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Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

December 28, 2019 9 comments

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (2014) French title: Funny Girl. Translated by Christine Barbaste

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby opens on a pageant contest in Blackpool, UK. We are in the early 60s and Barbara Parker becomes Miss Blackpool. She ended up in this competition after her aunt suggested it. As soon as Barbara realizes that being Miss Blackpool means a whole year of service as a ribbon cutter to the city of Blackpool, she steps out and refuses her title.

Barbara is a fan of I Love Lucy and she wants to be like Lucille Ball, to make people laugh. She leaves Blackpool to go to London and becomes Sophie Straw. Her agent helps her find auditions even if he thinks she has better chances as a model than as an actress.

One of her auditions takes her to the BBC where the director Dennis Maxwell-Bishop is looking for an actress for a new TV show. The screenwriters are the duo Tony Holmes and Bill Gardiner who were successful with a previous radio show. Clive Richardson will play the male character of this new venture, a sitcom about a couple and their domestic life. Tony and Bill struggle with the scenario, they cannot make the characters sound genuine.

Sophie arrives for the audition and boldly challenges them. She has charisma, a mix of innocence and ambition. She’s a natural comic. Her personality and suggestions are inspiring to Bill and Tony. The four of them make a great team, their working together boosts their creativity.

The adventure of the TV series Barbara (and Jim) can start.

Funny Girl is centered around Sophie, Dennis, Tony and Bill’s lives. Clive is present too, but not as much as the others.

Tony and Bill are both homosexual. They met after they were caught by the police as it was still a criminal offense at the time.  Tony chooses security, marries June and lives a middle-class life. Bill remains true to himself and is involved with the London gay scene.

Dennis is married to Edith, who works for a publisher. She’s at ease with the literary world and her friends have no respect for Dennis’s job. It creates frictions in their couple.

Barbara/Sophie loves her job and her life. Hornby created a lively character, class-conscious and hardworking. Success doesn’t change her. Sure, she can afford a different lifestyle but she never becomes snotty. She’s a very loveable character who learns to navigate in her new environment.

We follow the seasons of Barbara (and Jim) and they give rhythm to the characters’ lives. Nick Hornby ambitions to bring back London in the 60s, the change in the British society and how it is reflected in TV shows. It’s a quick and entertaining read about a turning point in the country: more personal freedom, first commercial TV, end of criminalization of homosexuality, music…It’s also the clash between “classic culture” and “pop culture”, with intellectual looking down on TV producers and even more on comedy shows. Sophie, Dennis, Tony and Bill belong to the pioneers of television series, a genre that is currently thriving.

I imagine that if you’re British and old enough to have known that time, it must be a wonderful trip down memory lane. For me, it was a fun read but nothing more.

What if a sense of humour is like hair –something a lot of men lose as they get older?

April 24, 2014 9 comments

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby 2001. French title: La bonté: mode d’emploi.

If my thoughts about our marriage had been turned into a film, the critics would say that it was all padding, no plot, and that it could be summarized thus: two people meet, fall in love, have kids, start arguing, get fat and grumpy (him) and bored, desperate and grumpy (her) and split up. I wouldn’t argue with the synopsis. We’re nothing special.

book_club_2Katie Carr is about forty, married to David. They have two children Tom and Molly. She’s a GP, he’s a columnist, stay-at-home father, would-be writer. According to Katie, David is chronically angry and spiteful. She’s come to the breaking point and has a fling at a work conference. She’s ready to have a divorce and tells David but he refuses to hear her. At the moment, David’s got a back ache and to mock his GP wife, he consults with a healer, GoodNews. GoodNews heals his back, David feels better. He brings Molly there, to heal her eczema, it works. That alone goes against Katie’s every belief. When Katie tells him about her affair with Stephen, he leaves the house and spends a few days at GoodNews’s place. He comes home cured from his angriness and ready to be good. So David goes from perpetually angry to beatifically good and helpful. GoodNews and he are almost joined to the hip and Katie can only stare in confusion:

David has become a sort of happy-clappy right-on Christian version of Barbie’s Ken, except without Ken’s rugged good looks and contoured body.

David has lost his edge, his sense of humour. Everything turns crazy from then on. It’s not totally crazy, it’s just a liberal deciding to put what he preaches into practice. Katie feels emotions she’d rather not. In her mind, she’s a doctor, her job is to help people. She’s a good person already. David is high on a brand new kind of logic, one that makes her mundane thoughts sound selfish. One day, they’re having Katie’s parents for lunch. She cooks a meal, she’s about to serve it when David demonstrates that they should give it to the homeless shelter and have frozen lasagne instead:

‘I have to give this away,’ says David. ‘I went to the freezer to get the stock out and I saw all that stuff in there and … I just realized that I can’t sustain my position any more. The homeless …’ ‘FUCK YOUR POSITION! FUCK THE HOMELESS!’ Fuck the homeless? Is this what has become of me? Has a Guardian-reading Labour voter ever shouted those words and meant them in the whole history of the liberal metropolitan universe?

She hates herself for these words afterward. Katie represents the good-thinking liberals, the ones that have money but pretend they despise the conservatives but live like them anyway. In French, we have an expression for this, it’s called the gauche-caviar. (The caviar liberals) Hornby mocks Katie and David and corners them, dares them to act upon their beliefs. It could be patronising but it’s not, thanks to Hornby’s ferocious sense of humour. We’re in Katie’s head. She sounds real, the woman next door. See her analysis of her affair with Stephen and its lack of drama:

OK, I’m just about attractive enough for Stephen to want to sleep with me, but when it comes to jealous rages and dementedly possessive behaviour and lovelorn misery, I simply haven’t got what it takes. I’m Katie Carr, not Helen of Troy, or Patti Boyd, or Elizabeth Taylor. Men don’t fight over me. They saunter over on a Sunday evening and make weak puns.

Hornby_EnglishShe’s a rather good person, selfish as we all are. She loves humans in general but rebels when she has to act and actually do something concrete to help. A lot of us are like Katie. She’s “normal”; she wants to protect her family, her comfort and if she thinks of the poor homeless, it’s with pity but no intention to go further. She’s funny and natural. She watches as her children pick a side, Molly turning into a good-thinking little girl and Tom rebelling against it, feeling his father is rather phony.

That’s one side of the story. Their marriage is still sinking, just not for the same reason as before. How to Be Good is also the exploration of a common marriage and a lot of the details mentioned in there are terribly realistic. When you’ve been married for a few years, some arguments or feelings or attitudes, good or bad, ring a bell. It’s sad but so funny. Katie has a way with words and despite the lightness of her expression, she delves into serious questions. What’s your identity when you’ve been married for long? How do you salvage a relationship? What about the children? Is it even realistic to dream of a fresh start?

How to Be Good is deceptive. Yes, you laugh a lot when you read. But behind the curtain of the humour, there’s a serious questioning about relationships and politics. An excellent combination.

Thanks Guy for recommending it!

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