Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 26, 2010

How far a climb to mediocre?

Augustus Carp, Esq. by himself, Sir Henry Howarth Bashford (1924), Prion, 231 pp.

This blog is beginning to look like an effort to resurrect lost classics. And why not? I like the idea of resuscitating authors and characters who deserve the renewed attention.

The book for today belongs right next to Jerome’s and Grossmith’s from my last two posts. Silly, at times LOL hilarious, and the perfect spoof of all those high-minded memoirs that are meant to inspire the reader to be a better world citizen, join a church, and be kind to animals.

The book’s jacket-flap describes it as “a deadpan comic account of a climb to the heights of mediocrity by a humorless, religious oaf told in his own self-important, sermonising tone,” making Augustus Carp second cousin to Mr. Pooter and distantly related to at least one of those three men rowing up the Thames.

Carp spares no one in his utter honesty (always phrased in admirably rounded periodic sentences). After his birth, Carp’s mother is set the task of studying the latest texts on child rearing (Childish Complaints, Diet in Infancy, First Steps in Religion, The Babe and the Infinite, Clothes and the Young, Dictionary of Home Medicine) and is grilled nightly by her husband; she suffers visibly from the examination, yet her husband refuses to let her off. That he can set an examination for books he hasn’t himself read and frighten the only person who has, gives a perfect picture of their relationship, of which Carp approves.

We follow Carp through childhood, schooling, work, church, and his own marriage and early parenthood. Disagreements arise with friends and colleagues, with ministers and churchwardens, and Carp repeatedly misses his own failings yet is severe when confronted with the weaknesses of others. Such blindness is a time-honored comic trope, and in Carp’s memoir we find it again and again.

His priggish shock at what he calls lax morals (women smoking in public and appearing at the seaside in one-piece bathing suits, failure to show due deference to the correct church teachings) comes through in every chapter. On top of it all, he suffers an amazing array of off-putting ailments (most of them of the skin or bowel variety), and we get running commentaries, with details, as each episode flares and then subsides. (As far as I know, only Boswell’s journals offer equally honest mentions of the writer’s illnesses, most caused by unfortunate encounters with prostitutes, but Boswell omits the symptoms.)

A brief review here can’t give a full picture of Carp’s spineless personality. You need his voice, so here’s a bit, from his school days.

Excused on moral grounds from the study of French by a special stipulation of my father, I was permitted instead to take extra lessons in German from a Mr Beerthorpe. A stoutly-built man with extremely short sight, corrected by lenses of exceptional thickness, I was at first attracted to this person by an expression of what I soon discovered was a spurious amiability. I was also distressed to find him almost universally alluded to by the first syllable of his name only, to which the letter y, not originally present in it, had been appended by way of suffix.

You can almost see the lift of the chin and nose, the downward turn of the mouth and eye, as Carp writes these lines. The utter debasement of being under the tutelage of a man whose nickname one can’t even bring oneself to write!

Carp is never funnier than when in his righteous mode–exposing a couple he saw kissing in Greenwich Park (he had detailed notes), exposing students he’d observed cheating, exposing anyone who doesn’t meet his standards for behavior. And then suffering the consequences of these revelations. He isn’t one who thirsts for righteousness–he has it in spades and pays for it. Perhaps that’s the reward of achieving a proud mediocrity.

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