This Reuters article describes how the British publishing house, Jonathan Cape, was forced to release Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday, early because the Evening Standard broke a publicity embargo and ran an interview two weeks to soon. Naturally, other newspapers, not wanting to be scooped by the Standard, also ran stories about McEwan’s book too early. Suddenly, Saturday was getting tons of press, but the books weren’t in stores, and now Bertelsmann’s Random House, which owns Jonathan Cape, wants the Standard to pay for the lost revenue that resulted from the runaway publicity chain reaction. The subtext to all of this, especially if you consider the story in light of the creation of the new made-for-tv Quill Awards, is that publishing companies, most of which are now owned by media conglomerates, are trying to market and sell books in the same way they might market and sell movies or music. In Hollywood, the financial success of many a film is determined by the opening weekend, or even the opening night, and all the marketing resources go towards getting people into the movie theatre on the opening weekend. The primary – though unstated – purpose of awards shows is to convince people to see the movies or buy the music that is being honored, not simply to honor it. My experience as a bookseller tells me that books don’t work this way. The book is the ultimate “word of mouth” product. The desire to read a good book is many times more likely to be initiated by a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader (or bookseller) than by a piece of clever marketing or even a prominent review. It’s my opinion that publishers shouldn’t be pushing for the huge first week numbers – forcing a book to boom or bust – but they should give books a chance to survive and thrive on their own merits… the way McEwan’s last book, Atonement, did.
From the venerable halls of Cambridge University in the early 1980s, emerged two of the finest comedic minds in British Comedy. From their years as writers and performers in Cambridge’s Footlights troupe, through their acting stints in Jeeves and Wooster, various seasons of Blackadder, and especially their brilliant BBC sketch comedy series “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie have spent the better part of my life making me laugh, often uncontrollably, and (occasionally) like a blithering idiot.In the 1990s, Stephen Fry reached perhaps a wider audience with his pitch-perfect performance as Oscar Wilde in Wilde, and as for Mr. Laurie, well, unless you’ve been spending the last three years on Pluto, you’ve probably heard of a certain brilliant but tormented diagnostic genius named Gregory House.All of which leads me to this: For years I’ve been fully aware that both Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are also accomplished novelists. And despite my knowledge that they, separately and together, could seemingly write and perform anything, comedy or drama, brilliantly, in any medium, I still held off reading their critically acclaimed novels. When I eventually relented, I did so with enormous trepidation. Maybe I was worried that they wouldn’t reach the same heights, in my estimation, as they already had in other media.I needn’t have worried.Hugh Laurie’s first novel, The Gun Seller is a comical, first-person account by one Thomas Lang, former soldier, now a civilian, who finds himself drawn into a bit of intrigue involving state-of-the-art weaponry, international terrorism, and well, the love of a good woman (Or is she a femme fatale?). The story moves along at a fast clip, building tension, and saying a few things about human morality along the way. And as it was published in 1996, it reflects that now almost nostalgically quaint post-Cold War, pre-9/11 era.But it’s all recounted with a savage tongue planted firmly in cheek. Describing the facial features of one of the parade of brutes who for various reasons want to kill our hero:We find that Rayner’s ears had, long ago, been bitten off and spat back on to the side of his head, because the left one was definitely upside down, or inside out, or something that made you stare at it for a long time before thinking ‘oh, it’s an ear.’While Laurie’s The Gun Seller is a comic-thriller pure and simple, Stephen Fry’s 1991 debut novel, The Liar seems a bit more layered. It tells the story of Adrian Healey, and shifts back and forth through various stages of his life. We see his English ‘public school’ adolescence – a lovelorn time spent genuinely yearning for Hugo Cartwright, one of his fellow classmates, while trying on other personae for size – rebel, actor, schemer. We see him a few years later studying at Cambridge and later still traveling to Hungary in the employ of one Professor Trefusis. On A Mission. Adrian’s mendacity proving to be his most appealingly useful trait. The one thing others can count on.There’s a thriller bubbling underneath involving codes and ciphers, and a 70s update of the Enigma cipher machine. But all of the plot machinations serve to sharpen the focus on Adrian’s character. As Trefusis tells him:”I am a student of language, Mr. Healey. You write with fluency and conviction, you talk with authority and control. A complex idea here, an abstract proposition there, you juggle with them, play with them, seduce them… You recognize patterns, but you rearrange them when you should analyze them. In short, you do not think. You have never thought… You cheat, you short-cut, you lie. It’s too wonderful… You are a hound of hell and you know it.”As good as The Liar is, Stephen Fry’s second novel, The Hippopotamus, is even better. His Ted Wallace is a giant of a character – a sly, sarcastic, 60-something jaded poet and critic. Unfailingly polite when social or family circumstances dictate, he saves up his venom and unleashes it on us, the gentle reader.The story is this: Recently fired as a newspaper theatre critic, Wallace is retained by the terminally-ill niece of an old family friend to, essentially, pay an extended visit to that old friend and his family, and report “anything unusual” back to her. The jaded poet becomes a spy. We, and he, are left in the dark as to what, exactly, we should be looking for. But gradually the fog clears. In an astonishingly moving bit of back-story, we learn of Albert, the secular, spiritually disenchanted Austrian-Jewish grandfather, who returned to Vienna in the 1930s to try to bring his cousins back to England with him:In that awful little room with its imponderably hateful smell, a smell that took all the dignity and colour and strength away from him, his tweeds, his expensive luggage and his small blue passport, in that dreadful stinking room he swore a new loyalty, to his people – his stupid, moaning and cosmically irritating people, whose religion he scorned, whose culture he despised, whose mannerisms and prejudices he abominated.We also, in the present, get a sense of the unusual circumstances that Ted was dispatched to uncover. And what began as scathing social satire with a bit of a mystery gradually forming underneath, turns into a rich, stunningly written novel full of tension and eventual catharsis. It’s a fantastic read.There are several other novels and at least one memoir in the Fry and Laurie canon, and I’d be astonished if they all weren’t written with the same penetrating wit and fierce intelligence. The halls of Cambridge would expect nothing less.
I am a fan of nostalgic genres, as my last list testified: Not the least of the charms of the country house movie, following in the tradition of classical pastoral, is that the country house comes to represent a pre-Lapsarian, Edenic space associated with leisure, pleasure, and harmony. Usually this harmony is destroyed or interrupted (“Brideshead” is the archetypal example of this: Ryder returns to a decayed and abandoned Brideshead as a soldier during World War II, and begins to reminisce about the golden age gone by), but it’s the idea that – however fleeting or fragile – such happiness and peace and pleasure shared with friends is possible.Today I share with you another list, for another nostalgic genre: the school story. These pieces are often simultaneously nostalgic for the youthful abandon and friendship and simple pleasures of schooldays, and meditations on the betrayals and abandonment that turn children into adults. I largely exclude American high school movies (they seems a different beast) in favor of boarding school novels and films:Claudine a l’Ecole, ColetteNicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens (Oh, the horrors of C19th Yorkshire schools: now in a good movie adaptation with Charlie Hunnam and Jim Broadbent.)Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (and numerous film versions)Vanity Fair, William Makepeace ThackerayThe Group, Mary McCarthyHow I Grew, Mary McCarthy’s autobiographical reminiscences of boarding school in Seattle, and a deflowering scene to match (outdo?) the famous one in The Group“To Serve Them All My Days” (BBC miniseries)School TiesRushmoreThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (Maggie Smith in her prime playing the titular Miss Jean is a knockout)Picnic at Hanging Rock (awesome and insane – Victorian repressed sexuality done 70’s style – it will haunt with you)The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola was definitely watching Picnic at Hanging Rock before she made this)Young Sherlock Holmes (an early Barry Levinson movie – if you didn’t watch it in the 80’s as a child, do now)Flirting (great Australia movie: Thandie Newton, a very young Nicole Kidman, and Noah Taylor, plus a priceless scene involving boxing and Jean-Paul Sartre)The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman (women beware women)Frost in May, Antonia White (also the translator of Colette’s Claudine novels)Maurice, E.M. Forster (novel and film both great – the brief joys and inevitable tragedy of homosexuality in turn of the century England)Trouble at Willow Gables, Philip Larkin (one of my favorite books of all time – PL’s imitation/parody of 1940’s girls school novels is beyond delightful – sensual, campy, absurd, delicious)It Was Fun in the Fourth, Nancy Breary (an original 1940’s author of English girls boarding school novels – a hoot, and great read with the Larkin)Tom Brown’s School Days (oh, brutality. And now in a fine film adaptation with Stephen Fry as headmaster.)”Such, Such Were the Joys” (George Orwell’s essay on the horrors of the English public school, the full text is available at george-orwell.org)Harry PotterA Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnet (there’s a recent movie adaptation of this C19th children’s classic, but the book’s great – some problems with Orientalism, I grant you, but I stand by this childhood fave)Dead Poets’ SocietyLost and Delirious (Mischa Barton and Piper Perabo: A Separate Peace/Dead Poets’ Society for girls: also features falconry)A Separate PeaceCruel IntentionsBrick (I know it’s set in an American high school – but it’s so noir-y and all-consuming it feels like a boarding school: plus Joseph Gordon Levitt is becoming Heath Leger circa 10 Things I Hate About You – uncanny)The Skulls (It takes place at a college, but there’s something juvenile about a secret society)Goodbye, Mr. ChipsPrep, Curtis Sittenfeld (I haven’t read it, but I want too)The Emperor’s Club
What is it about the English that draws them again and again to cross-dressing as a cornerstone of comedy? You’d think that three-hundred and some years on from Charles II’s allowing women on the stage – thereby making pre-pubescent male Juliets a thing of the past – we’d have long ago seen the last of stubbly-faced ladies. Oh, but we have not, and it’s a good thing too.The most popular recent incarnation of this phenomenon is Matt Lucas and David Walliams’ two-man sketch comedy extravaganza Little Britain. If you’ve somehow managed to miss this, it is well worth a search on YouTube (at least). The cross dressing skits are hilarious (Emily Howard, Vicki Pollard, and Anne are fine examples), though my favorite pair is Andy and Lou, an indecisive faux cripple and his benevolently idiotic friend and minder.For those of a more venturesome disposition, I recommend the League of Gentlemen. The title refers to the four actors who play virtually all of the inhabitants of the eerie fictional town of Royston Vasey – Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. While Little Britain occasionally verges into the scatological (a woman who vomits profusely whenever she encounters a racial or ethnic minority, for example), The League of Gentlemen can be utterly baffling and disturbing. There’s a short, impenetrable skit with two minstrels – men in blackface – eating cereal and listening to a broadcast on the radio about the recent mass influx of minstrels. Explain that one if you will. I have suspicions that the writing of certain skits may have involved psychotropic substances. Nonetheless, for Tubbs and Edward, a husband and wife team who keep the “Local Shop,” the show is worth a watch. (I wish I could find the one where Tubbs nurses a piglet – you are intrigued now, I know! – but, alas, I could only find this.)Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are also exceptional in drag and if you’ve watched House, M.D. and don’t know where it all began, A Bit of Fry and Laurie is a must. Hugh Laurie in a head kerchief and over-applied rouge, speaking not a word, is a side-splitting, pants-wetting thing to beholdBut the inspiration for this post was my most recent encounter with this genre, a clip from a show called The Might Boosh. I warn the faint of heart against Old Greg, but for those fuzzy little man-peaches out there who dare to drink Bailey’s from a shoe, chin chin!