V V: Parodies - The sincerest form of ridicule

Last Updated: Fri, Oct 15, 2010 20:00 hrs

Parody and caricature are often taken as two sides of the same coin because both exaggerate the quirks and idiosyncrasies for satiric purposes. But their differences go deeper. Caricature plays on the facial features: it turns ear lobes into wind flaps and the nose into a hose pipe like Nixon’s. Parody is more subtle, more insinuating that works on the victim’s noise down to the last inflections to turn the voice to ridiculous effect. Like Wendy Cope’s delicious Waste Land limericks which read nothing like the great modernist poem but is five times more funny:

No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,
Then thunder, a shower of quotes
From Sanskrit and Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantiih.
I hope you’ll make senses of the notes.
Because time will not run backwards
Because time
Because time will not run
Hickory dickory

John Gross, who was earlier editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and much else besides, and had anthologised several literary studies, has now come with another delightful anthology, The Oxford Book of Parodies (Special Indian Price Rs 395). But Gross makes it clear in his Introduction that "it would be a mistake for anyone writing about parodies to become entangled in a search of correct meanings". So, we get an anthology that is a mix of literary genres: it has comic vigour and elegance to be funny even when you sense that the author is being spoofed like the Christmas carol that begins, "While the shepherds washed their socks at night…"

Gross has divided his collection into two main parts. The first is a broad sweep through various parodied writers in English from anonymous Anglo-Saxons down to Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and J K Rowling. If "a parody is an imitation which exaggerates the characteristics of a work or a style for comic effect", the sheer range that sweeps through the first part shows that some of the parodists at work now are as good as their forebears and you see why.

In addition to Gilbert Adair and Wendy Cope — whose parodies of modern poetry also count for first-rate criticism — Gross has thrown in John Grace, master of the "digested read", Mark Crick, an under-appreciated whiz kid of pastiche and author of Kafka’s Soup, and Craig Brown, the deadly Private Eye diarist, who has been featured eight times here. Before providing some samples of the parodied, what strikes you above all is the sheer erudition that has been brought to bear in compiling the anthology: practically every one you can think of from Chaucer and Shakespeare down to our times is here with Gross providing all the relevant dates of the parodied.

Begin with Shakespeare whose father was a butcher and, as a boy, he had worked in his trade but when he killed a calf, he would do it in high style.

"Thou bleeding piece of meat, can it by meet/That though shouldst die, to feed the appetite/Of some tun-bellied Stratford alderman?/ Was it for this my sharp intrusive knife/Did pierce thy throat and force thee to the change/From lusty bullock to unfeeling veal? Oh I could weep, but that a second thought/Comes hasty on the footsteps of the first./That alderman will gobble down his share, (And more besides) but others too will taste/The bounty off thy flesh, thy  blood, thy tripes./Yes, worthier folks will gain good nourishment/From this thy rich, though most unwilling gift./For what is at stake is steak; your steaks will feed/A poet’s fancy, build a poet’s frame/Calves die, but I shall live, and live in fame."

The classics of the genre are all here but so are less gifted figures and brilliant contemporaries who look at the past in a different light. In a sense, the collection provides a running commentary on literary history as it looks beyond literature in the narrow sense to take in such things as advertisements, legal rituals, politics and a scientific hoax played by a real scientist on a pack of postmodernist fools who published an article about quantum theory that had been cunningly contrived to make not a single bit of sense.

The article called The Sokal Hoax, published in May 1966, was published in a leading American journal of cultural studies titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". It was a kind of thing that Sokal had calculated would impress the editors of Social Text who were interested "in cultural studies in its radical, deconstructionist mode". The key sections of the article have been reproduced here as one of the finest examples of parody that was taken far enough to convince social scientists that they were on to something new and exciting!

But come down to the present. Here is Mark Crick’s take on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe — not solving a case but preparing a leg of lamb: "I sipped on my whisky sour, ground out my cigarette on the chopping board and watched a bug trying to crawl out of the basin. I needed a table at Maxim’s, a hundred bucks and a gorgeous blonde; what I had was a leg of lamb and no clues. I took hold of the joint. It felt cold and damp, like a coroner’s handshake."

If you have read Raymond Chandler or better his classic essay The Simple Art of Murder with language close to the bone, you would know this parody is close to the bone. Like, "I put the squeeze on the lemon and it soon juiced." Funny, but it also showed that there was something comical below the surface of Chandler’s hard-boiled prose. And this is what parodies are all about.

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