Parodies, Etcetera & So Forth, by W. B. Scott. Edited by Gerald Graff and Barbara Heldt. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. 167 pp. $14.95. When you heard that Claude Simon had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, you probably reacted the way I did. Which is to say, no reaction.
And when we saw some quotes from some of M. Simon's novels, we thought maybe somebody was pulling our leg, right? Maybe they were parodies of quotes from the novels of the French master.
In a novel by Henry James, who of us is so confident a reader as to trust the little voice that says: What you are reading is nonsense. The chapter you just finished should be here, the one you are now reading, there.
In a poem by Wallace Stevens, a rejected passage may be left in the text, the false start preserved as part of the final draft. Most readers don't notice it.
What the consumer-producer is producing in these cases is some kind of noise, a noise we call Literature. Some people, extremely rare, can separate the noise from the sound of literature. W. B. Scott could.
Scott, perpetrator of ``Parodies, Etcetera & So Forth,'' was a member in good standing -- this may need emphasis -- of the Department of English at Northwestern University. When he wasn't teaching he was standing at the mimeograph machine (these were pre-Xerox days), reproducing his parodies of the noise that comes out of the literary institution. After he had finished mimeographing them, he sent his parodies to colleagues, administrators, and students. He did this daily for over 40 years.
The butts of his little jokes? The greats -- Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Nabokov's Pnin, Arthur Miller; and the not so great -- a French man of letters, an employee of the Department of Sewage Disposal, Northwestern University, emigr'e professors, and so on.
``Chicago Letter'' begins:
Agony, a sense of plight; a sense of agony, plight -- such, one soon perceives, are the attributes of the Chicago of our time. But I shall have more to say about them later in this letter.
I travelled by the Erie, as one must, I think, do, now and then. The trip is longer, to be sure, on its ancient twisting right-of-way than on other roads. But there one escapes the ``lumpen-aristokratie'' (in Roscoe Chutney's phrase) of the Century or the Broadway, and it is only from the Erie, of course, that one may catch those extraordinary night glimpses of Youngstown and Akron.
``Of course'' is exquisitely timed.
This book has caused me several moments of acute embarrassment. It must not be read in public places. I must not yield again to the temptation to read it on the bus. Laughing uncontrollably on public transportation is in bad taste.
One of the chapters begins:
James could not, of course, have foreseen the hydrogen bomb.
Oswald Alving stopped typing and for three minutes studied the sentence. Then he x-ed it out, and typed:
James could not have, of course, foreseen the hydrogen bomb.
Again Oswald stopped typing, and, contemplating the new version, absentmindedly re-lit his pipe. Only the muted snarl of a neighbor's vacuum cleaner made the summer air angry (this a line from his novel; how he had worked to get it right!). All well up to now. The first eleven pages of this draft lay in a rough parabola beside his chair.
``Rough parabola'' indeed!
Without falling down a literary manhole, let me suggest that this passage, and the six pages on Oswald Alving that follow it -- and the book as a whole -- are the work of a genius. Funny, yes: but more than funny. W. B. Scott had an ability to hear style, to imitate what he heard, so that the salient qualities stood out in relief. Oswald Alving's struggle with his absurd sentence about Henry James is pure style, but the lack of content is what makes Alving's stylistic agonies so helpless. A meaningless sentence admits to infinite variation.
And Scott knew how to put his parodies in the appropriate human context: witness ``the muted snarl of a neighbor's vacuum cleaner.''
Reading Scott is finally a sobering experience. The laughing mouth becomes fatigued, the stomach muscles cry out: ``No more!''
In the end, one is left with an all-too-human image of Oswald Alving. W. B. Scott even supplies you with one. Oswald, pencil poised in one hand, the other scratching his head, stares at a book open before him. It's a moment of fatuous equipoise.
The book is richer for the inclusion of W. B. Scott's doodles.
Gerald Graff writes in his preface: ``Like the best literary parodies, those of Scott achieve a fine balance between sympathetic mimicry and critical distance, admiration and irony. Really good parody springs from an intimacy with its subjects which can't be faked but has to come from living for years in the presence of the author. It also has to have an edge to it. A case in point illustrating both qualities is Scott's parody of `The Cocktail Party,' which, for my money anyway, is a better piece of wor k than T. S. Eliot's play and is unquestionably more fun to read. . . .''
W. B. Scott's ``Parodies, Etcetera & So Forth'' affords the reader the rare and delicious opportunity to say things like that. ``A better piece of work'' fits the whole book.