John Preston

Ready for take-off | 23 October 2010

In the recently published Oxford Book of Parodies, John Crace clocks up five entries, thus putting him just behind Craig Brown as our Greatest Living Parodist.

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John Crace

Random House, pp. 355, £

In the recently published Oxford Book of Parodies, John Crace clocks up five entries, thus putting him just behind Craig Brown as our Greatest Living Parodist. Crace may not have quite Brown’s range, but for the last 10 years his ‘Digested Reads’ have been reason enough to buy the Guardian.

Taking a well-known novel, he gives a brief distillation of the plot while capturing — often perfectly — the tone of its author. At the same time, he jabs a sharpened elbow into their pomposities and limitations. It’s been a long time since I ventured anywhere near Arnold Bennett, but to read Crace’s spoof of Anna of the Five Towns — ‘Anna’s heart shuddered with expectant perturbation’ — is to be plunged back into a world where every puff of factory smoke comes with its own basket of verbiage.

Henry Miller may be a parodist’s dream, but Crace’s skewering of Tropic of Cancer is a thing to stand in awe of:

I am an Artist. I do not even have a sou for the cunt of a woman so I go to the Jardin des Tulieries and impale my cock on a nude statue. I then siphon some gasoline from a Citroen to get drunk before spunking into the petrol tank.

John Fowles too presents a plumply inviting target for anyone in possession of a pitchfork. Crace, though, wields it like a rapier in his demolition of The French Lieutenant’s Woman — especially when it comes to puncturing Fowles’s infuriating knowingness and reminders of his own erudition:

We could also spend many pages discussing Victorian society from a modern perspective, with recourse to such imagery as computers, but first I would like to talk again of me. It’s tough being a novelist in the 1960s, unsure if your characters exist and wanting to pretend you aren’t really controlling their story.

There’s a longstanding theory which holds that good parody is based on affection. I suspect Crace would dismiss this as nonsense. Certainly there’s no obvious glimmer of affection in his version of The Satanic Verses:

I fear I may be lapsing into repetition, yet what is life but a series of repetitions, and what is a Salman Rushdie book save a few good pages, overwritten and over- written with the verbosity of an insecure intellect.

Yet there are times when he’s too scornful, too eager to put the boot in, and as a result loses his finesse. His version of Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing is way off the mark, his Lolita has too much Frenchified archness to be plausibly Nabokovian, while his Lucky Jim is just a bit clumsy.

But somehow this doesn’t matter much because the overall tone is so good. Crace can do Ian Fleming — ‘He placed his .38 Colt under the pillow and his brutal ironical face on top’ — and Michel Houllebecq, both with equal facility: ‘He ate a Monoprix meal, threw his dead canary on the garbage and phoned his half-brother, Bruno.’

And if all this literary spoofing gets a bit much, he includes a wonderful version of the 1930s Highway Code:

If the road suddenly forks to the left or right, it does not mean that the road has disappeared. You have just come to a corner. Try to follow the road and you will continue on your way.

In his acknowledgements, Crace notes wearily, ‘If I had realised just how much work this book was going to involve, I would almost certainly never have agreed to it.’ All I can say is that he’s worn himself out in a good cause. Buy it and marvel.