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.

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