February 29, 2012

On the BFG, Basil Fawlty and Lars Iyer: fictional characters inspired by real people



Words was oh such a twitch-tickling problem to the BFG. He knew exactly what words he was wanting to say, but somehow or other they was always getting squiff-squiddled around. And we can only assume that the same was true of Walter “Wally” Saunders, the man who built Roald Dahl‘s famous writing shed. A new book by Eamon Evans, The Godfather was a Girl, reveals the real people behind characters in fiction, and Dahl’s inspiration was decidedly this kind-hearted giant of a builder. In other — brilliant — news, Basil Fawlty lived! His real-life counterpart was Torquay hotelier Donald Sinclair, whose guesthouse the whole Monty Python team stayed at in 1970. And if you think your mother-in-law’s bad, you should have tried L. Frank Baum‘s, the tireless feminist campaigner, abolitionist and Native American activist Matilda Joslyn Gage Wicked Witch in Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.

It’s safe to assume that not all of these unwitting character studies would have been flattered by their likenesses. But what if you’re only insulting yourself? Lars Iyer‘s novels — last year’s Spurious and the newly released Dogma — document the intellectual, physical and professional failings of an irrepressibly inadequate academic by the name of Lars, as observed by his friend W.

From Dogma:

A Diogenes gone mad, W. says: that’s how he thinks of me. A man without shame, not because he rejects ideas of human decency but because he knows no better. A man outside of society, not because he was an ascetic but because no one wanted him in it.


‘What does your celestial form look like?’, says W. ‘Go on, show me.’ Actually, he thinks he’s already seen it, W. says, or parts of it. My vast, white belly. My flabby arms. The trousers that billow round my ankles…

And my dancing, my terrible dancing. It’s the end of the cosmos that W. sees in my dancing. He sees the destruction of the divine figures, and of the manifold contours of the universe. He sees primordial chaos, he says. He sees the putting out of the stars. He sees the extinguishing of the sun, and the night swallowing the day. He sees the opposite of the act of creation, the opposite of cosmogony…

Iyer, a lecturer in philosophy at Newcastle University, has a friend and colleague who bears a striking similarity to W., though to his flabby arms and vast, white belly we cannot speak. How fictional is Lars? Is Iyer’s Lars more or less cruel than John Cleese‘s Basil Fawlty? And do we really want to know the answer to these questions? Views on the last question are divided. Lars and W.’s friendship is insane and mesmerising in its cruelty; it’s hard not to hope something so berserk is reportage pure and simple — but when Spurious was runner-up in last year’s Guardian Not the Booker Prize, rave reviewer and Lars fan John Self of Asylum claimed to prefer the ostrich approach to the novel’s autobiographical elements: ‘I prefer to think of the book as being a fantastic fancy which has sprouted from nothing. A fanciful notion in itself, of course, since it’s not the subject matter, but what Iyer does with it, which matters,’ he said.

What he does with it is something uniquely hilarious and challenging, but don’t take our word for it: according to the Spectator,Dogma, like its prequel Spurious, is provocative in its arguments, scrupulously plain in its style and excoriating in its honesty. Iyer is an author who rejects the parochialism and timidity we too often associate with British novelists in favour of an ugly grapple with the big themes, and for that alone his is a welcome new voice.’

Not bad for a guy who excels only at three things: ‘smut, chimp noises and made-up German.’


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.