When John Carey reviewed Nick Hornby’s ‘How To Be Good’ he famously compared Hornby to Dostoevsky – in talking about ‘The Idiot’ Carey observed that Hornby’s novel is ‘shorter, funnier, just as sharp in its human observation, and more realistic.’ High praise indeed, and coming from Carey, a man of impeccable insight and judgement, it’s worth taking notice of.
What surprises and amuses many is Carey’s comparison of the heavyweight Russian novelist to the always-accessible and easy-to-read Hornby. There is something questionable about the way High Art meets Low Art, the way Culture with a capital ‘C’ is compromised by comparison to its lower case popular cousin. Both Carey and Hornby, though, have never shied away from exploring this relationship and both have written perceptively and sensibly about it – see, for example, Carey’s ‘The Intellectuals and The Masses’ and Hornby’s ‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’ columns for The Believer.
This debate, between the highbrow and the lowbrow, between the elitist and the populist, lies literally and metaphorically at the heart of ‘Funny Girl’, Hornby’s latest novel. The literal debate takes place on Pipe Smoke, a late night TV discussion show. In one corner sits Vernon Whitfield, a ‘poet and essayist, a frequent contributor to the Third Programme’. In the other sits Dennis, producer of the popular marital sitcom Barbara (and Jim) , starring Sophie Straw (nee Barbara Parker), the funny girl whose ambition is to be the British Lucille Ball. Dennis’s view of Whitfield is that he demonstrates what a terrible thing an education can be ‘if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it’. Whitfield’s view of the popular sitcom is that it shows that ‘ordinary people en masse’ lose the ability to think’. The metaphorical debate is woven into the thread of the novel, but is embodied most memorably perhaps in the relationship between the writing pair of Bill and Tony. Whereas Tony is happy to continue churning out the episodes Bill feels the need to stretch himself artistically, to ‘visit places that Barbara (and Jim) could never go’.
If all of that makes ‘Funny Girl’ seem a serious heavyweight work of fiction it is misleading. This is, after all, a Nick Hornby novel and every bit as readable and entertaining as we have come to expect his novels to be. Meticulously researched, ‘Funny Girl’ also provides a sense of documentary realism in its portrayal of the sixties and the changes it brought, the photographs and reproduced scripts giving the novel the feel of a scrapbook or personal memoir as Hornby’s fictional creations experience the events of the time and rub shoulders with its real-life characters – I particularly enjoyed the appearance of The Yardbirds’ Keith Relf and the first night of ‘Hair’.
‘Funny Girl’ is perhaps a little unsure of exactly what it wants to be about and exactly who or what is its focus. Sophie seems to be the central character but in many ways the men and their relationships, particularly the relationship between Bill and Tony, are more fully realised and more compelling. As for the ideas it explores, the dustjacket’s claim that it is ‘about work, popular culture, youth and old age, fame, class and collaboration’ as well as being a ‘captivating portrait’ of a particular time suggests either a carried-away Penguin copywriter or a novel which might be trying to do too much.
There is no doubt, though, that ‘Funny Girl’ is both entertaining and thought-provoking – a pretty good achievement for any art, whether it be high or low, whether it be from Fyodor Dostoevsky or Nick Hornby.