Alcestis Books Recommendations Writing

Epigraphs & quilting truckers

This article on epigraphs amused me. Alcestis has always had an epigraph:

I have always known

That at last I would

Take this road, but yesterday

I did not know that it would be today.

–Narihira, translated by Kenneth Rexroth (copyright New Directions, who kindly gave me permission to print it in the book)

I’d expected to be told to ditch the epigraph when the book was being laid out and was so happy that it made it through to publication. That epigraph really is an integral part of the book for me; I’m pretty sure I typed in the epigraph before I started writing the actual text. I’d read it not long before I started writing the novel, and it sums up many of the threads of the book: minimalism, knowledge of death, resignation and expectation, the way Alcestis’s experience in the underworld feels both startling and inevitable to her.

One of my favorite uses of epigraphs is in Connie Willis’s brilliant Passage. I know a lot of people who love Willis don’t love that book, but I can’t help it — I do. Each chapter starts with somebody’s last words, and the whole book begins with two epigraphs, both of which could almost be placed at the beginning of Alcestis, too:

I will remember it forever, the darkness and the cold. –Edith Haisman, a Titanic survivor


“What is it like down there, Charides?”

“Very dark.”

“And what of return?”

“All lies.”


If you’re interested in epigraphs and other bits of text that surround the text itself, I highly recommend GĂ©rard Genette’s fabulous Paratexts. Chapter 7 focuses on epigraphs.

Do you have any favorite epigraphs?

Anyway, on an administrative note, things will be a bit quiet around here through Monday or so — we’re moving this weekend and aren’t getting our internet connection hooked up there till Sunday morning. (Cue withdrawal symptoms and sobbing.) Until then, here are some links from this week to tide you over:


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