The Sincerest Form of Ridicule

Henry James, Raymond Chandler, J.K. Rowling—no writer is safe from the literary satirist

Literary parody is often described as verbal caricature. It’s true that both parody and caricature rely on the exaggeration of quirks and idiosyncrasies for satiric purposes. But their differences go deeper. Caricature plays on the monstrous for comic pay-off; it turns earlobes into wind-flaps, lips into gaudy sausages. Parody can be just as crude, but usually it is slinkier, more insinuating; there’s something snugly parasitic in its intimacy. The parodist must inhabit his victim’s voice down to its least inflections—with close and lingering attention to those very flourishes an author is proudest of—only to turn the voice to ridiculous effect. The trick is to yoke the unmistakable manner to a grotesquely disproportionate subject.

Here, for example, is Mark Crick’s take on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—not solving a case but preparing a leg of lamb: “I sipped on my whiskey sour, ground out my cigarette on the chopping board and watched a bug trying to crawl out of the basin. 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.”

This is funny not just because of the incongruity between the tough-guy manner and the task at hand (“I put the squeeze on a lemon and it soon juiced”); it’s also funny, a bit more disturbingly, because it shows us that there’s something inadvertently comical below the surface of Chandler’s hard-boiled prose. “The Long Goodbye” will never read the same again.

Marlowe with his lamb is but one of dozens of such send-ups in John Gross’s latest delightful anthology, “The Oxford Book of Parodies.” In his introduction Mr. Gross notes that “it would be a mistake for anyone writing about parodies to become entangled in a search for exact definitions.” His selections bear him out. As he demonstrates, parody can be as loopy—and as obvious—as the Christmas-carol spoof that begins “While shepherds washed their socks by night” or as subtle as Max Beerbohm’s uncanny imitations of Henry James at his most convoluted. Mr. Gross includes Beerbohm’s famous parody “The Mote in the Middle Distance,” which begins: “It was with a 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. But just where the deuce had he left it?”

Mr. Gross may be wary of definitions, but he is exuberant in his choices. As he says: “There are mocking parodies and affectionate parodies, parodies which are exquisitely accurate, and parodies which are rough-edged but effective. There are light skits, boisterous send-ups, and savage lampoons.” His anthology abounds with all of these and more.

The anthology is divided into two parts. The first is chronological by parodied author, beginning with Anglo-Saxon doggerel and concluding with J.K. Rowling. It should be said that the Anglo-Saxons seem to offer more to parodists than Harry Potter; strong parodies depend on strong originals. W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman together try their own version of Beowolfian gnarled and snarling alliteration. (“Wonderlich were they enwraged / And wordwar waged.”) Mr. Gross gives five parodies of that medieval chestnut “Summer is icumen in” (“Summer is a-coming in”), of which my own favorite is A.Y. Campbell’s: “Plumber is icumen in; / Bludie big tu-du. / Bloweth lampe and showeth dampe. / And dripth the wud thru. / Bludie hel, boo-hoo!”

The second part of the anthology is thematic; it includes European writers—e.g., Goethe, Hugo, Kafka, Proust—as well as British. (“Le Côté de Chelsea” begins with a 122-word sentence of Proustian complexity describing a visit to a London hotel.) This part of the book includes parodies of nursery rhymes recomposed to match the style of various writers. Old King Cole gets a not-so-merry workout in the manners of Tennyson, Yeats and Browning. As for “Jack and Jill,” the version Walt Whitman might have written begins: “I celebrate the personality of Jack! / I love his dirty hands, his tangled hair, his locomotion blundering.” There are also samples of “the young Jane Austen,” Lewis Carroll and Sherlock Holmes, as well as satirical sallies on everything from politics to the performing arts.

Mr. Gross’s legendary gifts as an editor and critic are much in evidence in this part (though the entire anthology benefits from his discreet running commentary). For example, his section on “James Joyce as Parodist” draws not on “Ulysses,” as one might expect given the novel’s many imitations of literary styles, but on Joyce’s letters and “casual writings,” where, as Mr. Gross says, he “was happy to play the parodist pure and unalloyed.” Joyce sent up T.S. Eliot in a 1925 letter to a friend, turning the famous opening of “The Waste Land” into an account of a family vacation in France (“Rouen is the rainiest place getting / Inside all impermeables, wetting / Damp marrow in drenched bones”). Eliot was in fact much parodied. Mr. Gross even draws attention to a Yiddish parody of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld composed in 1937. Prufrock, now become Mendl Pumshtok, doesn’t “dare to eat a peach” but a prune.

American authors, from Poe to Pynchon, are well represented among the parodied, but only one writer each from Canada (Leonard Cohen) and Australia (Clive James) caught Mr. Gross’s eye. Most of the writers burlesqued or lampooned are British, and since the effect of parody depends on familiarity with the original, the Anglo-emphasis might seem a hindrance for American readers. But Mr. Gross deals with the obstacle rather cunningly. The parodies he includes of such writers as the poet Craig Raine, whose works American readers are unlikely to know, depend less on particular literary mannerisms than on the writers’ self-aggrandizing propensities. Literary pretensions can be parodied as effectively as styles.

In the ancient schools of rhetoric, parody fell under the aegis of irony, but it developed out of what the Romans called imitatio: budding orators imitating the compositions of master stylists not only to learn their tricks but to surpass them. Thus parody pays tribute even as it ridicules.

This quality is discernible in many of Mr. Gross’s selections, where the parodist seems to feel a strange sense of unexpected freedom. When John Updike parodies Jack Kerouac in “On the Sidewalk,” for instance, we sense that Updike is having fun indulging in a manner so drastically unlike his own: “I was just thinking around in my sad backyard, looking at those little drab careless starshaped clumps of crabgrass and beautiful chunks of some old bicycle crying out without words of the American Noon.”

Parody is a form of impersonation, obviously, but also collaboration. What makes it so pleasurable, as Mr. Gross’s anthology shows on every page, is not just the accuracy of the performance, though that’s certainly essential. In the funniest parodies, there is the faint but unmistakable sense of giddy collusion; and in such improbable duets the parodist can’t always be distinguished from the parodied.

Mr. Ornsby is a writer in London.


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