’, and these actually exceed biographical aims to become – well – glosses. A nice touch is an errata card, also doubly inked and in matching type, that can serve as a bookmark, although a purple ribbon leaks out of the book’s bottom edge.

Font sizes change like evil purposes; more images (of those who have volunteered glosses and were paid in portraits) clog the rear, where there’s a postscript and an index as well. Dates in very large type fix each entry in its time, and control their order, so that were a reader to read this collection straight through (no one expects it, and for dipping into or sipping from this volume, hotels and bathrooms are the venues suggested) they might experience the rich course of English prose from nowhere to now, and also profit from the enterprise by observing changes in the manners and morals of our authors, in their plights and perilous status, from hence to thence.

Alasdair Gray cuts this historical sweep into steps or eras of his own (suffering our customary doubts): ‘English Remade’, c.1330 to c.1395; ‘A Great Flowering’, Hakluyt to Coke; ‘The Establishment’, Dryden to Burns; etc; and between them he adds valuable explanatory material. These intersticed essays have, I regret to say, no name. They exist, all the same.

There are supposed to be some Irish authors (harps are pictured) but none of them except Synge is very Irish. I looked for Yeats and Flann O’Brien but didn’t find them. That they didn’t write prefaces is scarcely an excuse. Anyway, Synge is almost enough, as he concludes his preface to The Playboy of the Western World with these fine lines:

In Ireland, for a few years more, we have a popular imagination that is fiery, and magnificent, and tender; so that those of us who wish to write start with a chance that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the straw has been turned into bricks.

‘In Ireland, for a few years more, we have …’ What an anguished twist of syntax is this, worthy of a condemned man, and how lovely the phrase ‘where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten’, whose lilt is the last pure lilt in my memory bank, if any lilt is left.

Each section is fronted by an epigram as if engraved on a calling card of flamboyant design, and some of these are quite likeable, as well as brief and paradoxical, as required by the OED. According to Ivor Cutler, ‘Lord Finook sometimes had to boil his cottages – to get the cottagers out.’ The divisions of the book that these epigrams grace are more than purely descriptive. One is headed ‘How Class War Dulled English Literature’. Gray has provided us with a brief opinionated history of England to accompany his chronologically arranged prefaces. Unopinionated histories are uninteresting.

Most of the examples from earlier times are encrusted with Christianity, but gradually the disagreeable Coverdale is supplanted by gents such as Arthur Golding, who writes a verse forward to his translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Even so (it is 1565), he is constrained to begin by apologising: ‘I would not wish the simple sort offended for too bee,/When in this booke the heathen names of feynèd Godds they see.’ After which we move ahead smartly through Ascham, North and Holinshed to Hakluyt, Marlowe and Spenser, where we encounter a true invocation.

Moral instruction continues to direct matters even when these authors are disavowing it. One hears, almost for the first time, in Marlowe’s prologue to Tamburlaine, words whose sense says, reader, it’s up to you: ‘View but his picture in this tragicke glasse,/ And then applaud his fortunes as you please.’ Robert Greene, in his preface to Greenes Groats-Worth of Witte, repents of his life and warns his fellows, Marlowe in particular, of that upstart crow and thief of baubles, a certain Shake-scene, an ape of excellence. One of the marginal glosses helpfully reminds us that Shake-scene borrowed (and did not return) the plot of The Winter’s Tale from one of Greene’s romances, though Greene was well dead when he did it. Equally often, history was Shake-scene’s muse – the muse of Purloinment – but his prologues pretend to call on higher powers: ‘O for a Muse of Fire, that would ascend The brightest Heaven of Invention.’

Aside from flattering their patrons, covering their asses, explaining why they were compelled into publication, diffidently praising their performance, and making promises for their art that not even a muse of fire could quite put a torch to (all sensible moves, I should add, amusing, even edifying, to observe, and certainly not mentioned for censure), the preface is most often the place for a pre-emptive strike. Occasionally, the writer, anticipating only too accurately a negative response, hands his critics their weapons, as Wordsworth does, moreover with a condescension as massive as a landslide:

Readers of superior judgment may disapprove of the style in which many of these pieces are executed. It must be expected that many lines and phrases will not exactly suit their taste. It will perhaps appear to them, that wishing to avoid the prevalent fault of the day, the author has sometimes descended too low, and that many of his expressions are too familiar, and not of sufficient dignity. It is apprehended, that the more conversant the reader is with our elder writers, and with those in modern times who have been the most successful in painting manners and passions, the fewer complaints of this kind will he have to make.

In the preface to his Dictionary, Doctor Johnson whines (another persistent feature of the genre): ‘It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward’ – a whine, yes, but how perfectly composed.

Working through these prefaces, ticked across a clock of ages, the reader can be expected to exclaim: another lame excuse, still further transparent self-flattery, one more bitter complaint, abject apology, resentful pose, inadequate defence, insufficient explanation; yet gladly add, on account of the pure delight to the eye they are: but when has lameness or insufficiency, so common, so ordinary, when has flattery – frequently offered, frequently bought – been so acceptably employed, so agreeably ventured, or so well and comfortably expressed?