Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Unspeakable Skipton

Pamela Hansford Johnson's The Unspeakable Skipton is an "underclassic," an unknown, under-read, potentially cult-status humor novel - if anyone knew about it. The good news: it's still in print. The bad news: it's not readily available in the U.S. (Just ask your bookseller.) But it is well-worth reading; in fact I intend to start all over and read it again tonight.

The droll Skipton inhabits the same portrait-of-a-writer universe as Anthony Burgess's hilarious Enderby and Updike's Bech: A Book.
Skipton is a horrific character, but Johnson's short, witty book about his horribleness is perfect: she reveals his insecurities as well as his exasperating self-centeredness. Her style mimics the somewhat anemic prissiness of Skipton, who is the most finicky, narcissictic, self-deluded of writers: he lives in a garret in Bruges ("in one of "the last of the patrician houses," as he fussily reminds himself); wears socks with individually knitted toes because he thinks it's faintly obscene to have toes touching; writes 250 often libellous words a day, which preclude his neverending new epic from being published; and also repulsively cons his fond publisher and a relative, whom he refers to as Flabby Anne, out of money, hassling them via insane invectives. Without conscience, he acts as a hustler/procurer of fake antiques and voyeuristic private parties at which mildly obscene skits of Leda and the Swan are performed. The misanthropic Skipton's shady business depradations are completely, fascinatingly detached from his writing.

Skipton always needs money. He is the greatest artist of his time, so he believes, but he must sneak out of his patrician house to evade his landlady. Her daughter thinks he's so hilarious that she smuggles up food he hasn't paid for. But the tricklings of cash are not enough - he occasionally must pay his landlady - and he honestly is incapable of making a living. Yet he is so unprincipled that he believes that everyone is fair prey, and has no morals where conning the rich is concerned. At the center of the book is his chance meeting with a group of literary tourists and his attempts to dub them out of money: Dorothy Merlin, a playwright, her husband, Cosmo, a bookseller, Duncan, a photographer kind of playboy, and Matthew, a mysterious aristocrat. He's equally matched here, however, and underrates his opponents, particularly the prima donna Dorothy Merlin's husband.

Ruth Rendell writes the enthusiastic introduction to the Prion Humour Classics edition.

Anyway, it's a coincidence that I read this and Bech in the same week.


Phillip Routh said...

The Unspeakable Skipton is a sophisticated romp. I'm glad it's still available and hope it gets readers. They'll be rewarded with a unique experience.
But am I the only one who felt pity for Skipton? This feeling set in quite strongly at the end.
I have to believe, for all the cruelty in her depiction of this "horrific character," Johnson must also have felt pity and sympathy for him.
At least I hope she did.

ozcol said...

I just read it. I bought it with some other old books and knew nothing about it at all. I enjoyed it and I couldn't help thinking of 'Lucky Jim' as I read much of it. I think it deserves a wider audience.