- The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher
Flamingo, 560 pp, £17.99, April 2002, ISBN 0 00 711226 2
Several years ago, Philip Hensher decided that he wanted ‘to do something impossible: to write a 19th-century novel’. To that end, he has composed each of the many chapters of The Mulberry Empire, which fictionalises the First Afghan War of 1839-42, in imitation of a 19th-century prose writer. He has gleefully scrumped the styles of Dickens, Surtees, Tolstoy, Custine, Thackeray, Eliot, Austen, Gogol and possibly dozens of others – ‘possibly’, because he never names the writers he’s pastiching: it’s up to the reader to identify them.
Vol. 24 No. 9 · 9 May 2002
Illustrating Philip Hensher’s inventiveness and ability to coin ‘a striking image’ in The Mulberry Empire (LRB, 4 April), Robert Macfarlane cites, among other examples, the sentence: ‘Gerard succumbed to what had clearly been troubling him for some time, a colossal, harrumphing malodorous fart, like a bough breaking under the sheer weight of fruit.’ In his biography of Philip Larkin, Andrew Motion reports Kingsley Amis’s recollection of the ‘obscene and soft porn fairy stories’ he wrote with Larkin at Oxford in 1942. One such story, Amis remembered, ‘The Tale of the Jolly Prince and the Distempered Ghost’, contained the following: ‘and then the ghost made a fart like the breaking of an apple branch under the weight of good fruit.’ No doubt Hensher knows his Motion (and his Amis and his Larkin) and is here exercising the art of pastiche for which he is so highly praised in the review.