February 10, 2012 10:01 pm
My life as a literary character
By Simon Kuper
After the publishers read the manuscript of my wife’s book, they had one request: “Expand the husband character. He’s hilarious.” My wife was surprised but she complied, and as a result her French Children Don’t Throw Food became a bestseller in the UK and is now bopping an unsuspecting American public over the head as Bringing Up Bébé. Many reviewers have described it as a guide to French parenting. In fact, it’s something more interesting than that: it’s a portrait of me.
I had been immortalised in literature before – Paddy Agnew sets up his book on Italian football with a pompous remark by me, which he then rebuts at great length – but only now have I joined the select group of people who are better known as literary characters. I will forever be bracketed with the minor 19th-century critic Leigh Hunt, who is remembered only as the model for the ridiculous Skimpole in Dickens’s Bleak House.
This is a more common fate than you might think. I was once contacted by an economist who introduced himself as the model for a character in a Zadie Smith novel. Based on the couple of novelists I know, I have developed a theory of the novel that says that writers just write down what happened to them, and sometimes change somebody’s name. But now that I have been turned into a major literary character myself, I don’t want to be one. My wife’s portrayal of me may be factually correct, but facts cannot capture such a subtle and complex figure. The “Simon” in the book lacks the appeal of the actual me.
“As far as I can tell,” she writes, “Simon has never visited a museum … Since the boys were born, Simon’s incompetence is less charming. I no longer find it adorably mystifying when he breaks the second hands on all his watches … He can’t drive a car, blow up a balloon or fold clothes without using his teeth … He’d be hard-pressed to know which end of a sleeping bag to crawl into. In the wild he’d survive about fifteen minutes [etcetera].”
I can see that all this is mildly amusing, and true at a crudely factual level, but I am sure my friends do not think of me in these terms. Indeed, they speak of me in tones of admiration.
And when she writes, “He almost never actually laughs, even when I’m attempting a joke”, I must object. In fact, while reading my bons mots in her book I laughed out loud several times. I pointed out to her afterwards that on the evidence of her own work she was married to a very funny man. She replied that if a writer spends 10 years collecting one person’s jokes, she’s likely to end up with eight decent ones.
In truth, close reading of French Children Don’t Throw Food does reveal my gift for laughing with others. Here’s my wife’s account of a discussion between me and our daughter Bean (not her real name, or not precisely):
“When you were born, I thought you were a monkey,” he tells Bean playfully one morning.
“Well, when you were born, I thought you were a caca,” she replies. Simon laughs so hard at this, he’s practically in tears. It seems I’ve just never hit on his preferred category of humour: scatological surrealism.”
Or as experts call it: “English surrealism”. It’s true: from the start I have raised my daughter to be the rightful heir of the late British comedian Peter Cook.
There is one thing I will say for my wife’s book. On Monday it will be exactly 10 years since I came to France, and I still haven’t begun to understand this baffling country. Reading French Children Don’t Throw Food, I discovered to my dismay that my wife does. When I used to take French language classes here, the teachers always assured the class that the best way to integrate in France was to join the “école horizontale”, ie to shack up with a French person, preferably a language teacher. In Britain, the preferred method of integration is to set immigrants tests with questions such as, “What is the national day of Wales?” It now turns out that there is a better way: write a book about the adopted country. Here is the solution to the integration issue.
Other readers seem to find my wife’s book useful, and the main character hilarious. The book now ranks higher on Amazon than any of mine ever have, even though I check my rankings hourly. No doubt all this is creditable to my wife, although on the other hand I now have 2,673 followers on Twitter, and was once interviewed on the main channel of Finnish TV. In any case, the greatest books are often the least popular in the writer’s own lifetime.
I have no need of the spotlight. I have given instructions in my will that my emails should be burned, and no biography attempted.