‘There is a way to die and a way not to die. That is very important. Hence my admiration for George the Fifth who - on his deathbed, in reply to his physician who told him that in a few weeks he would be recuperating at Bognor Regis - said: Bugger Bognor, and died... Bugger Bognor. Ah, would that I might die with a phrase half so sublime on my lips! There you have a man who at the moment of death manages to put life into perspective.’ He paused. ‘Well, I might as well hear your journal anyway.’
‘I - I set fire to my notebook, Lord Malquist.’
‘Out of pique?’
‘No... It got wet and I was drying it.’
‘Oh, dear me. Well don’t despair, dear fellow. Wasn’t it Mr Gibbon who sent his manuscript of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the laundry?’
‘I don’t know, Lord Malquist.’
‘Not many people do. But my great-great-grandfather was present when his publisher received a parcel of dirty linen. Hansom cabs were summoned at once but it was too late, and Gibbon had to begin all over again, wearing a soiled collar, hence the uneasiness detectable in the first chapter. What’s the most implausible thing about that sentence?’
Dimly aware that Sir Tom Stoppard had once written a novel, and even more dimly never having researched its publishing status, I was fortunate to quite literally fall over a copy in The Last Bookshop in Bristol. (For anyone not in the know, please stay out of it because I want to buy all the books in there... No really. OK, it’s a haven entirely comprised of remainders with an excellent range and it’s almost criminally cheap.) This was yesterday. I have now read Lord Malquist & Mr Moon, marked most pages as ones that should be learnt off by heart and begun reading it to my partner so that I have someone with whom to share the joke.
Naturally the cast, and it does feel rather like a play even if ostensibly written in continuous prose, comprises a sartorially savvy penniless ninth earl, Lord Malquist, his lion, Rollo, his Boswell, Mr Moon, two cowboys, the Risen Christ and three rather fey women. Lord Malquist has hired Moon to write his Life, hence the request quoted above for Moon to read the previous day’s work back to the earl while he resides in the bath. Moon is really a historian poised to write his History of the World at any moment if only he weren’t distracted by the burden of his inner thoughts and the bomb he carries around in his overcoat. Lady Malquist is first met being lovingly chased by Rollo after an all too convivial morning - ‘Was that your wife?’ ‘I certainly don’t know anyone else who could be thrown out of the Ritz before eight o’clock without feeling somewhat passé.’ Meanwhile Jane, Moon’s wife, and Marie, her maid, welcome a great deal of company into the Moon household under various guises including a fake cowboy who can’t get his spurs on the right way and keeps cutting his legs.
As with the best of Stoppard’s works, reading his novel offers the experience of being witness to a riotous and prolonged inside joke while at the same time being allowed into the inner sanctum. I shan’t ruin the joke by explaining it. Amongst the apparently frivolous, Wodehouse-esque one liners, Stoppard has composed an intelligent, witty, almost poignant surrealist story. Alongside lines such as ‘I think to drink creme de menthe in a pale blue cravat would be the abandonment of everything I stand for’, Stoppard gives a gentle lesson in philosophy, religion, death and madness: ‘Oh really!’ Moon explains to the part of himself questioning whether he is schizophrenic, ‘it’s simply that my emotional bias towards the reactionary and my intellectual bias towards the radical do not survive each other, and are interred by my aesthetic revulsion of their respective adherents...’
In the introduction which Stoppard wrote forty years after the book’s first publication in 1966, he notes its consignment to oblivion, can recall no reviews, positive or otherwise, and disbelieves anyone who claims to have read it. Of course it deserved to be reviewed but I note that review has defeated me and maybe it did others. One could perhaps write an essay showing one is clever enough to get all (or some of) the references but that would be to pull apart all that is joyful about the novel. One could explore its wit and silliness but that would be to miss all that is affecting and sharp. I find myself with two pleas: to Sir Tom Stoppard, could we have a play of Lord Malquist and Mr Moon? I’ll happily play the lion; to the wider world, read it, for your enjoyment but also in case you ever meet him and get to prove genius wrong.