Laughing at Augustus
A comic classic slips back into print
Jan 22, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 18 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
Being a reviewer and essayist by trade, I sometimes find myself cornered at cocktail parties -- usually by an imposing dowager or a captain of industry and almost never, alas, by the twenty-something debutante with big blue eyes. Without fail, the matron or her husband will ask me to reel off the titles of my favorite books. At such awkward moments I usually murmur politely "Boswell's Life of Johnson" or "Chekhov's short stories" or "Montaigne's essays." Conventional, unexceptional choices.
But occasionally, after a beakerful of the warm South too many, I will grow frolicsome and name P. G. Wodehouse's Leave It to Psmith or Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm or Stanley Elkin's The Dick Gibson Show. I love books that make me laugh, and I especially love books that do this through a stylish command of language. Wodehouse shoots forth two or three dizzying similes per page ("He drank coffee with the air of a man who regretted it was not hemlock"), Gibbons stocks her single classic with outrageous English hillbillies, and Elkin dazzles by transforming the talk of bailbondsmen and elderly Jewish widows into a kind of prose poetry.
In such a mood, I also frequently mention Augustus Carp, Esq., sometimes called "the funniest unknown book in the world." The novelist Anthony Burgess even dubbed it "one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century." For once, Burgess doesn't exaggerate. This brilliant, brilliant work is a masterpiece of sustained irony. The book purports to be the autobiography of a really good man, a "Xtian" (always so spelled) of the most high-minded rectitude. It is also the unconscious portrait of a monster of hypocrisy and religious smugness.
Actually, of two monsters, for Augustus takes after his father in his devotion to Xtian principles. Here is Augustus Carp Sr. as described by his son:
Somewhat under lower middle height, my father, even as a boy, had been inclined to corpulence, a characteristic inherited by myself, that he succeeded in retaining to the end of his life. Nor did he ever lose -- or not to any marked extent -- either the abundant hair that grew upon his scalp, his glossy and luxurious mustache, or his extraordinarily powerful voice. This was a deep bass that in moments of emotion became suddenly converted into a high falsetto, and he never hesitated, in a cause that he deemed righteous, to employ it to its full capacity. Always highly colored, and the fortunate possessor of an exceptionally large and well-modeled nose, my father's eyes were of a singularly pale, unwinking blue, while in his massive ears, with their boldly outstanding rims, resided the rare faculty of independent motion.
Seduced by the assured voice and that elegant syntax, a reader might almost miss the fact that Augustus Carp Sr. is short ("somewhat under lower middle height"), fat, and hairy -- a blustery, hysterical loudmouth with a Durante nose and Mickey Mouse ears.
He's also a supercilious zealot:
For with his ruthless determination, inherited by myself, to discover and expose every kind of wrong-doing, with his lifelong habit of informing those in authority of any dereliction of duty in themselves and their subordinates, and with the passion for truth that compelled him on every occasion instantly to correct what he deemed the reverse, my father had necessarily but little leisure to cultivate the easy art of friendship. Amongst his acquaintances, indeed, there were but few that even remotely approximated to his standards; and he had found none that his conscience had permitted him to select for the purposes of personal friendship.
In other words, the man is such a prig and snitch that nobody can stand to be around him. And as if this weren't enough, Carp Senior also treats his wife as a household drudge: "From the time of his marriage to the day of my birth, and as soon thereafter as the doctor had permitted her to rise, my father had been in the habit of enabling my mother to provide him with an early cup of tea. . . . Clean in her habits, quiet about the house, and invariably obedient to his slightest wish, he had very seldom indeed, as he often told me, seriously regretted his choice of a wife." That word "enabling" shows genius, though some readers may prefer the more subtle virtuosity of "seriously."
Deadpan humor garbed in a heightened style should be hard to sustain, yet Henry Howarth Bashford (1880-1961) manages with utter ease. But who, you ask, was this Bashford? A doctor by training, Sir Henry produced only this single work of fiction (in 1924) and devoted the rest of his life to a successful career in medicine, writing occasional pieces for the Lancet and rising to become honorary physician to King George VI. In fact, nobody even knew he was the author of Augustus Carp until after his death, for the book was at first published anonymously. One wonders at the Xtian humility that would allow a man to go through life without letting the world know he was the author of a comic masterpiece.
Given to gastric disorders even as a baby ("I suffered from indigestion in two main directions"), our hero, Carp Junior, grows up susceptible to "several forms of neurasthenia, a marked tendency to eczema, occipital headaches, sour eructations, and flatulent distension of the abdomen." He also possess feet "of an exceptional length and breadth and almost imperceptible arches."
Though intended at first for the Church, Augustus discovers that "to become ordained presupposed an examination, and I had been seriously handicapped in this particular respect by a proven disability, probably hereditary in origin, to demonstrate my culture in so confined a form." In other words, the boy is stupid.
Unscrupulous as well. Under the guise of moral suasion, the two Carps blackmail a philandering school headmaster into helping young Augustus secure a position with a religious publishing house, distributors of such titles as Gnashers of Teeth and Without Are Dogs. Soon, the fanatic young Carp is spending his evenings passing out tracts for the Peckham Branch of the Non-Smokers' League, the Kensington Division of the Society for the Prohibition of the Strong Drink Traffic, and the Anti-Dramatic and Saltatory Union. This last brings our pious lad into an association with Ezekiel Stool:
No taller than myself, and weighing considerably less, he had suffered all his life from an inherent dread of shaving, and the greater portion of his face was in consequence obliterated by a profuse but gentle growth of hair. His voice, too, owing to some developmental defect, had only partially broken; and indeed his father Abraham (afterwards removed to an asylum) had on more than one occasion attempted to sacrifice him, under the mistaken impression that he was some sort of animal that would be suitable as a burnt offering.
Ah, Abraham Stool! Not only the author of Did Wycliffe Waltz?, he is also the recipient of my favorite sentence in a book chockablock with memorable sentences. Augustus has been invited to dinner, having saved Ezekiel from being set afire on Guy Fawkes Day. All the Stools are at table, including the five exceptionally plain daughters, the somber assembly overseen by their father, who pays special attention to Augustus. "Mr. Abraham Stool, indeed, who had not then been segregated, but who was already under the impression that he was the Hebrew patriarch, several times insisted upon my approaching him and placing my hand under his left thigh, after which he would offer me, in addition to Mrs. Stool, a varying number of rams and goats."
Shortly after his meeting with the Stools, Augustus describes his father's heroic but ultimately vain struggle to rid their church -- St. James the Least of All -- from the influence of a fish-monger named Carkeek. There follows Augustus's own fruitless attempt to rescue the chorus girl Mary Moonbeam from the depravity of the stage, a noble act repaid by the darkest chicanery. Happily, this "memoir" ends with our hero married, dwelling in the country with his wife and her four sisters, listening to the incomprehensible sermons of Rev. Simeon Whey, and ready to write the book we have just read:
It is customary, I have noticed, in publishing an autobiography to preface it with some sort of apology. But there are times, and surely the present is one of them, when to do so is manifestly unnecessary. In an age when every standard of decent conduct has either been torn down or is threatened with destruction; when every newspaper is daily reporting scenes of violence, divorce and arson; when quite young girls smoke cigarettes and even, I am assured, sometimes cigars; when mature women, the mothers of unhappy children, enter the sea in one-piece bathing-costumes; and when married men, the heads of households, prefer the flicker of the cinematograph to the Athanasian Creed -- then it is obviously a task, not to be justifiably avoided, to place some higher example before the world.
All serious readers should thank Prion Humour Classics for returning this incomparable book to print.
Michael Dirda, a writer and senior editor for the Washington Post Book World, is the author of Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments (Indiana Univ. Press). He received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.