Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Ronnie Firbs

'O, help me heaven,’ she prayed, ‘to be decorative and to do right.’

Ronald Firbank was born into money and ill health in 1886. He only lived for forty years, and was rich and sick enough not to be expected to work particularly hard at anything, so instead travelled around the warmer climes of the world (also beneficial to his lung complaint) and wrote a series of unusual books.

Obsessed with Oscar Wilde, Firbank’s own work is stylised in the extreme. Plotting, characterisation and narrative are treated with disdain: all that matters is the prose, the ridiculous character names and, particularly, the dialogue. Firbank’s books (most of which are quite short) consist of aphorism after aphorism, one ornate and overblown sentence after the other. His high camp aesthetic is highlighted by some of his titles: ‘Caprice’, ‘Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli’, ‘The Flower Beneath the Foot’, The Artificial Princess’, ‘Inclinations’...

Usually loosely concerned with the farcical aspects of ‘society’ (the posh, expensive, exclusive thing, not the big, crappy thing we’re all in), Firbank’s work is baroque, eccentric, trivial, farcical, and best sampled in small doses.

'The world is so dreadfully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain.’

Too singular and specialised to ever be mainstream, Firbank was, nonetheless, an enormous influence on E.M Forster and Joe Orton, and ‘Black Mischief’ by Evelyn Waugh is an extended tribute to his uniquely convoluted style. I’ve read seven or eight of his books and, to be honest, they’re pretty much all the same but, as a lover of language, I find them hugely entertaining and, in the right mood, very, very funny.

Recommended works: whatever you can find, although ‘Valmouth’ is as good a place to start as any.

1 comment:

  1. God bless Ronald. "The big, crappy thing we’re all in" is as beautiful a definition of 'society' as we're ever likely to get.