Book Review : Misperceived Perceptions of Comedy

Times Book Critic

The Adrian Mole Diaries by Sue Townsend (Grove Press; $14.95)

All the way from England comes “The Adrian Mole Diaries,” wafted inside a dust jacket so buoyant that surely no postage was needed.

“Five million copies sold,” beams the publisher. “A wonderfully touching, hilarious book,” warbles Phyllis Diller, who knows something about being funny. “I not only wept, I howled and hooted,” sputters Tom Sharpe, who does too. “Step up to join the roll-call of the world’s great teen-agers,” exhorts the Times Educational Supplement. “When the social history of the 1980s comes to be written, the Mole books--astonishing though it may now seem--will probably be considered as key texts,” the Listener prognosticates.


Astonishing, indeed.

I once knew a youngish Lord of a very old Lordship--the title is treated kindly by Shakespeare--who had a pointed nose, a quizzical expression, and a polished worldliness. And what did he most like to eat when he was at home, I asked him one evening over a very fine dinner. “Beans on toast.” “Beans on toast?” “Baked beans on toast. Soft toast. Cocoa.”

English Childhood Treat

“Adrian Mole” must be the literary equivalent of this uncommunicably English childhood treat. A cupboard love, an inner chord resonating. But here in America, brought over by Grove Press, it is only beans on toast.

Adrian Mole is a teen-ager in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. He lives in a row house or something like it and belongs to the straitened and decidedly ungracious lower middle-class. He has skin problems, girl problems, family problems and life problems.

A whiff of respectability hangs about the house, mostly in Adrian’s head, but everything has slipped. His mother, with liberation on her mind, goes off with a neighbor’s husband. When she returns, his father goes off with a girlfriend. Two babies are born, one from each sortie.

The parents move back together, and Adrian is kept up nights by the yowling of his new (half) sister. But it is only another in his catalogue of complications. Pandora, his girlfriend, has cooled. The poems he sends off to the BBC are not used. He worries about his health. Here is a specimen:

“10 a.m. I am ill with all the worry, too weak to write much. Nobody has noticed that I haven’t eaten any breakfast.

“2 p.m. Had two junior aspirins at midday and rallied a bit. Perhaps when I am famous and my diary is discovered people will understand the torment of being a 13-and- 3/4-year-old undiscovered intellectual.

“6 p.m. Pandora! My lost love! Now I will never stroke your treacle hair! (Although my blue felt-tip is still at your disposal.)

“8 p.m. Pandora! Pandora! Pandora!

“10 p.m. Why? Why? Why?”

His Parents Bedroom

And here is his entry when he brings the Sunday paper up to his parents’ bedroom, after their reconciliation. “I think the central heating must need turning down because my parents were both very red in the face. As I went out I heard my mother say, ‘George, we will have to get a lock on that door.’ ”

This kind of thing may have had Diller warbling and Sharpe sputtering, but it doesn’t do a lot for me. Understated British humor it’s not; it’s more in the spirit of the old Music Hall or of the BBC-1 situation comedies that our Public Television knows better than to import. It is entirely based on Adrian’s skewed interpretations of what is going on around him, and it becomes as repetitious as it is broad.

On the other hand, if the comedy in “Adrian Mole” has become waterlogged somewhere in mid-Atlantic, its protagonist does acquire a certain charm. It is a loathsome charm much of the time, but sometimes it is a wistful charm as well.

Misperception, after all, is the pathos of adolescence, and Adrian is a champion misperceiver. His poetical submissions to the BBC elicit a series of distantly kind letters from an editor; but Adrian takes each of them to be a new installment in a transcendent literary correspondence.

Hopefulness never flags, and eventually he can get under the reader’s skin. In tricky times, he stands for the spirit of good will. He makes his parents’ dinner, irons his school clothes, faithfully visits an octogenarian invalid, and improves his mind by reading “War and Peace” and “Mme. Bovary.”

His mission, he conceives, is to hold the world together; and he does so, day by day and diary entry by diary entry. The trouble is, of course, that the world is not really falling apart. He chooses to light candles instead of cursing the darkness; only there is no real darkness in his neighborhood, what with the perpetual flickering glow of the television sets.

Adrian stands guard with his finger in the dike, though there are only a few inches of water on the other side. It is puddle time in his England, not flood time.