Eating potatoes, greedily

Flann O'Brien, of whose prose I could not get enough last month

Like tucking into a vat of potatoes after long without food, during winter break, I read in rapid (rabid?) succession Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth and The Hard Life. Truly when I finished reading The Poor Mouth, I was still hungry and needed more.  Good thing I stocked up on both books!

Anything I say about Flann O’Brien will clunk like a can down malnourished and decrepit steps into the void of my own unworthiness, but my evangelical urge I can no longer ignore.  So.

If you’re into the show “Lost” perhaps you’ve heard of or even read O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.  I didn’t watch many episodes of that show, so I’m blind to the connection, but I’m glad more people heard about (and possibly read) O’Brien’s novel.  (The which I need to re-read, and soon.  I first read it as part of a seminar in grad school with Rod Val Moore.  The book was suggested in preparation for a field trip to the Museum of Jurassic Technology.)

Reading The Poor Mouth (published in 1941) is like diving into a pool of hilarity and squalor (yes) and eating it all with a spoon.  Yum, hyperbole!  My favorite!  Among other things I hope to grasp as soon as I re-read The Poor Mouth, O’Brien becomes a sort of cantor, invoking lyrical phrases of misery, a tapestry of moments in which, for instance, we hear, “…generally no sound except the roar of the water falling outside from gloomy skies, just as if those on high were emptying buckets of that vile wetness on the world.”  A tattered weariness in which scenes begin with openings like: “One afternoon I was reclining on the rushes in the end of the house considering the ill-luck and evil that had befallen the Gaels (and would always abide with them) when…”  Reveling in this luxurious squalor and over-the-topness, I laughed loud and often as I read along, even more than while reading Wodehouse.  To rip a phrase from O’Brien and twist it terribly, each chapter is like a thesis, proving without doubt that the plight of O’Brien’s Gaels is a bad life “whose like will ever be there again.”  (Just read the book.  It’s short.  If you hate it, I’ll give your money back.)  I also need to read it again to see how it lines up with another hyperbolic novel on the topic of poverty, though not nearly as hilarious, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

Literary belly still grumbling, I took up The Hard Life.  Published in 1962, the story was more shaped and plotty than The Poor Mouth.  At intervals, two characters tussle in flappy rants about the shadowy political power of Jesuits within the Catholic church.  Their dialogue was so well written that I didn’t struggle, despite my lack of knowledge about the issues they debated.  To press these two characters into a modern context, their arguments could have been mouth-offs between two old school rappers, one-upping each other (mostly) good-naturedly, but with no self-censor.  They were funny.  And the mountingly bizarre plot twists were delectable.  (See, I’m still on this stuff as if it’s food!  And really, it is.)  The end was unexpected and brilliant.  I’ll say no more, so as not to spoil a good meal.

Bon appetit!


Hugh Laurie (before “House”) and Stephen Fry

Near the end of the last century, I was traversing a difficult break-up.  It seemed the only thing that got me successfully out of my depths was watching “Law & Order” which aired incessantly (several times a day, but still not frequently enough) on the cable channel A&E.  Those gritty formulaic crimes and solutions, riding on the noble backs of wisecracks from well-worn characters like Lennie Briscoe, helped me survive my dark forest.  For an hour at a time, I was distracted enough to gain the relief called numbness–sometimes needed when real things are too hard to face.

Fast forward thirteen years or so, and I need another escape.  But we canceled cable last year, and now it wouldn’t be the classic L&O but instead one of its million children or grandchildren, the watered down spin-offs.  And I’m sure as beautiful as Mariska Hargitay may be, these pale descendents would not offer the comfort of long-ago Jerry Orbach.

So, to reading.  I’m enforcing a brief “vacation” from work-related reading.  First I picked up Animal Farm, which I  haven’t read since high school, and I love Orwell so want to read it again.  But quickly I surmised that wasn’t the right book.  Instead, on the beloved shelf I discovered a small gem called The Girl In Blue by P.G. Wodehouse.  A student had recommended it to me after a chat when we each admired Wodehouse (on whose birthday, incidentally, I was born).  I bought the book without knowing I wouldn’t have time to read it until now.  I’ve adored the Bertie Wooster stories since I read the first after watching their dramatizations with the unequaled (pre-“House”) Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.  But I’d never ventured outside the sunny, funny confines of Wooster and Jeeves.

The Girl In Blue stands alone, that is, it’s the only book he wrote about this set of characters.  But Wodehouse’s hilarious hyperbole rings like a carillon throughout, and will sound to anyone who’s read his other books like the verbal equivalent of tucking into a good silk robe and a mohair chair before the fire, belly full of Anatole’s cooking.  The perfect escape.  A rollicking plot, and many hilarious twists, unfolding in a world blessedly unfamiliar to mine.  But it was impossible to ignore the habit of reading like a writer, and this is good because this time, I found the novel better than escape.  It’s Wodehouse’s prose.

In grandiose trappings, his sentences dance through and around what could easily turn to cliché, but he saves them just before they tumble; his facility with the shades and nuances of English spins what could be a simple fun romp into much finer stuff.  To hell with the high art/low art debate!  To hell with that lofty, sniffing disdain for stories created with the intention of (gasp!) entertainment.  (I’ve never really cared about that fight anyway, but it’s fun to officially cast it off here.)

Could I please just spend a year reading through all of Wodehouse?  Don’t they award grants for stuff like this?  For 2.3 seconds, wild-eyed and laughing, I consider applying for Ph.D. programs, dream of researching a dissertation on the women in Wodehouse, if only so I could immerse myself in the genius of this man’s words.

(Okay, just one more book…)

Now that I have stepped from the safety of Brinkley Court, I will follow Wodehouse anywhere.