24 June 2015

ENCAENIA ... et alia ...

As we all set off in our moth-eaten red silk, on this great Feast of S John Baptist, my Name Day, to celebrate Encaenia, the minds of right-thinking people naturally turn to Jokes in the Latin Language.

I have no doubt that the funniest book ever written is Ovid's Metamorphoses. But I never go around commending it to the Reading Lists of others, because, if you don't know Latin, and Latin literature, pretty well, you can't read Ovid. His humour depends so profoundly upon slight points of Latin grammar and vocabulary and word-order, and the interplay of genres, and the use of wickedly impish intertextualities and pastiches, that, if you buy and read a translation, you won't be reading Ovid. Yes ... you will have in your hand a nicely written collection of Greek myths in the English (or whatever) language, immensely readable; indeed, better reading by far than most of the stuff in the bookshops ... but you won't have Ovid.

After the Metamorphoses, I would regard the next two Funniest Books Ever Written in any language (I suppose in my pompous way I really mean 'Which I have ever read') as The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh; and Zuleika Dobson  by Sir Maximilian Beerbohm. Here I have a question of terminology, of jargon, in which I ask help of Englit specialists.

The Loved One begins with a meeting of two Englishmen for whisky and soda at sundown in a distant and barbarous land; against a background of the dry sounds of summer, the frog-voices, the grating cicadas, and the ever-present pulse of music from the neighbouring native huts, they take their ease. In the days of Empire, they are the counterparts of numberless exiled fellow-countrymen.

Except ... that this isn't quite the whole picture.

Back to Oxford In Summer Time ... In Zuleika Dobson, the beautiful Zuleika drives the entire appassionato male undergraduate body of the University of Oxford to mass suicide by drowning in the River Thames. What more proper (and more literary) than that Keen Remorse should then drive her to join them in their Watery Fate? So ... "And Zuleika? She had done a wise thing and was where it was best that she should be. Her face lay upturned on the water's surface, and round it were masses of her dark hair, half floating, half submerged. Her eyes were closed, and her lips were parted ... what to her now the loves that she had inspired ...".

Except ... that this isn't quite the whole picture.

I say no more. My lips are sealed. I refuse to spoil these exquisite works of comic genius (in combination with Death) for those literary virgins among you, who, fortunate souls, are privileged still to have the opportunity of coming to them fresh and undefiled.

I suppose that this device is a rather baroque outworking of the topos which we Classicists in our dim prosaic way call the para prosdokian. But I feel sure that you Englit specialists, hot as ever from the perusal of Frank Kermode, will have a more spot-on technical term for it.

Yes?


8 comments:

Aitch said...

My Latin classes stopped at 14 (50+) years ago when we struggling with 'De bello Gallico', so Ovid is obviously not for me. The Loved One is splendid, I really must read it again.

Sadie Vacantist said...

I would recommend Tony Richardson's underrated film version of "The Loved One". Liberace as a casket salesman, John Gielgud as a washed-up Hollywood hanger-on and Robert Morley, whom I take to be portraying C Aubrey Smith, are memorable cameos.

Mention of the latter affords me the opportunity to share a famous C Aubrey Smith anecdote. While fielding at slip for the Hollywood Club, Smith dropped a difficult catch and ordered his English butler to fetch his spectacles; they were brought on to the field on a silver platter. The next ball looped gently to slip, to present the kind of catch that "a child would take at midnight with no moon." Smith dropped it and, snatching off his lenses, commented, "Damned fool brought my reading glasses.

Sue Sims said...

Well, I'm by no means an expert, but do teach English. As far as I know, there's no English equivalent of 'paraprosdokian', so that term would be used when looking at rhetorical devices. (There's a certain amount of snobbery, anyway, in this area: one would talk about 'anaphora' rather than something like 'initial repetition', and all those lovely words like 'synecdoche', 'hyperbole' and 'parataxis' are retained. (My favourite - linguistic rather than literary - is 'tmesis', though that does have an English equivalent ('infix').

Sue Sims said...

Sorry about all those incomplete parentheses: a sign of old age creeping apace...

John Vasc said...

Father, I confess to not having over-burdened or discommoded (dis-kermoded?) Sir Frank's oeuvre with my attentions.
The trope you refer to - it used to be called 'leading the reader up the garden path.' (Not a terminus technicus, I know.)
Where the heroic collapses into comic parody, it might simply be called 'bathos'? Zuleika as a latterday tragically drowned Ophelia in the style of Millais, ah - but then...
Waugh was a master of such foolery. The wrapper title 'Decline and Fall' may have convinced some less savvy early readers that they were buying a shorter Gibbons or Spengler. Such innocents might not even have grasped what Margot's obliquely mentioned business actually is. But by the last pages the banal and blind-fated 'providence in the fall of a Sparrow' becomes clear, and every penny finally drops.
The first of his 'Sword of Honour' trilogy, 'Men at Arms' begins with high heroic pathos, almost Virgilian (Aeneas abandoned by Dido? Theseus by Ariadne?) that gives way bit by bit to the petty pointlessness of the drole de guerre, and the broad humour of Apthorpe's 'thunderbox'. And so on.

Bernard Brandt said...

As to the charms of The Loved One, which are considerable, as an Englit (O Dii, as ghastly a term as Orwell's Engsoc) major, I will but contrast and compare one example of Waugh's genius, when he took this original:

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remember'd how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest, 5
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.


And made use of it for the following bit of doggerel in The Loved One:

They told me, Francis Hinsley, they told me you were hung
With red protruding eye-balls and black protruding tongue;
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had laughed about Los Angeles and now ’tis here you’ll lie;
Here pickled in formaldehyde and painted like a whore,
Shrimp-pink incorruptible, not lost nor gone before.


As a denizen of L.A., I have long enjoyed that bit. By the bye, there is still a considerable Brit ex-pat community in Santa Monica, and as of a few years ago, one could still go on a proper pub crawl here.

As regards the modern use of paraprosdokion, perhaps my favorite use of it was committed by a Yank comedian by the name of Emo Phillips, who said, "Sometimes it's just not worth the effort to chew one's way through the leather straps in the morning."

I have not, however, found a modern English (or even Yank) equivalent to paraprosdokion, alas. In these apospasmatic days, however, it is probably just as well.

Liam Ronan said...

Dear Father,

Thank you for the suggested reading. I have never been accused of being the brightest penny in the purse so my taste in humorous reads tends to be short and sweet and (more often than not) illustrating some moral point.

I confess to having a new found fondness these days for Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes". Human foibles on parade for all the kingdom to see.

Martin said...

When the unexpected twist is also a deflation the term 'bathos' is often used, though that of course is of classical provenance as well.