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April 29, 2004

TT: As others skewer us

Apropos of God of the Machine's wicked parody of one of my more breathless contributions to "About Last Night" (scroll down), is there anything more frustrating than ransacking your failing memory for the source of a half-recalled quote? That's what I've been doing ever since I got back from lunch with Supermaud (who says hi). At last, the coin dropped, and I went to my shelf of art books, took down N. John Hall's Max Beerbohm Caricatures, turned to page 15, and hit the jackpot:

As Edmund Gosse told a fellow writer whom Max had just caricatured: "I feel it my duty to tell you that something has happened to you that sooner or later happens to us almost all. Max has got you. We don't like it and you won't like it, but you must pretend you do. You can console yourself at any rate with the thought that it will give uncommon pleasure to your friends."

What threw me off the track was that I wrongly remembered this letter as having been sent by Gosse to Henry James apropos of "The Mote in the Middle Distance," the James parody in Beerbohm's A Christmas Garland ("It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it"), which also contains eerily exact parodies of G.K. Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells. I chased that hare in vain for a good ten minutes, though I did find this highly relevant footnote in Simon Nowell-Smith's The Legend of the Master: Henry James as Others Saw Him:

Gosse told Siegfried Sassoon that James had roamed round the room discussing, "with extraordinary vivacity and appreciation, not only the superlative intelligence of the book as a whole but 'The Mote in the Middle Distance' itself, which he had read in a self-scrutinizing bewilderment of wonder and admiration."

As you may have gathered, I love parody and caricature, and it's one of my medium-sized regrets that I have no gift for either (though I can do adequate impersonations of a few of my friends). Alas, I find it impossible to get inside another person's prose style. I once tried to write a parody of a Jeeves novel in the style of Bright Lights, Big City. That was actually a pretty good idea, conceptually speaking, but I stalled out halfway through the fourth sentence, so it went unwritten, and the only thing I can remember about it now is that the very first word was, of course, "you."

This incapacity is all the more vexing because I believe parody to be one of the most powerful and illuminating forms of criticism. Some of Kenneth Tynan's most brilliant drama reviews were parodies, including his double-edged skewering of William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun, which he rewrote in the style of Our Town:

Well, folks, reckon that's about it. End of another day in the city of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Nothin' much happened. Couple of people got raped, couple more got their teeth kicked in, but way up there those faraway old stars are still doing their old cosmic criss-cross, and there ain't a thing we can do about it. It's pretty quiet now. Folk hereabouts get to bed early, those that can still walk....

I wouldn't kill to be able to do that, but I might be willing to maim.

Posted April 29, 2004 3:59 AM

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