Praise For The Feckless Narrator
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner
No literary device is more congenial than the feckless narrator. A narrator who sees less than his audience, whose judgments, whether of a moral, ethical, social, or scientific nature, are manifestly askew, makes possible a degree of humor unique unto itself.
Literature's first feckless narrator is almost certainly Encolpius, the narrator of Petronius' Satyricon. Preposterous, degenerate and deluded, yet somehow still likeable, no one remotely like Encolpius appears in surviving Classical literature, nor was to surface again for 1700 years.
Amiably deluded comic figures are not lacking over the centuries of course, Falstaff and Don Quixote are two obvious examples, but the use of a feckless individual as a genuine first person narrator did not appear again until the 1880's when two marvelous books appeared, George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary of a Nobody, and Jerome Jerome's Three Men in a Boat.
The popularity and deep underlying humor of these books sparked a flurry of imitations. The absolute perfection achieved by P.G. Wodehouse in his seminal creation, Bertram Wooster, has obscured earlier works in the genre, among which two pearls are to be found, Sir Henry Howard Bashford's Augustus Carp esq. by Himself, and A.G. MacDonell's The Autobiography of a Cad.
These two books have been newly republished as Prion Humor Classics, and released in the United States for the first time in many years. Augustus Carp and Edward Fox-Ingleby, the narrator of Autobiography of a Cad, differ from their predecessors in that they are distinctly unlikable.
Bertie Wooster, Charles Pooter, J., and Encolpius, all had one thing in common, despite a liberal number of faults, they all invoked our sympathy and liking. Augustus Carp, on the other hand is unquestionably, as Robert Robinson put it, "hugely unlikeable." At the same time Bashford somehow contrived to make his book as funny as it is possible for a book to be from one end to the other.
The book has a curious history in that Bashford's authorship remained unknown until his death. Bashford, a prominent physician, wrote nothing other than erudite medical papers during his lifetime, so that the production of a comic masterpiece came as a unique item in his obituary.
It is possible that Bashford wrote Augustus Carp simply as a cathartic means of distancing himself from the griping of his patients, (Carp and his equally foul father are spectacular hypochondriacs) but somehow Carp took on a life of his own.
The Autobiography of a Cad is a very different sort of book, darker and edgier. Its narrator, Edward Fox-Ingleby, is too viscous to be funny. The book is fascinating and worthwhile nonetheless, somewhat akin to John Lanchester's brilliant Debt To Pleasure.
The modern narrator most akin to the classics in the genre is John Erickson's Hank The Cowdog. Narrator of almost forty accounts of his exploits, Hank shares much with his predecessors. Absurdly class conscious, self important and self deluded in equal measure, and an inadvertently gifted linguist, Hank is a dog worthy of his literary forebears.