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Oct/Nov 2011 Reviews & Interviews

Machiavelli's Lawn

Machiavelli's Lawn
Mark Crick.
Granta. 2011. 111 pp.
ISBN 978 1 847088 134 6.

Review by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! I am not sure whether Mark Cricks' skill is ventriloquism or parody. Whatever it is, this small book purports to be full of the voices of "great writers." Bertolt Brecht, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Martin Amis and Machiavelli are just a few of the writers whose style Crick mimics in order to offer us expert gardening advice. It is an ingenious notion, but it relies on us having read enough of the work of these authors to recognize a few distinctive features of their style in Crick's versions of their horticultural guidance.

The patronized "little squirrel" wife of Ibsen's A Doll's House, for example, is re-cast as Julia in Act 1 of a play called "Planting a Fruit Tree with Henrik Ibsen." Julia, pretending to be a helpless wife, does all the work whilst her husband, Helder, looks on and criticizes from his bath chair. Secret passions and secret liaisons are hinted at. A boy and a gardener are glimpsed and the importance of "good root-stock" is emphasized. Underlying psychological games-playing pervades the scene and it ends with the threat of devastating revelations.

Machiavelli, who humbly introduces this book to "the magnificent reader," tells us that it offers the learning, knowledge and worthiness of "great gardeners and plantsmen." He also instructs us, later, "On The Art of Mowing." Gardens are, after all, akin to Principalities, about which he was an authority, and good governance of a lawn requires "rules and discipline," a willingness to be severe, and the determination to "punish delinquent plants" which threaten the borders.

Alan Bennett, it seems is an expert on "Caring for Heather." Heather is a performer of Scottish ancestry whose unexotic career and sturdy and reliable performance make her the star of civic presentations. She features in sea-side shows, fund-raising ventures and, latterly, as a star performer in the overheated communal lounge of a nursing home.

Other writers demonstrate surprising skills. Raymond Carver, it seems, knows all about "Planting a Hanging Basket," and Pablo Neruda writes loving instruction on "How to Prune a Rose."

If you are not familiar with the genuine writings of Crick's gardening experts, the irony of the pieces will be somewhat lost on you. And if you are very familiar with a particular author's genuine work you may find Crick's parody amusing but limited.

My own familiarity with Sylvia Plath's work, for example, made the maternal theme in Crick's "Burying Bulbs in Autumn with Sylvia Plath" seem quite appropriate, but his oblique use of her suicide in his final paragraphs I found un-necessary and distasteful.

Parody, as Nabokov once said, is a game. Crick's mimicry and his versions of art works by "famous artists" are clever, inventive and good games-playing, but this is a light-weight book in every sense. It is amusing to dip into but quickly forgotten.

 

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