Essays: Russell Davies |
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Russell Davies

Parody is the most entertaining form of literary criticism but that doesn’t make it easy to do. In fact it’s probably the hardest of the minor literary forms to get right. Max Beerbohm was a great master of parody, and since then there have been several consistently successful perpetrators of wicked little masterpieces that have summed up a victim’s creative lifetime in a few short paragraphs. My pick for the most able exponent of the art alive now would be Russell Davies. Craig Brown runs him close, but Craig Brown’s powers of hearing are more for posturing mannerisms than for the soul of a style, and his impatient scorn is clearly available to order, as it were, as part of his urge to right wrongs and remove stuffing, whereas Davies gets into action only from a long-nursed urge to get down to the deep structure of someone else’s way of writing. Davies’s parody poems in the “Edward Pygge” canon (Ian Hamilton was the founder, and I myself added many pieces to the total) are unmatched for how they are penetratingly accurate without ceasing to be funny – he wields a merry scalpel – but he can also get the fundamental tone of someone else’s prose, as Cyril Connolly once did for Aldous Huxley (“Told in Gath”) and for the radical poseurs of a whole era (“Where Engels Fears to Tread”). Davies could even do it for, or to, James Joyce, who, a mighty parodist himself, counted as the Everest among challenges. Joyce should have been invulnerable, but Finnegans Wake was asking for it. To answer that big ask, however, it was necessary to possess more than a fair share of Joyce’s linguistic inventiveness, which Davies, I think it plausible to say, actually does. “Pleasurebubble Hubbyhouse” was written at request for a doomed squib of a Christmas booklet called The Anti-Booklist, and it duly disappeared into limbo along with everything else in the same publication. But if Davies were to publish a collection of his fugitive writings – as Beerbohm, Connolly, Paul Dehn and the other masters of these fleeting forms once did – then his compressed version of Finnegans Wake would have to be in it. As things are, I hope that this virtuoso jeu d’esprit can attain some of its deserved permanence by being preserved here, with its creator’s kind permission. Davies – an accomplished, multi-instrumental jazz musician as well as an actor and broadcaster – is so productive in so many fields that he can easily lose track of what he has done, and I wonder if even he quite knows how he managed to plug himself into the linguistic blender of Finnegans Wake and take over its output for these potent few hundred words. I think it might well be the cleverest piece of critical prose written in my time, and even cleverer for not fitting into any category you can think of. A parody, yes, but a stand-alone prose poem too, and above all a performance, from an unforthcoming man who just happens to be a theatrical prodigy in every genre that he visits. In the first public reading of my mock epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage back in the mid 1970s, Davies supplied the voice of every character except the eponymous hero, and naturally I tend to think of that event as his apotheosis. But it could be that the most impressive thing he ever did is right here, one click away.