Dedicated to the one (or two?) I love

John Sutherland points out that marriages are less than eternal, but a dedication lasts forever:

James Atlas, Saul Bellow’s biographer, records that to get his muse working the novelist liked to change wives. He got through five and his dedications are a trail of marital gore. His last great novel, Ravelstein, contains a vicious portrait of Mrs Bellow No 4 (Alexandra Ionesco Tulesca, Romanian physicist) and a fulsome dedication to Mrs Bellow No 5 (Janis Freedland, former student):

“A la bella donna della mia mente.

To Janis

The star without whom I could not navigate”

Luckily for Janis, if not for his fans, the old fellow died before he hitched his fiction to the next star.

In a 2003 article, Susan Johnson traced the changes of heart that showed up via the dedications page, and also discovered astonishing egotism:

Male writers are certainly capable of the most pompous dedications, though, and Ford Maddox Ford would be hard to beat. The famously ugly writer, who was astonishingly successful with a string of beautiful women (including a young and lovely Jean Rhys), wrote what must be one of the most self-regarding dedications of all time when The Good Soldier was re-issued: “My dear Stella, I have always regarded this as my best book, at any rate as the best book of mine of a prewar period; and between its writing and the appearance of my next novel nearly 10 years have elapsed, so that whatever I may have since written may be regarded as the work of a different man, as the work of your man. For it is certain that without the incentive to live that you offered me I should scarcely have survived the war period and it is more certain still that without your spurring me again to write it I should never have written it again. And it happens that, by a queer chance, The Good Soldier is almost alone among my books in being dedicated to no one: Fate must have elected to let it wait the 10 years that it waited, for this dedication … And so I subscribe myself in all truth and in the hope that you will accept at once the particular dedication of this book and the general dedication of this edition. Your F.M.F”

I have nothing but admiration–baffled admiration, but admiration notheless–for Jane Davitt and Tim Morgan, who have a page devoted to the dedications in Robert Heinlein’s books. One assumes tracking down the identity of the dozens of people mentioned in prolific SF writer Robert Heinlein’s dedications takes, well, a lot of dedication.

And here’s the McSweeney page of Random Book Dedications Read From The Bargain Bin.

5 comments

  1. Nice post. 🙂 Aside from the actual dedication of the book itself, the other kind I love to find (along with receipts from faraway bookstores), especially in secondhand shops, is the “gift” kind. You know, those scribbles on the title page, those X’s and O’s and dates. Always makes me wonder what happened to the person who owned the book, and the person who gave it to them.

  2. And sometimes it’s a bad story: like Paul Theroux realising that his friendship with Naipaul was over via a secondhand bookshop. Theroux found copies of his own books that he had presented to Sir Vidia, complete with inscription, on sale, confronted his former mentor and was told, famously, to “take it on the chin and move on”. Secondhand bookshops are cruel places, yes?

  3. I’ve had similar experiences with second-hand bookstores outside of India. Once I found a book by an Indian writer (whom I knew quite well for having worked with her), which she had gifted to a couple on their marriage. The couple were probably left unimpressed, either by her stinginess or her prose, (or were plain poor or divorcing), and sold it off. I promptly bought the book but never showed it to the writer. Another time I bumped on one of Vikram Seth’s book, which he had gifted to a close friend and carried an affectionate inscription that remembered the wonderful times they had spent together. I bought that too.

  4. True, when you think about it: those handwritten inscriptions are from a time before what eventually came. Death, divorce, poverty, exile, betrayal, consumer regret..I’ve also found books signed by the author, though thus far nothing very personal.

  5. Thank you! We were helped a lot by Ginny Heinlein who kindly filled in some of the blanks for me; some of the dedications were for first names and they were tricky to track down some fifty years on, especially when they weren’t famous people but personal friends.We couldn’t have done it without her.And it was a lot of fun 🙂

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