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‘This is all the land of Blarnia,’ said the Faun. ‘From the traffic light in the western woods to the great castle of Cair Amel on the eastern sea, bordered on the south by Oz, on the west by Middle Earth, and on the north by Made-upistan.’

‘I – I got in through the wardrobe,’ said Loo.

Mr Dumbness looked at her in disbelief. ‘You got here through a wardrobe?’ he asked. ‘What are you, high?’

The explanatory title to this book is ‘The Lying Bitch in the Wardrobe’. This is all you need to know about it before diving in.

The plot of this novel is startlingly familiar to that of some obscure book published some seventy years ago by a little-known hermit called Jack Lewis. The afterword by author Michael Gerber expresses mystification at his having being plagiarised years before his own birth. It would seem the publishing industry is even stranger than anyone suspected.

Four children are sold by their parents to a crotchety old professor, who needs subjects for his invasive medical experiments.  Pete, Sue, Loo and Ed Perversie were told by this was to protect them from the ‘invisi-bombing of London’. Of the four children, only Ed has the common sense to realize this is a colossal fib. He despairs that he has been laboured with three such idiotic siblings. Pete is a hyperactive thug suffering from ADD, whose solution to every problem is to try and dig a hole. Sue is marginally more intelligent, but insists on thinking the best of everyone. Loo is determinedly suicidal and bears a suspicious resemblance to a neighbour who lived down the street from the family home.  One afternoon, while hiding from the demented professor who now legally owns them, the younger sister discovers a magic wardrobe (as well as a looking glass, a deep hole and a tesseract). Loo is transported to the weird world of Blarnia and meets the conniving Faun Mr Dumbness. In typical fashion she ignores every sign that he intends to feed her to the Wide Witch.

When Ed follows his sister he discovers strange and very adult feelings towards the ruling monarch of Blarnia, a compulsive eater obsessed with trying the delicacy known as ‘Son of Atom and Daughter of Steve’. Precocious to a fault, Ed fails to recognize the danger posed to his own life by the Wide Witch and agrees to bring the other Perversie children to her castle. On their travels across the winter wonderland the kids encounter other exotic creatures, such as a pair of lesbian beavers, a gin-loving Father Xmas and the cat-messiah Asthma, whose carpentry skills leave a little to be desired.

This very special book comes with an extra feature, called CensorVision, which spares readers from any offensive ideas and/or words. Also most of the characters have already read ahead to the end of the novel, just so they know how to move the plot along when required. Which is a good thing too, as the land of Blarnia is teeming with unnecessary plot devices and thinly disguised allegorical characters, not to mention a long suffering messiah, who wonders if his believers will ever understand his simple message that ‘Killing People is Bad!’

Unfortunately the relentless mockery of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe feels like shooting fish in a barrel. There have, after all, been many other piss-takes of C.S. Lewis’ rigidly allegorical Christian fantasy, including the cartoon South Park. What I love is the idea that Edward is actually the voice of reason. Throw in some amusing authorial asides and the laziness of this parody itself becomes the chief joke of the book.

It makes me wonder what a more ambitious take on the material might have been like. What if Jadis was in fact a democracy and climate change activist, attempting to enlighten the pagan people of Narnia to the realities of science. They insist on worshipping a lion, who can allegedly talk, although all he ever seems to do is eat people. Then four agent provocateurs from a foreign land agitate the natives into a frenzy of mob violence and establish a horrific fundamentalist junta.

Comedy!

The author is again visibly starting to amuse himself – nay, we’ll use the word – to mystify us.

So I woke up this morning feeling tired, wondering what I would read next.  Then Mr Postman arrived with a package from Canada. Wouldn’t you know it; it was a book from Stacey over at the excellent Word of Mouse blog. Hey, if anyone else out there wants to send me on a book, that would be just lovely.

This book features a series of parodies of different authors by Proust, describing the circumstances of a scandal that involved the famously neurotic writer himself. Henri Lemoine was a scam-artist who claimed to be able synthesize diamonds from coal. Proust himself was conned, but famously the De Beers Diamond Mines were also taken in by the scam.

For the purpose of his parody, Proust has the likes of Henri Balzac and Gustave Flaubert respond to the scandal, as well as a critical review by Sainte-Beuve of the latter’s effort published in The Constitutional. With each example chosen the parody extends beyond merely stylistic quirks of the respective authors, as the short chapters focus on different aspects of Lemoine’s deception.

I have never read À la recherche du temps perdu, having previously only come close when studying Chien de Printemps by Patrick Modiano, as well as that silly book How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. As such my impression of him was that his writing was structured around endless digressions into memory and self-consciousness. The Lemoine Affair proves that I was missing the point entirely.

The authors selected by Proust are not merely chosen to display his gift for parody, but to demonstrate his insight into their importance in French culture. What if this scandal had demanded that all the bright lights of the literary world weigh in on what had happened? What if Lemoine’s trickery had led to Proust’s own suicide? In imagining this scenario he removes himself from the ranks of literary contenders vying to write the definitive account of the affair. Yes, and by association, about Proust’s own shame in being taken in by the scam. In this as in everything else, the central point of concern is Marcel Proust himself. This is interesting as Sainte-Beuve for one is known for having argued with Wilde on the point about all authors revealing their inner selves through their fiction.

Balzac in particular fairs poorly as a target of gentle ridicule. ‘His’, section of the novella concerns itself with aristocratic gossip and badinage, right up until the end, when it seems the author suddenly remembers to deliver a screed of exposition on Lemoine. Flaubert’s realism is also dismissed as mere stylistic prudery and Michelet delivers pedantry about the diamond industry itself. Again and again we see the degree to which Proust prided himself not only as a writer capable of translating his thoughts onto the page with exacting detail, but as a critic of literature itself. Failing to revenge himself upon Lemoine, he retreats to the world of writing, where he holds a stronger position.

I enjoyed this book for its insight into Proust and the taste it gave for his masterpiece. While I do not intend to plough through that sequence of novels for this site, I am looking forward to reading them soon.

Thanks again to Stacey for the lovely gift.

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