All moustaches are equal, but some moustaches are more equal than others. Read on for some of the finest literary lip-slugs, and the best works of the writers who sported them.
Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories famously offer explanations as to how certain creatures came to acquire their defining characteristics; how the Leopard got his Spots, and so on. In this spirit it’s possible to take a stab at how the Kipling got his ‘tache. Kipling wrote of a female acquaintance who told him that kissing a man with an unwaxed moustache was comparable to "eating an egg without salt," a piece of cautionary advice that Rudyard—with his heavily waxed walrus number—clearly took on board. As great as the Just So Stories is, check out Kim for Kipling’s engrossing account of a young European’s experiences in Indian society at height of the British Empire.
One of George Orwell’s six rules for writing (from his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language) advises "Never use a long word where a short one will do." Judging by pictures of the man himself, it would appear he adopted the same approach to his moustache. Photographs of a young Orwell show him sporting the classic toothbrush style, which Nazism ruined for everyone. This thinned out into a more pencil-like effort in his later years. For Orwell’s best book, look no further than his dystopian masterpiece, the ridiculously influential 1984.
Kurt Vonnegut’s moustache was a morose, droopy affair grown by a man who, despite dressing smartly, never managed to look anything other than browbeaten. This is the moustache of a man who has seen things, not least of all the fire-bombing of Dresden towards the close of the Second World War. Vonnegut wrestled for many years over how best to translate this into a book, the ultimate product being Slaughterhouse 5, widely considered his best.
Mark Twain was certainly forthright in his thoughts on the beard: "What is [it] for? It performs no useful function; it is a nuisance and a discomfort; all nations hate it; all nations persecute it with the razor." Instead, Twain focused his follicular efforts into a moustache that is nothing short of iconic. Much like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’s place in the pantheon of American literature, these are a set of whiskers whose legacy is assured. Indeed, fancy dress versions are readily available for purchase, and it appears to be the only entry on this list with its own Twitter account. If that isn’t cross-generational appeal, I don’t know what is!
Much like his literary output, Stefan Zweig’s moustache was spare, lean, and a perfect evocation of its owners time and place. His novels and short stories portray the last days of Mittel-European gentility before the world plunged into the barbarism of the 20th Century. At the height of his fame in the 1920s, Zweig was one of the world’s best known writers, but he would abruptly fall into obscurity. The Grand Budapest Hotel—Wes Anderson’s cinematic tribute to his ouevre—has helped to redress this injustice somewhat, and his writing is now finding new readers in a very different world. To read Zweig at the peak of his powers see Beware of Pity, the tale of a young officer’s act of charity that ends in tragedy.
Richard Brautigan’s majestically shaggy-dog image coupled with his idiosyncratic prose style, meant he was often lumped in as a member of the beat generation. But if anything Brautigan was a man who existed outside of his time. Indeed, later in his career, Brautigan’s sterner critics suggested that his work didn’t, and perhaps the handlebar moustache he sported for all his adult life was a symptom of this. The recently reprinted Sombrero Fallout is arguably his best book; the work of a writer who could render the pedestrian delightful, and cram more power into a single (admittedly off-kilter) sentence than many convey in whole chapters.
Edgar Allan Poe
In terms of its lifespan, Edgar Allan Poe’s iconic moustache was actually something of a flash in the pan. The more gossipy of his contemporaries suggested that this lip slug, grown in Poe’s mid-thirties, was done so with the express intent of concealing a nervous tic that would curl his mouth into a sneer. Hearsay aside, we can be certain that it coincided with the publication of The Raven, and thus the peak of his fame. The few portraits and daguerreotypes that exist of Poe date mainly from this period, meaning his moustache, like his incredible literary output, is guaranteed its place in time. There may be shades of the silent clown about his moustache, but his gruesome stories are far from amusing, see The Tell-Tale Heart for proof.
Beards of Note
Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski worked as a merchant marine for 19 years of his early life. He would eventually write under the name Joseph Conrad, but his nautical whiskers remained unchanged well into his old age. The time Conrad spent seafaring would inform much of his work, particularly a three year stint captaining a steamer on the Congo River; the key inspiration behind Heart of Darkness, his classic attack on the nightmare of imperialism.
Émile Zola was a writer who, as pioneer of literary naturalism, covered all the big themes in unflinching detail. His writing, like his moustache, was black and white, and to the point. Zola’s Rougon-Macquart Cycle is an incredible undertaking, composed of 20 novels chronicling the life of a French family, the pick of which is The Beast Within. Written partly as a riposte to Crime and Punishment by fellow moustachioed writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (they can’t all make the list!) This is a gripping account of madness, lust, and murder.
Leo Tolstoy. The daddy of them all. To describe someone’s facial hair as a Tolstoy is to make oneself immediately understood. The great man’s novels and short stories are peppered with references to men defrosting their beards by the hearths of roadside inns, or plucking icicles from their moustaches, so it’s safe to assume the Count filled plenty of man hours in a similar fashion. War and Peace, like its creator’s facial hair, is a dense, sprawling thing, with a plot that gathers characters and ideas in much the same way Tolstoy’s beard must have collected crumbs and soup flecks.
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