How we like our literary characters...

'Clusterfist. Slipshop demisemiwit.' Sir Benjamin Drayton's swearing was always too literary to be really offensive.- The Eve of Saint Venus by Anthony Burgess

Laughed out loud when I read this, and got one of those mildly amused Oh-you're-laughing-at-something-you-just-read-in-a-book looks from the sister. There was more to come. Context: The maid broke Sir Benjamin's precious statues.

'A look at them,' echoed Sir Benjamin.'Who told you to have a look at them? That face is lethal. Weren't you ever told that? If they weren't stone already they would have been petrified. Out of my site, you Medusa. I'll pound you, pound you. My patience is well known. Give it air.'


'My Venus,' said Sir Benjamin, 'has arms. So have the others. But for how long now depends on your maid'.
'Don't worry, dear,' said Lady Drayton.'Your statues will have to submit to greater indignaties. The birds just love our garden.'


'All children,' pronounced Sir Benjamin,'look like monkeys. And ugly monkeys at that. I can never understand why more boys aren't christened Simeon.'

And this is just four pages into the book. Something tells me I'm really going to enjoy this. I've always been fond of the mean-but-witty characters in fiction; what makes them memorable is that they say the things you wished you'd said - the puns, the quips, the sarcasm.

This is particularly why Clovis Sangrail and Reginald are favourites. Sample this from Reginald (from this introductory article on Saki by someone whose alias was C.Sangrail on FLS) :

Colonel Mendoza was essaying to tell his classic story of how he introduced golf into India, and Reginald was in dangerous proximity.
"When I was at Poona in '76" -
"My dear Colonel," purred Reginald, "fancy admitting such a thing! Such a give-away for ones age! I wouldn't admit being on this planet in '76." (Reginald in his wildest lapses into veracity never admits to being more than twenty-two.)

Saki's characters were mean-yet-witty, but without malevolence, which is probably what makes them endearing. They're The Unrest Cures.

While several of Oscar Wilde's characters uttered quotable quotes, I don't think I ever developed a fondness for any of them. Lady Brackenell is one that comes to mind for being inordinately mean, but she seemed to lack the wittiness and, frankly, Wilde seems to lack the timing that Saki was able to incorporate (What'dya think, Shwe?). Lady Bracknell seems genuinely unpleasant. I still haven't read The Picture of Dorian Gray, though. This is not particularly amusing:

Lady Bracknell- To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to? As for the particular locality in which the hand-bag was found, a cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion - has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now-but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognised position in good society.

That's how I like my literary characters - witty and slightly mean. The pranksters, the unrest cures. How do you like yours?

(I suspect the witty and very mean HDHD's going to say - I like them well done, Nix. And with lots of ketchup)

Oh and:

Characters in fiction are strange fish - Maugham in the preface to The Narrow Corner

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then you must have loved all of Bertie's aunts, particularly Aunt Agatha..

November 09, 2006 8:55 am  

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