When kind Messrs Constable offered me a copy of this book, I jumped at it. Once upon a time I was an avid reader of Private Eye, where these pieces first appeared, and though I only read it now if it happens to be in someone's lavatory or on a station bookstall, I do still appreciate an intelligent giggle and hoped this would provide it. And oh yes, it did.
DJ Taylor is a man of many parts, or at least of many books. I tried to read his Kept: A Victorian Mystery, but didn't get on with it, and heard him speak at the Oxford Literary Festival about, I think, writing biographies, of which he has written at least two. I didn't know he also wrote parodies in Private Eye, but he does. And very funny some of them are.
Of course it helps if you are familiar with the original that is being parodied, and I was a bit concerned when I found from reading the contents list that there were many authors who I'd never read. But in fact this didn't really matter very much, as you quickly get the idea of the quirks, traits, or mannerisms of the parodee (though I'm sure there's no such word). And in the end, some that made me laugh the most were of people I had no prior knowledge of at all.
I must give you some samples, otherwise I'll be waffling on endlessly and boringly in the abstract. So how about Anita Brookner (who I have read):
She had always known that it was her destiny to write novels. For a time the substantial presence of art had threatened to interpose itself, but ultimately even this impediment had faded away and the true summit of her ambition lay unignorably before her: tantilising, vertiginous, exact. And so the novels had been written, a shelf of them at least, with a regularity that to her public denoted merely a mastery of her material, but which to certain of her critics hinted only at a uniformity of subject matter. She was not distressed by these insinuations, for she belonged to a generation that considered intimations of both praise and blame unworthy of one's notice.
Occasionally her publisher would venture the mildest of remonstrances. 'Miss Brookner', he would say (she liked the habitual deference of his address), 'has it never occurred to you to put a little, let us say, demotic into your books, you know, the kind of conversations that people actually have?'
She considered this request carefully. It was to her like the sound of rain falling far off, upon distant thoroughfares, but capable of intruding upon her own vicinity. 'No', she said finally. 'It has not'.
Or how about Claire Tomalin's Dickens:
...There is of course very little actual proof that Dickens despatched his mistress Ellen Ternan to France in the period 1862 to 1865, visited her on numerous accasions and had an illegitimate child by her which died, and yet the circumstantial evidence is so strong that a biographer would be mad not to fill an entire chapter with it so the newspapers have something to serialise (surely 'set down the known facts in an objective and responsible manner'? - Ed.)
Although the scene of his passing is always assumed to be his house at Gadshill near Rochester in Kent, it is perfectly possible that he may have suffered his fatal stroke at his paramour's Peckham lodgings, and been conveyed by her - Ellen was a strong girl and quite capable of this feat - by cab, locomotive (Bradshaw reveals that a 3.17 ran from Holborn Viaduct to nearby Chatham) and penny-farthing bicycle to the family home. Alternatively it is by no means stretching credulity to wonder whether Miss Ternan could have hired an air balloon for the purpose.
Silly? Yes. But what Taylor is doing in these extracts, and indeed throughout the volume, is to satirise the pretensions of his subjects. So you find biographers like Tomalin wildly building onto the slimmest of evidence, others like Philip Zeigler on Edward Heath, unable to conceal their contempt for their subjects despite continuous assurances that Edward Heath was a very remarkable man, or quoting letters in apparent innocence of the light they cast, as in Anne Chisholm's Frances Partridge:
I could go on, and on. But I expect you get the general idea. This slimmish volume has a learned introduction by Taylor which I found rather hard to take seriously, as I read it after I'd read all the parodies. But it does make some interesting points, such as this one in the final paragraph:
Sometimes the war seemed painfully close, as on the occasion when a soldier from a platoon passing through the village knocked at the door and asked if she could spare a teabag. 'Frankly the sight of his silly, red, pert and somehow condescending face made me feel quite sick. I wished Ralph had been there to impress on his the consequences of his folly, but alas he was on the telephone to his stockbroker'.
Parody was a bad idea, FR Leavis once declared, as it demeaned the artist. To this one might retort that an excessive respect towards books and the people who write them is nearly always a very bad idea, and also that the parodist is not only there to laugh at the overwrought and the self-obsessed: he is also there to authenticate, and, by implication, to set up a series of spiritual preservation orders on the victims who crawl under his lens.....[Parodists] are also a vital part of an aesthetic process that the modern world seems to have lost sight of: the cultivation of that rare but intoxicating cultural condiment, taste.So there you are. Thanks, Constable, for giving me several hours of real enjoyment. Highly recommended.