The Household Tips of the Great Writers by Mark Crick
Reviewed by Leyla Sanai
Literary parody is an art which requires the finest tuning. If it’s too
obvious it can seem clichéd and lazy; too subtle and readers might miss references
to the lampoonee. The work also has to have merit per se rather than just being
a pastiche – it needs to be hilarious, seize attention immediately and hold
it, tell its own story, and have a
point. With so many stringent criteria to fulfil and yet requiring, by
definition, to be fun, it’s no wonder that truly talented literary satirists
are thin on the ground.
A big cheer, then, for the re-publication in a single volume of Mark
Crick’s three volumes of wonderfully droll sketches in the style of the great
writers, outwardly packaged as household tips but inwardly designed to stop the
reader participating in any chore due to howling tears of mirth. Like fellow
sharp-eyed imitator Craig Brown, Crick is so acutely tuned in to the style of
the writers he pastiches that he makes you shake your head in wonder at astute observations
you’ve never previously made about the victims.
So here are the recipes making up Kafka’s Soup, the household DIY tips
which formed the basis of Sartre’s Sink, and the gardening advice from
Machiavelli’s Lawn. Every piece is pitch
perfect, revealing Crick’s astonishing and understated knowledge of the greats
of world literature. Mrs Beeton’s brisk, disapproving preface is followed by
Jane Austen trying to match-make some eggs under the curdling glare of a
supercilious titled neighbour. Kafka finds himself alienated in his own
kitchen, creating soup for visitors who may be guests or interrogators/judges.
Irvine Welsh’s colourful argot instructs on how to cook up, or is it bake, and
is as entertaining as any scene in Trainspotting. Marcel Proust seeks la
recherché du temps perdu in conjuring up a tiramisu, becoming quite carried
away with melodramatic urges: ‘ ‘…The
whites he whisks into a snowy peak.’ To
throw myself from that snow-swept mountain. ‘He then reunites the two
mixtures,’ o blessed union…’ Marquez’s coq au vin involves a fighting
cockerel from a mysteriously powerful figure. The chapter on rosti as
instructed by Thomas Mann is so eerily evocative of the great German writer
that even the syntax is Germanic (‘the menu’s description wove in his mind a
spell’), leave alone the Death in Venice-esque swooning after a beautiful and
oblivious young man. And Charles Dickens’s plum pudding recipe is swathed in
the rich-poor dichotomy of Victorian England, with mentions of the Artful
Dodger and cronies.
The household tips section includes a wonderfully bleak section on an
old man hanging wallpaper, haunted by regrets and memories of bull fighting days.
Bleeding a radiator comes courtesy of Emily Bronte, whose Wuthering Heights is
revisited. Milan Kundera ponders on the transparency of windows, drawing
analogies with that of governments, but is in the end unable to be faithful to
his long-suffering girlfriend. Tiling a bathroom becomes a furtive enterprise
under Dostoevsky’s tutelage, the old woman’s home he’s decorating repulsing him
and sparking inadvertent damage. Julius Caesar muses on the dual kingdoms of
his home ruled by the Adulesceni (with their gods Nike and Nokia) and his wife
(‘Caesar’s wife is in almost daily conflict with the Adulesceni, either trying
to keep them out of her territory or raiding their settlements on the upper
floor with the aim of imposing her customs and laws.’) There is a smart Beckett
spoof on Waiting for Godot in which tips about sticking drawers are dispensed.
Sartre, overcome by existential angst,
becomes nauseated even by his own fingers (‘fat white fingers move like
grubs’) as he unblocks a sink. In the gardening part, Raymond Carver deadpans in characteristically
pithy tones, while Amis ll mingles disgust, unerotic sex and smut.
This collection is guaranteed to make even the sourest bibliophilic
misanthrope snigger with joy.