On the Pleasures of Front Matter




I don’t believe in not believing in guilty pleasures. Guilt is good—it’s part of what keeps me, at least part of the time, from watching YouTube videos when I could be reading. That said, I’m a promiscuous and impatient reader, so one of my literary guilty pleasures is reading the introductions to great books and not the books themselves.

My love affair with front matter began in earnest when I read the 1989 Jacob Needleman introduction to the Tao Te Ching, as translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. At the time, I was compiling a list of hybrid works (part prose, part poetry), and a friend suggested the Tao Te Ching fit the criteria. I admitted to my friend that I’d never read it. I’ve still never finished it, but the introduction I’ve read several times, and heavily underlined—it seems to me a kind of philosophical inquiry into what a book even is: “As with every text that deserves to be called sacred, it is a half-silvered mirror.” I assume Needleman means that we both see through it and see ourselves reflected in it, but I always think, too, of the famous double-slit experiment that used half-silvered mirrors to demonstrate wave-particle duality; perhaps this association with the quantum weirdness of reality is not accidental. 

Needleman speaks to the essential untranslatability of the text:

The word Tao (pronounced “dow”) has been characterized as untranslatable by nearly every modern scholar. But this statement should not lead us to imagine that the meaning of the Tao was more easily understood by the contemporaries of Lao Tsu. It would be more to the point to say, only half jokingly, that the word Tao, even the whole of the Tao Te Ching, is not readily translatable into any language, including Chinese!

Good introductions are full of these grand, seemingly unprovable (and undisprovable) proclamations: a near aphorism acts as a self-dare to the author, whose challenge is to back it up with the book. I like to collect them as theories, like perfect lines of poetry that require no evidence other than themselves.

A claim that hovers on the outside of sense seems to contain, in its meaninglessness, infinite meaning. Consider this anecdote by Elizabeth Anscombe from An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:

[Ludwig Wittgenstein] once greeted me with the question: “Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?” I replied: “I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.” “Well,” he asked, “what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?”

I took a photo of this quote, which also appears as an epigraph to The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger, and posted it to Instagram. (I have read The Ego Tunnel. I have not read An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, much less Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.) It’s slippery, like a riddle. I sometimes know that I know what it means, but most of the time, I’m satisfied with knowing the meaning is there, though at the moment I can’t grasp it.

As front matter goes, I get especially giddy about translator’s notes, and for years I’ve toyed with the idea of editing an anthology of them. They tend to be full of linguistic trivia, gossip, and insider info. Take Lydia Davis’s notes to her 2010 translation of Madame Bovary, where she admits that she “did not look at any previous translations” while writing her first draft. When revising, she consulted eleven other translations, and notes the vast differences among them:

Curiously, in the case of a writer as famously fixated on his style as Flaubert was, many of the translations do not try to reproduce that style, but simply tell this engrossing story in their own preferred manner. And so the reader in search of Madame Bovary has a wide choice: Gerard Hopkins’s lush, loquacious 1948 version, with added material in almost every sentence; Francis Steegmuller’s nimble, engaging 1957 version, smoother than Flaubert’s, with regular restructuring of the sentences, omissions, and additions; the stolidly literal, sometimes inaccurate version by the very first, Eleanor Marx Aveling (1886), on which Nabokov relied when teaching the novel, but which caused him much indignation, as expressed in his marginal notes; that version as revised (not always aptly) by Paul de Man (or, rumor has it, by his unacknowledged wife), who chose to omit the italics, for example. There is Madame Bovary with fewer of those semicolons so favored by Flaubert, with serial “and’s” supplied, with additional metaphors. There is a version in which Charles is made to sob on the last page, another in which he is made to say “Poor thing!” when his first wife dies.

I love this list, which paints Madame Bovary (and perhaps, by extension, any novel, any text) as a work that can withstand a theoretically infinite number of variations (even just in English!) while always retaining its essential Madame Bovary–ness. (For the record, I have read Madame Bovary, but not Davis’s translation.) I’m reminded of a webpage that displays six different translations of Baudelaire’s “Au lecteur,” all of which render the “mon semblable” of the last line differently: “my like”; “my likeness”; “my fellow”; “my double”; “my twin.” This, in turn, reminds me of Robin Buss’s notes to his translation of Le grand Meaulnes: “Translators of Alain-Fournier’s novel have come across several difficulties, starting with the title … There are, in fact, more titles of this book in English than there are translations of it.”

I’m also interested in the slightest form of front matter, the epigraph. Recently, I posted this question on Twitter: “Is there an epigraph that you think of as absolutely necessary?” A number of people responded in defense of the epigraph (“Dessert isn’t necessary, but I like it”), though I hadn’t meant to imply that an epigraph shouldn’t be there if it isn’t necessary. I posed the question to my husband, and he suggested, “Only connect … ” from Howards End. It’s an odd one, as epigraphs go. I remember pausing on that page the first time I read it. (Yes, I read the whole thing.) It sits there, in quotes, right under the title, but is not attributed to anyone—because in fact it’s a preview of a line in Howards End. As my husband put it, it’s almost the motto for the book. Is that even technically an epigraph, I wondered? Seeking to discover the exact literary term for it (I collect specialized vocabulary as much as front matter), I found a delightful analysis by Adam Kirsch of this largely, he claims, misunderstood pseudo-epigraph. Kirsch writes that while the phrase

seems to capture the leading idea of all [Forster’s] work—the moral importance of connection between individuals, across the barriers of race, class, and nation … what is not as frequently remembered is that, when Forster uses the phrase in Howards End, he is not actually talking about this kind of social connection, but about something more elusive and private—the difficulty of connecting our ordinary, conventional personalities with our transgressive erotic desires.

Kirsch notes also that Forster, according to his own diaries, did not know what sex was—the logistics of it—until he was thirty; he was thirty when he began writing Howards End. (I learned this from the first section of the essay, the only part I read.)

While I love to pillage introductions for great lines and ideas, and then often abandon the book after one or two chapters, novels are an exception. Unless I know for sure that I’m not going to read the novel, I avoid the introduction—intros to classic novels are notoriously full of spoilers. Yes, great books have value even when you know what’s going to happen, but I’d still prefer not to. As such, the introduction to a novel is an excellent incentive to finish the book faster, so I can go back and read it.

Such was the case with Zama, by Antonio Di Benedetto, recently reprinted by NYRB Classics, translated and with a preface by Esther Allen. The preface was worth the wait. It begins with a story about Dostoyevsky, who at twenty-eight stood before a firing squad. He was saved by the bell: “Just as the shots were about to be fired, an aide-de-camp arrived at a gallop, bearing a stay of execution from the tsar.” According to the French critic and biographer Henri Troyat, “the memory of this false execution remained alive in Dostoyevsky’s writing.”

Di Benedetto, who was deeply influenced by Dostoyevsky, had a similar experience: “For eighteen months during Argentina’s Dirty War … he was imprisoned, tortured, and, on four occasions, taken from his cell and placed before a firing squad.” This drawn out near-death experience would seem to have had an influence on the writing of Zama, which is clearly aligned with an absurdist/existentialist tradition. However, Allen writes, “Di Benedetto faced the firing squads two decades after writing Zama … which in its growing and inexorable dread, its sense that the present results not only from the past but also from the future, seems uncannily imbued with what its author would live through twenty years later.”

I littered this passage with asterisks. All my underlinings in the novel had had to do with the title character’s odd relationship to time—the refusal of Zama’s perspective to stay when it is—and here Allen was revealing Di Benedetto to be a kind of time lord, writing fiction from a life he hadn’t yet lived. Reading these facts after I had finished the novel made me feel like one, too.

Allen’s introduction closes with a quote from Beckett’s Molloy, which she includes “as an epigraph to the translation”: “The most you can hope is to be a little less, in the end, the creature you were in the beginning, and the middle.” I have read Molloy but do not remember the quotation or its context. It sounds like an argument for diminution: that which does not kill us makes us weaker. But I can read it, too, as an argument for lingering at the beginning, when the promise of a great book stays promise, when I can only pre-remember the lessening.


Elisa Gabbert, a poet and essayist, is the author most recently of L’heure bleue, or the Judy Poems.