Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"A Rupert Brooke without a Gallipoli"

Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People Is Wrong is full of great comic moments--from the level of observations (the lobby's "huge leather armchairs that looked like cows; you wouldn't have thought it odd if someone had come along to milk them") to extended scenes and exchanges of dialogue. The book is so good that I feel I should put all my (admittedly limited) resources to nudging it out of the long shadow of Lucky Jim, so I'll be sharing bits from it through the next few posts.

Today, I'll share a description that I admire not merely for how it captures a type of person that we can still picture now, long after the reference points Bradbury uses have ceased to be alive in our world, but also for how, not content to simply come up with a funny comparison, Bradbury gives them one further nudge, developing them until he's wrung every last bit of humor out of each. Here you go:
Merrick, if he was anything, was a gentleman. He was, it always seemed to Treece, a typical Cambridge product gone to seed; he was the bright young man of fifty, handsome, fair-haired, bursting with romantic idealism, the sort that nice girls always loved, the sort that had gone off in droves to fight the First World War. There was something passe and Edwardian about Merrick. He was conceited, cocksure, a public school and Cambridge Adonis fascinated by what he called "the classical way of life." Treece privately described him as a Rupert Brooke without a Gallipoli, and this was really almost fair; he seemed as if he had outstayed his lease on the earth, and now his romanticism was turning into a kind of Housman-like light cynicism, his open and frank assurance curdling, his Grecian-god looks becoming almost grotesque with wrinkles. He reached into his waistcoat pocket and took out a gold cigarette case: "Gasper?" he said. He would, naturally, wear a waistcoat; cigarettes he would call, of course, "gaspers." He smiled brilliantly at Emma and put his cigarette case before here; you felt that, like Bulldog Drummond, he would say, "Turkish on this side; Virginias on that."
You can see him, no? Pocket watch as well, I trust, and possibly a very narrow mustache? Or even a monocle?

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