Friday 1 April 2016

Adventures in titology: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii and book titles

Last month the lovely people behind the Books at Bristol blog included me in a one-day workshop on paratexts which took me fascinatingly far out of my academic comfort zone. Paratexts are those invaluable aspects of books - covers, titles, prefaces, even fonts - which we may discount when analysing literature, although they often predetermine our attitudes and reactions. Don't judge a book by its cover? Perhaps, but why does my publisher feel the need to include my book's exact weight on its web page (0.48kg, or 1.058 lbs, if you're interested)? The Times Literary Supplement's J.C. recently joked that that eminent publication employs someone in its Basement Department to measure the height and width of every new book. Apparently, the man who literally wrote the book on paratexts (Paratexts, 1987) is Gérard Genette, whose structuralist analysis of the chronological context, sender and addressee of book titles is oddly similar to Krzhizhanovskii's. At the conference, I was tipped off about another useful study, First Pages: A Poetics of Titles, by Giancarlo Maiorino, which helpfully introduces the term 'titology' for the study of book titles, which he visualizes as semi-architectural 'frontispieces' of literature, indexing and 'etymologizing' the essential arguments of the book.

My guide through the labyrinth of paratexts was my old friend and frequent visitor to this blog, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii. Like me, he lacked formal grounding in titology; unlike me, his encyclopedic knowledge helped him to invent a framework for a Russian branch of the topic. Below, I'm going to paste the main body of my talk. The Bristol workshop participants were generously enthusiastic about this obscure scholar, and in particular, they were keen to read him in translation. While translations of Krzhizhanovskii's non-fiction may be forthcoming, they remain spectral rumours; acute readers, let me know if you spot errors in my translations below.
SK in happier times - an Italian holiday in 1912

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii, whom Adam Thirlwell has called ‘a Ukrainian writer with a comically unpronounceable Polish name’*, was active as a writer of fiction between 1920 and 1940. Because he failed to publish any of his five novellas and as almost none of his many short stories appeared during his lifetime, at his death in 1950 his reputation rested primarily on occasional journalism, encyclopaedia entries (for the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia), and a few scholarly articles, including his Poetics of Titles, the subject of this paper. Ironically, these non-fiction works are now at risk of neglect in favour of his recently rediscovered fiction, issued by NYRB Classics in prestigious English translations. The Poetics of Titles was probably written in 1925, but actually published in 1931 by a friendly firm** when the newly unemployed Krzhizhanovskii desperately needed a publication in support of his application to join a Moscow writers’ organization, which in turn would enable him to retain his Moscow residence permit. The permit was renewed, but Krzhizhanovskii’s interest in titles ran much deeper than a single expedient monograph. He would produce, in all, three short works explicitly dedicated to front matter: The Poetics of Titles (1931), The Art of the Epigraph: Pushkin (1936), and The Play and its Title (1939). These works reflected not only the vicissitudes of his career (the second essay, on epigraphs, was rejected by numerous editors, while the third was delivered as a speech to a meeting of Soviet playwrights and therefore marked the zenith of Krzhizhanovskii’s acceptance by contemporary élites); they also reflected the wide, if rather whimsical, temporal and geographical span of his interest in literature. He would have loved the Bristol conference – not just because of its theme, but also because of the erudition and eclecticism of the papers (from Ursula Le Guin, to Roman Emperors, to Peter the Great and back again). I want to summarize Krzhizhanovskii’s poetics of titles, drawing primarily on his 1931 long essay of the same name.

Krzhizhanovskii’s essay The Poetics of Titles opens by emphasizing the physical qualities of the title and its indivisibility from the text of the book; he ends by suggesting that the fashion for penning so-called ‘Tales without a Title’ is being countered by a trend for ‘Titles without a Tale’. In between, he identifies nine categories of book title. I want to quote Krzhizhanovskii’s definition of a title in full and briefly recap these categories.

For Krzhizhanovskii, the title was essentially a micro-book, delivering its message synchronously with the macro-book of the text: it was simultaneously a physical, quantifiable object and a textual component: the first line of his essay reads, ‘We are accustomed to call the ten or so letters, which draw behind them thousands of letters of text, a title’. Precisely because it unites the text and the thought behind it, the title is the most important part of the book (‘заглавие [...] вправе выдавать себя за главное книги’, p. 7). The title is constrained by the size of the page, and has shrunk over the centuries in both actual length and typographic extent, but it still maintains the same proportional relationship with the book: ‘the book is the title unrolled as far as it will go, the title is the book restricted to an extent of two or three words’. Or as he allowed himself to say macaronically, the title is the book in restricto; the book is the title in extenso.  Krzhizhanovskii’s analysis also benefits from the connections between the word for ‘title’ (заглавие, literally, by the head) and ‘главный’, meaning ‘important’, both derived from the Russian word for ‘head’ (голова́) which is cognate with the word for ‘chapter’ (глава). This gives him endless scope for puns which I have not even tried to reproduce in English; it also affords him semantic means to reinforce the literal importance of titles.

In the next section, ‘The theme and its surroundings’, Krzhizhanovskii discusses titles which become inseparable from material aspects of their presentation. This can include the author’s name (he suggests, as examples, the respective confessions of St Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Lev Tolstoi); a printed year or place of publication; even colour or shape, as in the case of an anthology titled ‘Motley Tales’ by a nineteenth-century Russian author***, where the first edition actually printed the letters of the title in colourful jester’s motley (p. 9). However, Krzhizhanovskii warns that these are all exceptional cases; the true function of a title (as he warns in the following section on the ‘reduction of thoughts’) is to guarantee the survival of its book. Books are long and life (and memory) is short; all too soon, a book comes to be remembered by its title only (rather than its content), and only those titles which manage to convey the content of their books with brevity, concision, and memorability can hope to be preserved in our cultural heritage. Historians, Krzhizhanovskii suggests, are storytellers: ‘as in the history of political events, so in the history of libraries only what is easily told sinks in’ (p. 11). He suggests the Satyricon, In Praise of Folly and Vanity Fair as successfully snappy titles.

This brings us to Part Two, where Krzhizhanovskii begins his main task: listing categories of title. He starts by lamenting the decline of titles with both subject and predicate, following the simple pattern of X=Y – one example is the Spanish playwright Calderón’s play Life is a Dream. This brings him to the phenomenon of ‘doubling titles’, where a book receives two titles separated by the word ‘or’ (such as this intriguing title published in Kiev in 1849: A Pharmacy for the Soul, or A Systematic Alphabetical List of Books). As in the latter example, one half of the title may appeal to the emotions, the other to the logical or calculating faculty of the brain. Similarly, one half of the title may be written in simple language to appeal to a less educated audience, or to children, while the second half offers a more complicated summary to appeal to a different audience or to the children’s parents. The double title may also aim to sell the same book to two different political or religious parties (just as Bouncing Back from Bankruptcy, or How To Sell Your Soul to the Devil could be a bipartisan double title for a biography of Donald Trump). Krzhizhanovskii doesn’t refer to the ironic nostalgia implicit in more recent manifestations of this type of title, but he does express its function in remarkably sensual terms: ‘where the title does not immediately succeed in containing the entire text in itself, it tries to do this by parts, as if in several swallows’ (p.13).

The next section discusses half-titles, often missing either subject or predicate – or simply not making much sense in isolation. Krzhizhanovskii notes that the omitted portion will be recognized by a privileged audience; examples include the respectively religious and philosophical readers of Abelard’s Sic et Non and Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. The following two sections look at how titles can characterize their authors or preselect their audiences (an extreme example of the latter being Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, titled ‘To Myself’ by their author). Part Three introduces titles which are carefully designed as a work of art in themselves (a goal sadly achieved, Krzhizhanovskii comments, in inverse proportion to the artistic success of the text), before moving on to titles which involuntarily reveal a preoccupation of their author (e.g. Jack London’s apparent obsession with titles invoking family relationships (Krzhizhanovskii lists A Son of the Wolf, The God of His Fathers, The Children of the Frost, A Daughter of the Storm, but there are additional examples), or the Ivan Goncharov’s fondness for titles beginning with the syllable Ob). The section titled ‘titlo’, after the Church Slavonic diacritic used to shorten regularly used devotional terms, discusses what is revealed about audience expectations by an editor’s or translator’s decision to lengthen or annotate an original title. A final category of titles simply steals (or builds upon) an earlier title: Tolstoy’s Resurrection, which in Russian is also the word for Sunday, was parodied by the subsequent publication of Monday (by the apocryphal Count Tonkii); similarly, the mid-19th century witnessed a rash of ‘parasitic’ titles such as The Russian Werther or The Russian Decameron. The section on ‘The Pulpit and the Shop Window’ contrasts the complex, diffuse, and honest titles of medieval and religious manuscripts with the attention-getting short titles characteristic of the modern market.

Finally, Krzhizhanovskii points to the modern tendency towards laconicism, the avoidance of words in both texts and titles, such that even the title itself is sometimes purged from the finished work. Books calling themselves ‘A Tale Without A Title’ have become common. Krzhizhanovskii suggests, however, that given the modern trend for brevity and compression, the title is more likely to replace the book, than the reverse, thus creating the phenomenon of the title without a tale. As he writes on the final page of his essay, ‘We are beginning to understand that both in the little world made from paper and typographic ink, and also outside its borders, everywhere where words are heard, the most important thing is in the title (самое главное в заглавном). […] Our quill has been taught by the speediness of our now not only to slide along the lines, but to strike from the printed line with all its strength: the style of brevity, the skill of settling a theme in two or three words, has become the style of our era. This is something we must understand… and accept’ (p. 42).

Krzhizhanovskii was deeply interested in theatre, particularly in the plays of Shaw and Shakespeare, on which he wrote numerous essays. Caryl Emerson writes that although his own plays were never performed, he stubbornly ‘self-identified as a theater professional’ and indeed remained on the roster of Alexander Tairov’s Kamernyi Theatre until 1948****. Hence it follows that on admission to the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1939, Krzhizhanovskii should dedicate his maiden speech to the titles of plays. This was P’esa i ee zaglavie, The Play and its Title, first published in Krzhizhanovskii’s collected works in 2006.  Krzhizhanovskii’s posthumous editor Vadim Perel’muter suggests that the speech should be viewed as a continuation of The Poetics of Titles, to which it refers directly, while it suggests that the titles of plays differ from all other kinds of titles by appealing directly to the senses (‘чрезвычайно чувственно,’ p. 622). The theatrical title is more fully a title than any other kind, apparently because of its ephemerality and sensuality (it is shouted on the street, represented by crude poster images, bandied disdainfully by critics)#. Krzhizhanovskii humorously identifies and deplores the tendency of both Western and Soviet plays of his own time to appear, as he puts it, ‘half-shaved’. The ideal play title has both a subject and a predicate; the current fashion, he warns, is for one or the other to be missing. Either the protagonist or the situation is namechecked, but not both. 

Krzhizhanovskii divides play titles into two categories: who-titles and what-titles (заглавие-кто and заглавие-что), respectively featuring the protagonist’s name or situation. Hence Schiller’s 1784 play Intrigue and Love (Kabale und Liebe) offends in the second category, Shakespeare’s Henry V in the first. Noting the Soviet preference for who-titles, he jokes that if Gogol’s 1836 play The Government Inspector (whose title character appears only in the final scene) were produced today, it would have had to be re-named Khlestakov after its protagonist.

In the main section of his speech, Krzhizhanovskii praises successful play titles, such as Chekhov’s 1896 The Seagull. He traces the importance of the seagull as prop, symbol, and metaphor throughout the play’s key scenes, finally concluding that this five-letter word (in Russian, чайка) acts as a needle pulling the thread of the play’s idea through the fabric of the text. This very physical image chimes with Krzhizhanovskii’s insistence on the very sensual quality of theatrical titles. Tolstoy also comes in for praise for his ponderous and allusive titles (such as The Power of Darkness, The Fruits of Enlightenment, and The Light Shines in Darkness) which, Krzhizhanovskii writes, show that Tolstoy ‘understood that a title is not a stamp on a letter, not a signature, but something which travels ahead of the play, as its herald; and that it must be considered and supplied with the words the reader will need and which will summon people to the play’.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with Krzhizhanovskii’s rather lovely allegory from both The Poetics of Titles and The Play and its Title:

‘Everyone knows that on every telescope there is a thing known as a finder, a small tube, about the same length as, for example, a book title; its job is to seek out an object, a star. It must align its sight, its axis, as astronomers say, with the axis of the larger telescopic tube. It seeks out heavenly bodies. A title has the very same function. It seeks out the object, the word, which is common to the finder, the title, and the text’ (The Play and its Title, p. 621). Krzhizhanovskii expands this metaphor in a little more detail in the first section of The Poetics of Titles: ‘An accurately and truthfully made title is just such a finder for a book; for it to work, strict parallelism must be observed; the smaller tube with the greater, the name with the text. Otherwise, whether the object in view is a star or a thought, it will be lost from the field of vision. A title should be tested thus: having determined the most important part of the book by feeling and thinking your way inside it (путём вчитывания и вчувствования), compare this with the title’s form of words; whether or not they agree conceptually, whether or not they coincide. And only where we can acknowledge that the letters (знаки) and the meaning (значимость) of the micro-book and the macro-book coincide, can the title, for the main part, be found (заглавие, в главном, найдено)’ (The Poetics of Titles, p. 8). It wouldn’t be Krzhizhanovskii without an untranslatable pun.

I'm off to weigh some books. There might be a vacancy soon in the TLS Basement.

Note: All citations from Krzhizhanovskii’s texts are my own translation. The originals are in Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii, Sobranie sochinenii v 5 tomakh, vol 4 (St Petersburg: Symposium, 2006). Poetika zaglavii: pp. 7-42; Iskusstvo epigrafa: Pushkin, pp. 387-415; P’esa i ee zaglavie, pp. 621-635.
Picture credit: by way of RGALI.


*Adam Thirlwell, ‘The Master of the Crossed-Out’, New York Review of Books June 23rd 2011.                          <>
**Nikitinskie subbotniki. See Vadim Perel’muter, ‘Commentary to Poetika zaglavii’, in IV, pp. 708-729.
***Vladimir Odoevskii, Pestrye skazki s krasnym slovtsom (St Petersburg, 1833).
****Caryl Emerson, “Krzhizhanovsky as a Reader of Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw”, The Slavic and East European Journal 56.4 (2012): 577–611 (pp. 577-8). Web.
#  '[З]аглавие – наиболее заглавие именно в области драматургии' (p. 621).


  1. Thanks for introducing me to the obscure but delightful Поэтика заглавий, which I'm glad to discover is online here! I'm looking forward more than ever to investigating his fiction.

    the most important thing is in the title (самое главное в заглавном)

    While your version is of course smoother and more immediately comprehensible, I think in the interests of titivation (since this is, after all, titology we're dealing with) we're entitled to translate more literally "the most important thing is in the titular."

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I only know SK through his wonderful fictions which have been translated for us, but after reading your piece I really hope someone takes on his non-fiction works too. Titles *are* important - they'll draw you to a book more than anything else, but if they don't reflect what's inside the disappointment can be immense!


  3. I wish I'd been able to attend that conference in Bristol, the papers (especially yours) looked very interesting! For all fans of SK's non-fiction: there is a conference on SK's non-fiction planned for October in Bloomington, to result in a volume of translations. I am presenting on my in-progress translation of "Poetika zaglavii." I have been playing around with assonance/consonance (i.e. "title" and "vital") instead of SK's repetition/accretion of roots/syllables, since that strategy seemed more sustainable throughout the piece... but this article, plus Karen Rosenflanz's magnificent monograph on SK (Hunter of Themes), all offer a lot of food for thought. Thank you for posting!