Thursday, December 17, 2009

My favourite pun

One of the regular items in the Irish Times humour column written by one of my great literary - and drinking - heroes, Flann O'Brien, through the middle decades of the 20th century was his series of "Keats & Chapman" stories. These were beautifully crafted little anecdotes which imagined the two famous poets as contemporaries, friends, inseparable companions - indeed, they seemed to be engaged in an intimate but sexless cohabitation, rather like Holmes and Watson or Morecambe & Wise.

I'd never known much about George Chapman, other than that he had famously written an early English translation of Homer's Odyssey, and that this had been a major influence on the young Keats, inspiring his poem
On First Looking into Chapman's 'Homer'. I knew he was quite a lot older than Keats, but I used to imagine that perhaps if his floruit had been in the mid- to late 1700s, in old age he might just have overlapped with his adolescent admirer. I was shocked and shamed to have a friend point out to me that he lived in fact 150 years earlier than that, a contemporary of Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare. So, these flights of fancy from O'Brien were a particularly outlandish invention, even for him.

The distinctive feature of these pieces was that the stories in themselves were utterly inconsequential; they served purely as a means to arrive at a punchline which was always the most elaborate, outrageous, wince-making pun.

And this is one of my very favourites of them. (And it has an extra special place in my affections because it was also a private joke often shared with
my mooting partner, my best friend from my days at Bar School.)

[My apologies to the shade of Brian O'Nolan/Flann O'Brien/Myles na Gopaleen (O'Nolan was his real name, na Gopaleen the pseudonym under which the Irish Times columns appeared, O'Brien the better-known alias under which he published his novels). I am endeavouring to recreate this from my own poor imagination, and in rather abbreviated form. This doesn't begin to do justice to the elegant contrivance of the originals.]

Keats and Chapman are holidaying together in Crete. The younger man - zestful, enthusiastic, naive - spends the morning bounding around the countryside, foraging among the ancient ruins. His companion - cynical, worldweary, curmudgeonly (as in all the great comedy double acts) – disdainfully ignores all this activity, devoting himself instead to a good book and a bottle of retsina.

At lunchtime, the explorer returns, proudly showing off the fruits of his labours - a single tiny fragment of pottery.

"What have you got there?" asks the reclining Chapman, witheringly unimpressed.

"A small thing, but Minoan," comes the defensive reply.


The Nag said...

I'm not sure that the pun improves with age... .

moonrat said...

i dont get itttt. i always need these things explained to me.

there's a 5-page build-up to a pun in gravity's rainbow that ends: "For DeMille, fur henchmen can't be rowing." Someone really needed to explain that to me, too.

moonrat said...

fyi my word verification was "stinkwor" which i think obviously means i'm a "stink"er at "wor"dgames

Froog said...

I replied to Moonrat by e-mail a couple of days ago, since I couldn't bear to think of the sleepless nights she might suffer whilst struggling to work out these confounded puns(and I was temporarily locked out of my Blogger comments).

"A small thing, but mine own" (or variant, "A poor thing, but mine own") is a fairly ubiquitous phrase in British English, thought to have originated from Shakespeare (in As You Like It, in the multiple wedding scene at the end, Touchstone the clown says that his country lass is "an ill-favour'd thing, but mine own"). Minoan is the name given to the ancient civilization of Crete, named after the legendary King Minos who kept the Minotaur in the Labyrinth beneath his palace at Knossos.

Pynchon was presumably aping Fifty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong, a popular song of the 1920s (I believe Sophie Tucker recorded it; now that I have proper YouTube access back, I may have to try and dig that up). It looks as if he was going for Forty million ("For De Mille, you fur henchmen..."), though. I wonder if he just misremembered the song title. Or if he preferred the pun this way. Or if even his ingenuity was stumped by Fifty million.

I had recalled the song as being primarily a paean to drink, but I've since checked the lyrics online and in fact it is praising the French for their free-and-easy attitude and effortless stylishness in.... food, wine, sex, fashion, you name it.

Froog said...

'You'? I meant 'yon', of course - I think you need that, to get the million.

JES said...

Wonderful job on the Pynchon. Reading his Big Books is a lot like wandering through an orchard at the peak moment of the growing season -- you keep meaning to revisit something (like the phrase Moonie picked up on) which diverted your attention, but in the meantime there's this other little tasty bit here, and ooooh, look over thataway... And yet they're SO Big, it's hard to work up the enthusiasm for trying one of them all over again.