Thursday, 24 September 2009

Mikes 3: On remaining alien and mortal

This continues the much abbreviated version of the talk on the Hungarian-born humorist, George Mikes, possibly to be regarded as the first professional-Hungarian.

How to Be An Alien remains his key work, in some ways his only work. The other books are very good, they have their moments, the delicate machinery of his wit performs its due task: the tiny wheels keep spinning, the understatements, hyperboles, deflations, moments of bathos, the epigrams and antitheses, are all in working order. They continue witty and amusing, but they are extensions of the original by other means, because he does not go to Japan or Israel or the United States as an English, or even British travel writer. He goes there as an alien. He moves within his alien skin, the skin he had grown or suddenly found himself growing.

Let us finish with a brief recitation of other Mikes-isms, the quotable mini-gags:

An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.

The trouble with tea is that originally it was quite a good drink. So a group of the most eminent British scientists put their heads together, and made complicated biological experiments to find a way of spoiling it. To the eternal glory of British science their labour bore fruit.

In England only uneducated people show off their knowledge; nobody quotes Latin or Greek authors in the course of conversation, unless he has never read them.

Or later from 'England Revisited' in How to be Decadent (1977), fast approaching the winter of discontent:

Things have progressed. Not on the continent, where people still have sex lives; but they have progressed here because the English now have electric blankets. It’s a pity that electricity so often fails in this country.

The immortality of George Mikes? He would have dismissed any such claim. Admonishing the American critic Edmund Wilson for calling Somerset Maugham a second rate writer, he suggests that if Homer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Goethe, Keats and Shelley etc. are properly first rate, then Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Byron could be considered second rate. Housman, by this system, is tenth rate. Somerset Maugham, he adds is much better than second rate: he is seventh rate.

As for himself? He hopes, he says, to be fourteenth rate. Indeed a David Langdon drawing shows him through the window, typing at his desk, while a blue plaque under the window declares: GEORGE MIKES 14TH RATE WRITER LIVES HERE.

Apart from writing the books, George Mikes worked for the BBC, chiefly I think, in the World Service. Adapting an old Hungarian saying that there are only three classes of people in Hungary: Those who have been in prison, those who are in prison, and those who will go to prison, he firmly believed that humanity consisted of three main groups:

1) BBC employees;
2) former BBC employees;
3) future BBC employees.

That was back in 1952, in Shakespeare and Myself. Shakespeare and George Mikes. Immortality in the corridors of the BBC. The year after the Festival of Britain.


Unknown said...

Oh, I've got to get me a plaque like that. I painted a blue plaque for myself on the wall of my first rented London flat in Streatham Hill and lost my deposit for my pains.

George S said...

I tend to suffer from the kind of plaque that dentists admonish me about. Being gently told off by pretty dentists may, however, be worth a plaque in itself.

And thank you for the kind comments on the new books.

Gwil W said...

An Austrian even if he is alone will push to the front of the queue. Hurrah! for the well-mannered Englishman.

I went through Maugham's first rate Collected Short Stories Volume 2 like a beaver in a fishpond. The scenes rapidly unfold. He's a master of spare dialogue. Seams of raw material for 1950s short films and plays. Witness this exchange from 'The force of circumstance':

'My dear, what are you talking about?'
'I'm not going to live with you as your wife again.'
'But that's awfully unfair to me, Doris'
'When you wanted to kiss me on the lips last night I - it almost made me sick.'