Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A mini-essay on George Mikes, Part 2: Pastiche

The remarkable thing about Mikes’s alienness though is how easily it slipped into the English language, how it was smuggled through and became part of the great joke. Return for a moment to that comparison with Tolstoy and think about the phrases for a second:

‘a pretty piece of fun’

‘which it would not cause me painful surprise to find described as humorous’

The first is a phrase that could have come out of the eighteenth century, the second a remarkable – and remarkably clever – piece of diffident English grammar that is, potentially, so English as to be practically caricature, a foreigner’s delicate caricature of correct usage. A negative conditional followed by a passive tense. Substituting ‘one’ for ‘me’ would tip it over into pastiche monarchy-speak: it would not cause one painful surprise… But that would be practically lese majeste. Mikes knew just where to stop.

I suspect this edge of extra-correctness was an important part of Mikes’s humour, of his English persona as the comical foreigner. Wilde too was keen on absolute precision. For him too it was part of the game. And the English loved it. It was like being tickled not stroked. Tickling is not entirely comfortable: stroking can be suspiciously lulling.

The England of 1946 – and Mikes is quick to distinguish between England and Britain before blurring the distinction once again – was ready to be entertained with images of itself. It had just won a war but was still in austerity and aware of changing. The tickling was just right. The self-confidence was still strong. Let’s think for a moment of Ogden Nash who wrote, albeit a little later:

Let us pause to consider the English,
Who when they pause to consider themselves
they get all reticently thrilled and tinglish,
Because every Englishman is convinced
of one thing, viz:
That to be an Englishman is to belong to
the most exclusive club there is:
A club to which benighted bounders
of Frenchman and Germans and Italians
et cetera cannot even aspire to belong,
Because they don’t even speak English,
and the Americans are worst of all
because they speak it wrong!”

It was a good time for considering the nature and quality of Englishness. To do so in your second language gave it an extra frisson.

‘Looking back today on my own courage’, writes Mikes at the height of his early success in 1952, ‘ – to write in English for English readers – makes me shiver. No, it was not courage, it was reckless audacity… Of course there are great gaps in my knowledge but I have one consolation. I am much more aware of the beauties of the English language than quite a few Englishmen.’

How does the preface to How to be an Alien begin, those precious first few sentences?

‘I believe, without undue modesty, that I have certain qualifications to write on ‘how to be an alien’. I am an alien myself. What is more I have been an alien all my life. Only during the first 26 years of my life I was not aware of this plain fact’

It is in effect a job application of great subtlety. The timing is splendid. A declaration: ‘I believe’; a mock courtesy employing a double negative, ‘without undue modesty’, a modest hint that ‘I have certain qualifications’. How complex that word ‘certain’ is in English. ‘A certain Mr Mikes is outside waiting to see you…’ There is a certain street corner in the back suburbs of Cairo…’ His judgment is spot on. Having built this process he brings it to a brief halt with another declaration, a confession: ‘I am an alien myself’ trumping it with ‘what is more’ and leading to the innocent irony of ‘I was not aware of this plain fact’. ‘Plain’ is plain. Plain is perfect for not being quite plain. There is the climactic irony.

Then the building recommences.

‘Like all great and important discoveries it was a matter of a few seconds. You probably all know from your schooldays how Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravitation. An apple fell on his head. This incident set him thinking for a minute or two, then he exclaimed joyfully: "Of course! The gravitation constant is the acceleration per second that a mass of one gram causes at a distance of once centimetre." You were also taught that James Watt one day went into the kitchen where cabbage was cooking and saw the lid of the saucepan rise and fall. "Now let me think," he murmured - "let me think." Then he struck his forehead and the steam engine was discovered. It was the same with me, although circumstances were rather different.’

There goes the Tolstoy touch again, the puff, the hyperbole. You puff and puff then you puncture. Newton’s exclamation is the typical expansion into nonsense that assures us the claims are not to be taken seriously. Having prepared us for nonsense he weighs in with a second hyperbole, James Watt this time. We know Mikes is going to be keeping his beady eyes on the foibles and peculiarities of his host country but we understand it to be done with respect, with a pomposity that punctures itself. And there is the mock melancholy too:

‘It is a shame and bad taste to be an alien, and it is no use pretending otherwise. There is no way out of it. A criminal may improve and become a decent member of society. A foreigner cannot improve. Once a foreigner, always a foreigner. There is no way out for him. He may become British; he can never become English.’

Mikes knows he is trapped. He describes himself as a travel writer and on the surface he has cause. Writers have always travelled. Voltaire wrote letters from England, Hakluyt, Sir John Mandeville and Purchas wrote of exotic places. Being elsewhere was where you went when you weren’t here. Usually you had a proper reason for both going and returning. Mikes travelled because he was a travel writer. He was curious, of course, which helped, but writing was his livelihood. Travel writers go away then they return. But what was he returning to? He could, he rightly says, become British, not English, but English was what he wrote, not British but a clear, period English as blessed by the likes of Punch, by A P Herbert, by Evelyn Waugh. He rarely said anything about the Scots, the Welsh or the Irish. He was a metropolitan Londoner with cosmopolitan tastes. The humorist he most admired was Stephen Leacock, a Canadian professor exercising an alternative life. Mikes had become his own alternative life.


The Plump said...

To be an outsider is to have the gift of observation. Great writers are outsiders in many different ways, uncomfortable in the skins of convention.

Anonymous said...

I'd not heard of Mikes before these essays: thanks very much. I particularly like those aphorisms. ;)