I embarked eagerly on Kyril Bonfiglioli’s SOMETHING NASTY IN THE WOODSHED for this month’s Classics Challenge as it was published in 1976 (mandatory) and was purportedly funny (highly desirable for me just now). The first few pages suggested the book would live up to its promise. A well-heeled art dealer named Charlie Mortdecai introduces the reader to his new home – the Island of Jersey off the coast of England – with a mildly cruel but amusing observational style and I settled in for a bit of a romp. A few pages later I was audibly growling in disgust and by page 47 I had thrown the book (gently, because it is a library book) at the wall.
I normally don’t review unfinished books but I wanted to say something about this one because it was selected for part of a challenge and also because I thought I might explode if I didn’t have a bit of a rant.
It’s probably a close run thing but it wasn’t the book’s absurd plot that drove me to throw it at the wall. Though it was seriously stupid. As if a group of not very bright Oxford students had written a Carry On movie. It revolved around a series of rapes taking place on the island, reportedly carried out by someone wearing the mask of a beast, and the local men-folk’s attempts to ‘solve’ the crimes (without the aid of police for reasons that never made sense).
But what tipped me over the edge was the book’s sensibility, dripping as it is with not so casual bigotry and rampant misogyny. I must have checked a half-dozen times to make sure it was written in 1976 and not one or even two hundred years earlier. I can accept that perhaps in 2015 things have gone a little too far down the path of political correctness for some, but surely even in 1976 it wasn’t OK to treat a rape victim as if she had nothing more than an attack of the vapours? For a while I thought I would soldier on – pretending that anything’s OK in the pursuit of satire – but then I got to this paragraph
You see, we anti-feminists don’t dislike women in the least; we prize, cherish and pity them. We are compassionate. Goodness, to think of the poor wretches having to waddle through life with all those absurd fatty appendages sticking out of them; to have all the useful part of their lives made miserable by the triple plague of constipation, menstruation and parturition; worst of all, to have to cope with these handicaps with only a kind of fuzzy half-brain – a pretty head randomly filled, like a tiddly-winks cup, with brightly-coloured scraps of rubbish – why it rings the very heart with pity.
I suppose I should be grateful that he goes on to suggest women are a little better to have around than the family dog (because we don’t chase cats or poo on the footpath).
But I’m not. Grateful that is. For quite some time I wanted to hit something (throwing the book gently at the wall didn’t really cut it) and for quite some time after that I was grumbling incoherently to anyone who would listen at the outrage of such thinking being published in my own lifetime!
I’ve calmed down a bit since yesterday but I’m not going to finish the book. There are some ways of thinking I’d really rather not expose myself to any more than I have to (by, for example, listening to the considered thoughts of our current prime minister). I don’t know if I believe there are some subjects – such as rape or child abuse – that should be taboo for humourists, but I do know that Mr Bonfiglioli didn’t succeed in tackling such a difficult subject with anything like the aplomb he needed. The book – or what I read of it – is crass. Crude. Cringe-inducing. It reminded me of the similar-era TV shows my parents used to watch when I was a kid (e.g. Love Thy Neighbour). Even my not-yet-fully-formed brain knew something was wrong with them and their very existence is what prompted me to escape to my bedroom with a book rather than share the family TV viewing. And I’m pretty sure that if this book had passed my eyes even at the tender age of eight I’d have known it for drivel it is.
Have I turned into a grumpy old woman? Is there a layer of brilliance I’m missing here? Does humour “date” more quickly than other kind of writing?