Thursday, May 25, 2017

`Orneriness Downright Bracing'

I was introduced to the novels of Tobias Smollett by a professor hopelessly in love with the humor of the English eighteenth century, a happy malady she passed on to me. I remember her standing in front of the class reading aloud from The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and laughing so hard she coughed and sputtered and wiped her eyes until she could compose herself and resume reading. Her sense of humor was the sort that used to be described as ribald. The hardest I ever saw her laugh was during an end-of-the-academic-year party held in a banquet room above a bar. Another student asked if we ever learn the first name of Mrs. Waters in Fielding’s Tom Jones.  I said, “Ethel,” and the professor howled and dripped.

The edition of Roderick Random we used in class was the 1964 Signet paperback with an afterword by John Barth, whose eighteenth-century pastiche The Sot-Weed Factor had been published in 1960. I recently found a chewed-up copy of this edition, paid my twenty-five cents and wallowed in nostalgia for a novel I haven’t read in forty-five years. Barth gets it right:

“The novel’s humor is mainly of the bedroom-and-chamberpot variety, running especially to more or less sadistic and unimaginative practical jokes. Money and sex Roderick values—enough, at least, to fawn, bribe, intrigue, smuggle, seduce, deceive, dissemble, and defraud to have them—but what he really gets his kicks from is revenge.”

That, in short, is the plot of every Smollett novel. Don’t open Roderick Random expecting Virginia Woolf. Smollett writes brilliantly (few novels move so fast) but, as Barth says, one should be prepared for his “antisentimental candor.” Barth writes that “if one has had a bellyful of Erich Fromm and J.D. Salinger [whose books seem more dated than Smollett’s], one may find Roderick Random’s orneriness downright bracing.” Smollett is one of literature’s virtuosos of complaint. Now I’m rereading The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), an epistolary novel in which one of the letter-writers, Matthew Bramble, is Smollett’s stand-in and gets most of the best lines. Here is a taste of Bramble’s extended set-piece on the horrors of London:

“If I would drink water, I must quaff the mawkish contents of an open aqueduct, exposed to all manner of defilement, or swallow that which comes from the river Thames, impregnated with all the filth of London and Westminster. Human excrement is the least offensive part of the concrete, which is composed of all the drugs, minerals, and poisons used in mechanics and manufactures, enriched with the putrefying carcasses of beasts and men, and mixed with the scourings of all the washtubs, kennels, and common sewers, within the bills of mortality.”

Smollett echoes Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower” (1710):

“Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.”

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