‘Funny Girl’ — the highs and lows of the 60s

In what must have come as a surprise to many, John Carey, in his review of  ‘How To Be Good’, compared Nick Hornby to Dostoevsky. Talking about  ‘The Idiot’, Carey observed that Hornby’s novel is ‘shorter, funnier, just as sharp in its human observation, and more realistic.’ High praise indeed, and coming from Carey, a man of impeccable insight and judgement, it’s worth taking notice.

For many, Carey’s comparison of the heavyweight Russian novelist to Nick Hornby is ludicrous.  Can the two be compared? Both Carey and Hornby would say they can. Neither has shied  away from exploring the relationship between popular culture and Culture with a capital ‘C’, between High and Low Art, and each has written perceptively and sensibly about it – see, for example, Carey’s ‘The Intellectuals and The Masses’ and Hornby’s ‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’ columns for The Believer, or his recent book on Dickens and Prince.

This debate, between the highbrow and the lowbrow, between the elitist and the populist, lies literally and metaphorically at the heart of Nick Hornby’s  ‘Funny Girl’. The literal debate takes place on Pipe Smoke, a late night TV discussion show. In one corner sits Vernon Whitfield, a ‘poet and essayist, a frequent contributor to  the Third Programme’.  In the other sits Dennis, producer of the popular marital sitcom  Barbara (and Jim) , starring Sophie Straw (nee Barbara Parker), the funny girl whose ambition is to be the British Lucille Ball. Dennis’s view of Whitfield is that he demonstrates what a terrible thing an education can be ‘if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it’. Whitfield’s view of the popular sitcom is that it shows that ‘ordinary people en masse’ lose the ability to think’. This metaphorical debate is woven into the thread of the novel, but is embodied most memorably perhaps in the relationship between the writing pair of Bill and Tony. Whereas Tony is happy to continue churning out the episodes Bill feels the need to stretch himself artistically, to ‘visit places that Barbara (and Jim) could never go’.

If all of that makes ‘Funny Girl’ seem  heavyweight, it is misleading. This is, after all, a Nick Hornby novel and every bit as readable and entertaining as we have come to expect his novels to be.  What’s more, it’s a  convincing portrayal of the sixties and the changes it brought, the photographs and reproduced scripts giving the novel the feel of a scrapbook or personal memoir as Hornby’s fictional creations experience the events of the time and rub shoulders with its real-life characters – I particularly enjoyed the appearance of The Yardbirds’ Keith Relf and the first night of ‘Hair’.

The dustjacket’s claim that ‘Funny Girl’  is ‘about work, popular culture, youth and old age, fame, class and collaboration’ as well as being a ‘captivating portrait’ of a particular time suggests either a carried-away Penguin copywriter or a novel which might be trying to do too much, but ‘Funny Girl’ is both entertaining and thought-provoking – a pretty good achievement for any art, whether it be high or low, whether it be from Fyodor Dostoevsky or Nick Hornby.