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The Pleasure of His Company

by John O'Sullivan

The Oxford Book of Parodies, edited by John Gross (Oxford, 416 pp., $29.95)

When Ross Perot was running for president an age ago, I became addicted to Dana Carvey’s imitations of him on Saturday Night Live. Concentrating all the staccato zaniness of the billionaire candidate into the short time-span of a sketch, the imitations seemed much more like Perot than Perot himself. Whole minutes of a genuine Perot speech would roll by without the candidate’s saying anything particularly characteristic; but almost every sentence uttered by Carvey was a howlingly funny Perotism. Perot himself was Perot with soda water; Carvey was Perot neat. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

Carvey’s sketches were a dramatic equivalent of the literary parody, which is defined in the first sentence of John Gross’s new anthology as “an imitation which exaggerates the characteristics of a work or a style for comic effect.” Few politicians are distinctive enough to invite a parody; they generally deserve the grosser and more abusive forms of satire or burlesque. But one felt that Carvey rather liked Ross Perot, found his verbal tics and mannerisms really engaging, and took the trouble to get his mockery of them just right.

Some parodies are savage attempts to annihilate the thing mocked. But most — and generally the best of them — show respect, even affection, for the styles and characteristics they imitate. If the original is subtle and allusive, then the parody has to exhibit a similar subtlety, if only to undermine or even blow it up in the end. Most parodies thus take aim at a serious target, imitating and mocking notable literary works and their authors, some of whom may be great, some solid craftsmen, and others merely famous. Parodies are therefore, as Philip Nicholson concedes, in the final entry of the book, essentially parasitic upon literature. At their best, however, they are part of literature too.

This is the shallow end of deep waters. Who might teach us to swim adventurously in them? As a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, a veteran compiler of Oxford literary anthologies, an all-round man of letters (as well as the author of a superb book on the rise and fall of this category of people), and no mean wit (as the readers of his occasional London Letter in The New Criterion know well), Gross is a highly reliable guide to their waves, cross-currents, and occasional quicksands.

He divides his selection into two parts. Almost two-thirds of the anthology is devoted to a chronological list of authors parodied, beginning with “Anglo-Saxon and Medieval” — for instance, Ezra Pound’s “Winter is iccumen in, / Lhude sing Goddamm”) — and ending with J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. Lovers of parody, such as this reviewer, will find some of their favorites scattered throughout this section. Max Beerbohm on Kipling and Henry Reed on T. S. Eliot (“As we get older, we do not get any younger. / Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five. . . . Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair / Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube”) are both too accurate and too enjoyable to be omitted from any parody anthology. But most of the parodies included here are anthologized for the first time. Many were completely unfamiliar to me. Particularly clever, I thought, were two parodies of detective fiction: Raymond Chandler’s recipe for Lamb with Dill Sauce . . .

I needed a table at Maxim’s, a hundred bucks and a gorgeous blonde; what I had was a leg of lamb and no clues. I took hold of the joint. It felt cold and damp, like a coroner’s handshake.

. . . from Mark Crick’s Kafka’s Soup: A Complete History of Literature in 17 Recipes; and Gilbert Adair’s parody of Agatha Christie. At first I had no clue myself about what Adair was up to, and I will leave readers the task of working out the mystery of why this particular Christie murder is truly deadly. The clue is: Omit no detail, however apparently irrelevant to the story. And the motive? For once a parodist’s malice, possibly born of much-too-long-tested patience, cannot be entirely ruled out.

Gross follows this first section with one that ranges beyond literature proper into “the wider world” of politics, journalism, the theater, the law, and other pursuits — Tony Blair’s speeches, the Sokal Hoax, some children’s playground rhyming parodies, the inventive 1930s–’50s advertising campaigns for Guinness stout (written by Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey), Jane Austen’s early burlesques of popular fiction, and other literary curiosa that I will leave to Gross to classify. But these examples are all well chosen and some would fit comfortably into his first section of classical parodies. Even some of the older skits and burlesques manage to be still relevant commentaries on today’s controversies. Here, from 1930, is A. P. Herbert’s parody of law reports in the London Times, one that American tea partiers will find heartening. It is the judge’s summing up in a court case in which a Collector of Taxes is sentenced to penal servitude for life for the crime of demanding money with menaces:

An official from the Inland Revenue Department has drawn your attention to the difficulties of a Mr. Snowden [then Britain’s finance minister], the prisoner’s principal, it appears, who is in need of money. You will pay no attention to that. We are all in need of money; and if Mr. Snowden has an insufficient supply of money he must spend less money as the rest of us have to do.

Gross discusses, in his introduction, the reason behind the division of items: It is that the common culture we used to take for granted — one of crossword puzzles, word games such as Scrabble, English school lessons that require memory and recitation, widespread Biblical knowledge, etc. — is gradually fraying. Parodists therefore cannot rely on as many cultural reference points and shared allusions as they once were able to do.

This is true. I would add that the fracturing and obscurantism of much modern literature and the decay of criticism into the striking of ideological poses encourages the production of works that are less read in the first place, less remembered subsequently, and so less amenable to satire and recognizable imitation. John Crace’s parodic compression of Thomas Pynchon, for instance, though clever and funny, is less effective than the earlier literary parodies of Chesterton, Kipling, Eliot, and others because Pynchon is both less read and less enjoyable in the first place. But the contemporary items in “wider world,” precisely because they are addressed to an audience that knows their targets, work very well indeed as parodies. Here I would single out the Private Eye parodies by Craig Brown, who every two weeks produces a “diary” by people in the news, ranging from the “glamour model” Jordan to Tony Blair. Here, for instance, is a Brown parody of a Blair speech — a parody that might even undermine Blair’s otherwise impregnable reputation among American conservatives:

There are certain things I cannot do. If you ask me to put tax cuts before education spending, I’m sorry, I can’t do it. If you want me to send our economy into a downward spiral, throwing literally millions into poverty, I’m sorry, I simply can’t do it. Pause. And if you want me to go outside this conference hall and poke fun at the elderly and the infirm, I’m sorry, but that’s not the kind of guy I am.

This perfectly catches the serious Blair pose of bravely defying the world in defense of incontestable pieties. It is somewhat broader than the purely literary parodies, but it has the vigor and impact of 18th-century pamphleteering. Such work amply justifies Gross’s conclusion that, despite the dampening effect of the loss of cultural commonalty, parodists of the first rank continue to appear and to dazzle. Gross is an unobtrusive but deftly informative editorial guide to all their feints and flourishes. This is therefore a book that we can happily add to the earlier anthologies on our shelves.

My own judgment is that it is also better than most of those anthologies because it was selected by an unusually discriminating literary intelligence.

Let me try to justify this judgment with a comparison. When Dwight Macdonald looked for a parody of the surrealist-nonsense prose of Gertrude Stein in his own very fine anthology, he selected the raving words of the dying gangster Dutch Schultz as taken down by a police stenographer in a New Jersey hospital. It is an absolutely terrific joke at the expense of Miss Stein. But how faithful an imitation is it? And how revealing a criticism?

Consider the parody of Gertrude Stein in this anthology. Its author could scarcely be more alien to both the literary milieu and the cultural theories of his victim. He is Ronald Knox, a sharp conservative satirist, a famous English stylist, the subject of an admiring biography by Evelyn Waugh, and the author of an admired Catholic translation of the Bible. Would Knox have known of the role that marijuana played in generating Stein’s distinctively meaningless prose? It’s doubtful. Yet here is his review of Stein’s 1927 essay “Composition as Explanation”:

And in this part of the book all the parts of speech get mixed up anyhow as if she had been taking a lesson in typewriting. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog lazy dog lazy fox the quick jumps jumps brown. There is only one sentence in this part which is English, it says toasted susie is my ice cream, and that is not sense, is it? So awfully not sense. I suppose she must either think it looks pretty or think it sounds pretty when you read it but it doesn’t it doesn’t either it really doesn’t. . . . I think she must do it by taking hashish. Has she has his hashish? Hashish and haberdashers. Dash her hashish.

This is so precise an imitation of Stein’s Composition (and so shrewd an Explanation of it) that the grammar check has been strongly resisting the above quotation.

Omissions and disappointments are, of course, inseparable from the enterprise of anthology. Personally I would have liked something from the Peter Simple column in the Daily Telegraph (written by the late Michael Wharton), maybe his “Hemingway in Bournemouth,” in which the wheelchair-bound novelist, recuperating from a wartime injury in a then-genteel seaside town on England’s south coast, gets into a fight with another wheelchair-bound veteran: “He fought good. But I fought gooder. I guess the whole goddamn town was at the funeral.” But it would be ungrateful to complain about the lack of an occasional appetizer at such a generous feast.

John Gross died on January 10 in London. His death was mourned with unusual unanimity across the spectrum of literary opinion. It was marked by obituaries that combined great respect for his scholarship with enormous affection for the man. He was, in art historian Bevis Hillier’s words, “the best-read man in Britain.” He was also someone whom every woman hoped to find next to her at a dinner party and whom every man hoped to run into at the bar. His eventual reputation will doubtless rest on such important books as The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters and Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy, but he deserves also to be remembered as an anthologist of genius; his interests ranged outwards from the great books into the furthermost nooks and crannies of popular literature, journalism, vaudeville, Broadway song lyrics, anecdote, limericks, and literary gossip, where angels fear to tread. This magpie sensibility produced a series of Oxford anthologies that, because of their range, variety, and freshness, it is not at all illogical to call original.

Reading The Oxford Book of Parodies is a little like meeting John at a party just after he had run across some new and unexpected item of amusement. He would have been reading old copies of Punch, or listening to songs from forgotten musicals, when some minor gem suddenly glistened and caught his attention. A year ago he delightedly produced this couplet from an ancient theatrical revue: “He’s Hengist, I’m Horsa / We’re mentioned in Chaucer.” We both chuckled, in my case for the umpteenth such time.

His friends can no longer enjoy the incomparable pleasure of John’s company. Nothing else can really substitute for it. But to pick up his anthologies, of which this one particularly reflects his genial but learned temperament, is for a few hours to fall at least under the glow of the shadow of his company. I can imagine no higher recommendation for any book.

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