In the Mughal Gardens by Michael Paul Hogan

How about this for a title

For Whom The Bell Tolls
A Novel
By Ernest Hemingway

…I think it has the magic that a title has to have. Maybe it isn’t too easy to say. But maybe the book will make it easy. Anyway I have had thirty some titles and they were all possible but this is the first one that has made the bell toll for me.

                                                  Ernest Hemingway to Maxwell Perkins, 1940

How the hell are you? What do you think of Men Without Women as a title? I could get no title, Fitz, run through Ecclesiastics though I did… I was alone and I began cursing the bloody bible because there were no titles in it – although I found the source of practically every good title you ever heard of. But the boys, principally Kipling, had been there before me and swiped all the good ones…

                                                   Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1927

There is such joy in the presence of a great title that it becomes a pleasure in itself to look along the shelves of one’s library and see East of Eden or Lie Down in Darkness or Lord Jim – all stencilled like gloriously erudite tattoos on the original cloth covers or printed like minimalist oriental poems on the more slender paperback spines. The books themselves are wonderful, but having a wonderful title provides that perfect finishing touch – and a pretty important one, at that. I may have mentioned in a previous essay that there exist more books than we can ever possibly read. When the Great Selection has to be made, is it not unreasonable to imagine that choosing by title might be as good a way as any to make sense of the Tsundoku paradox?

Some writers, of course, are rather wonderful at titles; others are conspicuously not. A better psychologist than myself might explain how it is that the 20th century’s two greatest playwrights were, with so little otherwise in common, other than both being American, and then from two different ends of the country, its two greatest title-writers. One also wonders how Roberto Bolano, the total eccentric original genius, the Kate Bush of modern literature, could write how he did and yet never come close to a wrap like The Iceman Cometh or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Mourning Becomes Electra or A Streetcar Named Desire. Antwerp, 2666, The Third Reich – Senor Bolano, these are not even close. But you are a total eccentric genius, and so we forgive you. We are less inclined to forgive the author of Couples, Marry Me, Of the Farm and four Rabbit books. And even two Pulitzer Prizes do not begin to justify calling your first published book The Carpentered Hen

Maybe it all got too complicated. Maybe we ought to rewind the tape to when you gave your novel the name of its main character, and build up from there…

Fielding started it, Smollett perfected it, and Dickens made it almost a defining feature of his oevre. Joseph Andrews, Roderick Random, David Copperfield et al. Funnily enough, the conceit was picked up by the iconoclast Mark Twain, the last person you’d have thought would wish to sound an Anglo-Victorian note, but it was a different innovator, George Meredith, who developed the idea most successfully. The Ordeal of Richard Feverel is a title that combines advertisement with assonance, not a bad achievement in five words, and is also an excellent and nowadays under-appreciated book. There are, of course, plenty of others along both the same lines. E L Doctorow called one of his greatest novels by the name of its hero, Billy Bathgate, and Mary Wesley did a neat homage to Meredith with The Vacillations of Poppy Carew. But the Palm d’Or goes to Daphne de Maurier. The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is quite simply one of the most brilliant titles of all time…

Tolstoy wrote two famous novels, neatly (and almost inevitably, considering his contemporary, let alone his subsequent, reputation as the greatest of the great) establishing himself in both the previous title-category with Anna Karenina and the next with War and Peace. Think of Sense and Sensibility, Crime and Punishment, Fathers and Sons and the majority of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Kipling, with, among others, Limits and Renewals and Rewards and Fairies, was typically at a tangent, and in the modern era we have Angela Carter with Heroes and Villains and my own personal favourite (as the finest post-war English novel and a superb title) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

There are wonderful titles that are simply wonderful titles, and wonderful titles that manage the supreme trick of being simultaneously brilliant and completely relevant to the content of the actual text. A good example of the former is The Sun Also Rises, a title so completely random that it wasn’t even used for the UK first edition, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is pretty good too – as are Wide Sargasso Sea, Light in August and Tender is the Night. But the supreme achievement is when a title is not just truly great, but actually manages to precis the book (or play) itself. We will all have our own personal favourites, and as this is a very subjective essay yours will be just as valid as mine. But for what it’s worth, I nominate As I Lay Dying, Death of a Salesman, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Last of the Mohicans. The Oscar in this category, however, goes to Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Not just a stunning title, but a perfect five-word summary of an incredible four-hour play. How gorgeous is that?

In short, a good title, more especially a great title, is, in and of itself, a rather wonderful thing…


In the city of Chandigarh, Corbusier’s vision of modern India, the capital of Punjab and Haryana, there is a popular weekend destination, the Pinjore Gardens, situated on the Simla-Kalka highway a short drive north of the city. It was built in the 17th Century for the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb by the architect Muzaffar Hussein, known as Nawab Fidai Khan Koka, and consists of seven terraces and four palaces – the Palace of Glass, the Palace of Air, the Painted Palace and the Palace of Water.  I was taken there almost exactly twenty years ago, the friends who took me pointing out that the external walls had been built from rubble obtained by the destruction of Hindu temples previously erected on the same site – you can still see the original Hindu iconography set like fossils in the stonework.  The opportunity thus provided to find metaphor was too good to miss, whether it found in the sense of historical, religious or cultural perspective or, from a purely literary point of view, as an almost concrete realisation of Eliot’s broken images; – or, from an artistically broader point of view, a kind of assemblage, a cross between the Cubism of Braque and the deconstruction / reconstruction of Marcel Duchamp.  Over a gin & lime at my friends’ house that evening I scribbled down a description in my notebook and a potential title for a slender book of poems inspired by my travels in the sub-continent, In the Mughal Gardens. Later, better travelled and most certainly better-read, I realised that the people of India already had Ghalib, they had Mira Bai, they had Kamala Das – they truly had no need of me.  But the title I loved then and love still, and although I could never have known that twenty-odd years later I would use it for the title of an essay in a literary journal called The Blue Nib, I knew that it was too good not to be somehow, somewhere be used…

Oh, and before I forget to mention, in this I have a rather illustrious precedent…

Before the Great War, before becoming Lawrence of Arabia, a young British Museum archaeologist by the name of T E Lawrence started writing a book about the seven greatest cities of antiquity, to be called Seven Pillars of Wisdom, from a passage in Proverbs 9:1 Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars. War broke out, Lawrence’s priorities shifted to more immediate matters, history was made, a legend was made, but all that remained of the scholarly book was a title – a title that Lawrence loved too much not to use it for another, a far more significant work. It is the best (and certainly most famous) example of how a title can transcend any book to which it is attached. I’m sure there are many others – including, of course, my own. But it all boils down to one important thing: No, you cannot judge a book by its cover, but a title – now that’s a different matter entirely…

You can read Michael’s essay ‘Tsundoku and the Art of Infinite Reading’ here

About the contributor

Michael Paul Hogan
Born in London, Michael Paul Hogan is a poet, journalist, fiction writer and literary essayist whose work has appeared extensively in the UK, USA, India and China. He is the author of six poetry collections and is currently working on a book of short stories.

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