Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of the epigraph

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The epigraph to Pale Fire

Years ago, in college, when I was working my way through a shelf of great books and dutifully writing down my favorite quotes, I came across the following anecdote in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

This reminds me of the ludicrous account which [Johnson] gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then, in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

It’s a deservedly famous passage—there’s even a statue of Hodge himself outside Johnson’s house in London—and it quickly ended up in my commonplace book. Then, just a few weeks later, I happened to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire for the first time, and I was tickled to find the exact same quote on the epigraph page. It’s still one of the oddest literary coincidences of my life, and although scholars have endlessly debated the significance of the quotation in the context of Nabokov’s extraordinary novel, to me, the moral was clear: quotations have a life of their own, and a line that catches one reader’s eye is likely to attract many others.

The epigraph, as I mentioned yesterday, is one of the most powerful—and underrated—tools in a writer’s arsenal. It appears in a uniquely privileged position at the beginning of a book, and it’s usually the first, and possibly the only, text a reader encounters. (Whenever I repeatedly pick up and drop a book for years, as I did with Gravity’s Rainbow, the epigraphs start to take on a weird prominence in my inner life.) It doesn’t consist of the writer’s own words, but it benefits from what seems like a considered process of selection, and it grows in apparent importance in proportion to its isolation on the page, in the way a random scrap of paper can take on new meaning as the centerpiece of a collage. It’s one of the few moments in a good novel in which the writer’s process appears in the foreground: any authorial decisions in the story itself should seem inevitable, or invisible, but in the epigraph, we see the writer at work, speaking directly to us through someone else’s words. This is particularly true in the case of a novel like Pale Fire, in which the relevance of the epigraph is pointedly obscure. It’s like a clue in a mystery novel, as capable of misleading as much as clarifying, but always turning the reader’s thoughts into unexpected directions.

The epigraphs for Part II

In particular, an epigraph serves two complementary functions: it both sets a tone and conveys additional information. The epigraph to Anna Karenina—”Vengeance is mine; I will repay”—alerts us at once to the fact that this is something more than an epic novel of manners. The epigraphs that Borges puts at the head of his short stories are often nods to his sources and inspirations, like the line from The Anatomy of Melancholy that appears in “The Library of Babel,” or offer a hint as to how the story itself ought to be read, as in the epigraph to “Three Versions of Judas,” taken from Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “There seemed a certainty in degradation.” Foucault’s Pendulum opens with an untranslated quotation from Hebrew, which tells us immediately that this is going to be a polyglot, occasionally impenetrable journey. Eco’s epigraphs here are particularly fascinating: they often include additional tidbits of lore or arcana that provide a kind of running annotation of the main action, like footnotes in epigraph form, a technique that I openly copied in The Icon Thief. (I used the epigraphs to incorporate material that I couldn’t include elsewhere but desperately wanted to preserve, like the implication that Marcel Duchamp may have occasionally appeared in disguise while he was living in New York.)

Ideally, however, an epigraph should leave something to implication. Poetry, for instance, is a rich source of allusive material, which is why the appearance of certain writers, like T.S. Eliot, John Donne, or William Blake, has almost become clichéd from overuse. (I include a quote from John Donne in City of Exiles, but only as part of a larger thread, almost a subplot in itself, that runs through the epigraphs of the last three sections, connecting Donne to The White Goddess and the Book of Ezekiel, with a sideward glance at Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.”) And if it manages to strike the right balance between illumination and obscurity, an epigraph can highlight a buried theme that allows the reader to view the entire work in a different light, like the quotation from Dante that opens “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As a rule, it’s a mistake to spell out your themes explicitly in the text, but there’s nothing that says you can’t give the reader a nudge in the right direction, and an epigraph is the perfect place for this: it stands slightly outside the body of the narrative, together and apart, and at its best, it can feel like a whispered aside from the author just before the curtain rises.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. When I see this I can’t help but to think of the epigraphs that were put at the beginning of the Deathly Hallows. Someone else’s words, but they added such a weight to the story while reading it. I remember opening up the book, reading the two epigraphs, and then closing it for a while and absorbing it. I knew exactly the sort of tone that the book would have, what the epigraphs meant, and it only added to the already unbearably heavy weight that came with it being the final Harry Potter book. I haven’t thought about epigraphs much since, but I will definitely think about them more in the future.


    January 15, 2014 at 12:28 pm

  2. That’s a great example, especially because they’re the only two epigraphs to appear in any of the books, which just gives it additional emphasis.


    January 16, 2014 at 3:21 pm

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