Guffaws galore

Attribution: Madmaxmarchhare at English Wikipedia
Attribution: Madmaxmarchhare at English Wikipedia

Sebastian Faulks Pistache
Hutchinson 2006

You might expect, from the title, that this is a culinary offering from the award-winning novelist, but you’d be wrong. The dustcover informs us that this is

A COLLECTION of FANCIFUL, SATIRICAL and SURPRISING parodies, squibs and pastiches inspired by THE WRITE STUFF on RADIO 4

and so it turns out to be. The whole text of over 100 pages is essentially tongue-in-cheek, from the purported etymology of pistache (“a friendly spoof or parody of another’s work” from a possible “cross between pastiche and p**stake”) to its invented author biography (“born in Vilnius in 1969 … educated by Russian monks … His most recent book … runner-up in the Watney-Mann Bookend of Longlists”). He was — and still is — a team captain on BBC Radio 4’s lighthearted quiz The Write Stuff, proclaimed as the station’s “game of literary correctness”. Each weekly programme features an author of the week, in whose style panelists are asked to write a parody on a given theme; I’ve caught the odd broadcast over the years but to my chagrin have never been a regular listener. Was this collection of broadcast pistaches all that it was cracked up to be?

Each of the contents (nearly sixty in total) are often just a page or so long, and easily digested. While many pieces may only make complete sense to an insular audience, the literary figures chosen are generally well known to literate Anglophones (even me!) and may reference contemporary popular culture, politics or other current events. The ghost-written authors appear in alphabetical order: we have Lewis Carroll, for example, updating Alice to the Swinging Sixties, Raymond Chandler visiting P G Wodehouse’s characters, Ernest Hemingway writing a Christmas round-robin and James Joyce making a best man’s speech. Several pieces raised a quizzical smile, and the odd guffaw escaped my lips rather more than once. When Enid Blyton’s Famous Five have grown up they join the Anti-Terrorist Squad, though George is aghast when Timmy the dog is seconded as a sniffer dog to scent out explosives; Richmal Crompton’s William grows up to be — so appropriate this for a born blagger — an estate agent, with his live-in girlfriend Violet Elizabeth Bott still displaying her trademark lisp; and Virginia Woolf’s hen-party experience is just as droll as you might expect it to be.

Can you guess which Brontë might place this lonely hearts ad? Yorkshirewoman, aged 26, bossy, consumptive, plain, seeks bald Belgian pedagogue for weekends of prayer, fasting and possible domination. No Catholics. And I loved the folktale variation on Little Women with Roald Dahl’s old lecher Uncle Oswald having to guess which of Mrs March’s three daughters he had slept with: the next morning “‘Oh,’ said Mrs March, ‘I forgot to mention my fourth daughter, Beth. She has a fatal illness. But pray do not alarm yourself. It is not infectious. Except … on the most intimate of connections.'” And pity poor old George Orwell confronting the real 1984 and compelled to watch Boy George singing Karma Chameleon on Room 101’s TV screen.

“World-renowned author” Dan Brown at the ATM, Wordsworth composing a Lucy poem as a rap, Oscar Wilde posing as an agony uncle, D H Lawrence writing a brochure for 18-30 holidays, Rudyard Kipling offering advice to a would-be journalist, Harold Pinter writing an episode of a TV sitcom, Sylvia Plath’s version of Goldilocks, Henry James attempting a stand-up joke — even the titles alone are mouth-watering. And very occasionally a piece turns up which is a little eye-watering, in the sense that it turns the joke sour with its bitterness.

As with William Shakespeare writes a speech for Basil Fawlty it’s obvious that to write good parody you have to have not just skill and insight but also a fair smattering of affection; and that’s very evident here with its smorgasbord of offerings. At the end of this slim volume one is left wanting more tasty nuts to drop off the tree.

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7 thoughts on “Guffaws galore

    1. I borrowed the hardback from our local library (yes, we still have a library!) but I see there’s a softback edition available too — something for your Christmas list, Sue? 🙂

  1. Guffaws galore indeed. It would make a great gift. You are so right about a really good parody having affection in it. Henry James doing standup comedy is a very very strange idea, though. (Equally odd would be V Woolf doing standup comedy). When I saw the title I thought, like you, that it had something to do with cooking, and that made me think of a favourite Roman recipe that starts, “Pluck your flamingo”.

    1. Apart from it sounding like a racy euphemism, ‘pluck your flamingo’ is a very Mrs Beaton-ish instruction, isn’t it, like ‘first, catch your wild boar’ or some such. As with Sue, I’d suggest you put it on your Christmas wishlist if your library can’t supply it …

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