[29 October 2008]
There’s skill in mimicry, make no mistake about it. At first glance, it may seem like the easiest thing in the world—on a par with copying your lab partner’s work—but to imitate something without direct plagiarism is much harder. The best instances show a truly remarkable attention to detail and a strong sense of nuance.
Andrew Drummond’s Elephantina could be a text-book case on how to mimic the style of a bygone era. The novel purports to be the true memoir of an 18th century Scottish engraver, subsequently edited by a tetchy 19th century publisher. In creating both the original diary and the numerous marginal comments of the editor, Drummond is scarily authentic. It’s a shame, as things stand, that there isn’t much more to the novel than that.
It may be an occupational hazard of the mimic: becoming so focused on the minutiae of tics and idiosyncrasies that the big picture is missing. Elephantina never really rises above the details to tell a big story worthy of its big subject: a gigantic dead elephant in pre-Union Scotland.
The novel’s founding conceit is that a Dundee publisher, the shadowy “SENEX”, has stumbled upon the diary of an engraver, Gilbert Orum, who was involved in the first dissection of an elephant in 1706. The naturalist directing the proceedings, Dr Patrick Blair, has become a minor celebrity in the intervening century, so the diary is of some public interest. The problem, from the editor’s viewpoint, is that it’s not entirely glowing in its portrayal of Blair, nor entirely in keeping with the mores of 1830s Scotland. So while the reader is treated to Orum’s bawdy romp, the editor expresses his disapproval frequently from the sidelines.
Drummond’s concept is clever and the execution is flawless. The language and idioms of both eras are rendered beautifully and the research underpinning it must have been extensive. If Drummond had so wished, he could conceivably have printed it on aged paper and passed it off as the genuine item.
Nevertheless, Elephantina is not an elaborate hoax. It is a novel. Judging by these standards, then, the whole exercise appears to be a little bit clinical. The novel’s protagonists, in dismembering the giant animal for science, capture each of the component parts in dazzling detail, but they don’t add up to a live elephant. In the same way, Drummond’s impeccably staged period pieces don’t quite add up to an engaging story.
The problem may lie in the characters. Orum is witty, if fairly unsympathetic. Dr Blair is a pompous ass. The minor characters are a derelict lot, picked from a pre-industrial menagerie of oddballs. Yet other writers have accomplished more with a less promising dramatis personae.
Another possibility is that Drummond isn’t entirely clear what he wanted to accomplish, beyond reproduction of a certain kind of writing from a certain era. The story of the elephant progresses straightforwardly enough—they find the elephant, they cut it up, there are some shenanigans with stolen parts and rival groups—but it doesn’t really lead anywhere.
A book about an elephant appearing in old Dundee should be mythical in scope. The sheer novelty of the event and the outlandish dramas that ensue lend themselves to a big narrative. Yet it feels like Drummond is content to record events in his whimsical way.
There is some satire, in the Swiftian sense, but it’s not especially incisive. If we are told that many people are buffoons and that others are pompous and moralising, it’s not really something we didn’t know. There are plenty of allusions to Scottish politics, particularly from the windbag Dr Blair, but they feel parenthetical and not really part of the sweep of the novel.
It’s a pleasant enough diversion. Orum is an acerbic and witty narrator, the petty town politics and intrigues are well described and the production of the book reflects the attention to detail seen elsewhere, with beautiful plates and typefaces. The sad fact is that it’s rather forgettable—sad, because there is great potential in Drummond’s eye for detail and reproduction.
A common enough criticism of novels is that they “could have done with an editor”. The opposite is true with Elephantina. Drummond’s editor is first-rate, since the story is brief, to the point and well-constructed. It’s just missing a purpose and in many ways that’s a greater problem. A shabby work of great vision is usually more commendable than a brilliant but academic exercise.
Drummond is clearly a talented writer and is likely to produce far more significant works than Elephantina when he is so inspired. And if he does, then we can write this book off as a worthy experiment that helped him hone the skills he better demonstrated elsewhere.