The Magazine

Book Review: Sincere Flattery

The impressionist movement, literary division, on exhibit.

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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The Oxford Book of Parodies

Book Review: Sincere Flattery

edited by John Gross
Oxford, 416 pp., $29.95

Parody is an acquired taste, and not everyone develops the palate. F.R. Leavis thought parodies “demeaned” the writers being lampooned, but that is seldom the case. If the parody is good, it demonstrates how distinctively familiar a stylist may be; if the parody is not so good, it reflects poorly on the author of the parody, not the intended victim. The vast majority assembled here by John Gross—who knows a thing or two about such matters, as former editor of the Times Literary Supplement and editor of several other Oxford anthologies—are very good parodies, and some are great. The Oxford Book of Parodies is a treat.

Of course, all parody collections are indebted, to some degree, to Dwight Macdonald’s pioneering 1960 collection, and in terms of tone and organization, this one is as well. The main difference is that Macdonald included many more American specimens than are found here, and was comparatively indiscriminate in his choices, including examples he didn’t especially admire but believed rated a mention, and throwing everything he couldn’t categorize into a catch-all section called “Specialties.” Missing here, for example, is Wolcott Gibbs’s immortal parody of Timestyle—“Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind. .  .  . Where it all will end, knows God!”—although it must be admitted that most readers below a certain age won’t have any idea what it’s about. But H.L. Mencken’s version of the Declaration of Independence in American makes the cut—“When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country”—and is very nearly as fresh as it was in 1921.

What makes a great parody? The basic literary ingredients are necessary: a good ear, a feel for rhetoric, an appreciation for the rhythm, brain, and vocabulary of the writer. Above all, however, a great parody is based on a decent satirical idea. Wendy Cope is a brilliant parodist of T.S. Eliot, and her bull’s-eyes are a combination of incongruous ideas, perfect pitch, and literary criticism. Her conversion of The Waste Land into limerick form—A Phoenician called Phlebas forgot / About birds and his business—the lot, / Which is no surprise, / Since he’d met his demise / And been left in the ocean to rot—is not only amusing as language, but a deft commentary on the self-conscious desolation of High Modernism. Her notion of a nursery rhyme as conceived by Eliot—Because time will not run backwards / Because time / Because time will not run / Hickory dickory—is just funny.

The difference between a good and not-so-good parody is often a question of intent. There are famous parodies—Victor Purcell’s labored pastiche of Eliot (The Sweeniad), not included here, or Ezra Pound’s satire of the medieval “Sumer is icumen in”—which amount mostly to poking fun without a great leavening of wit. The best parodies are often based on the comic principle of incongruity. Stanley Sharpless had the idea of imagining John Betjeman’s “Subaltern’s Love Song” as written by  Chaucer—A Mayde ther was, y-clept Joan Hunter Dunn, / In all of Surrie, comelier wench was none—which neatly combines the stylistic tics of both poets. To be sure, certain writers (Poe, Jack Kerouac, D.H. Lawrence’s essays) are nearly impossible to parody, and some of the parodies included here are comic versions of the original. An “underground” sample of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top,” for example, works well enough—You’re the top! / You’re Miss Pinkham’s tonic / You’re the top! / You’re a high colonic—but its broad, mildly obscene lyrics are not much removed from the original, which is no surprise since the author is believed to be Porter himself.

Some of the parodies here have a certain perishable quality. Bertrand Russell’s BBC talk about a chat with the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore—“ ‘Moore,’ I said, ‘have you any apples in that basket?’ ‘No,’ he replied. .  .  . ‘Moore,’ I said, ‘have you then some apples in that basket?’ ‘No,’ he replied again, leaving me in a logical cleft stick from which I had but one way out.”—from Beyond the Fringe is hilarious, especially when recited by its author Jonathan Miller; but also requires knowledge of the middlebrow BBC culture of the 1950s, which few now possess. Similarly, J.B. Miller’s extended impersonation of J.K. Rowling (“Harry Potter and the Rolling Stone”) presumes a literary reputation which may or may not endure, and there is an imitation of a Tony Blair speech—which would have been a Harold Wilson speech if this book had been published a few decades ago.

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