BOOK REVIEW / The opsimath himself: More please - Barry Humphries: Viking, pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
ONE DOES occasionally wish, reading this somewhat glum autobiography, that Dame Edna would wrest the pen from her creator and let herself rip. The 'real' Barry Humphries is a mannered, pedantic, often tetchy companion, keen to portray himself as a bibliophile, aesthete, Dadaist, connoisseur of painting and Wildean wit, rather than as the creator of that monstrous woman. Like many Antipodean intellectuals, he does not wear his learning lightly: in the first few pages, he gives us opsimath, flocculus, reboant, pilose, grumous, stercoraceous, and, although the dictionary-dependence lessens as the book goes on, the style never becomes exactly reader-friendly.

On the other hand, we must thank him for giving us the origin of chunder (from the nautical expression 'watch under' shouted to lower decks on the convict ships) and of course for importing it to these shores, via his Barry McKenzie strip in Private Eye, along with all its rococo variants:

liquid laugh, technicolor yawn and so on. We must also thank him for inventing perhaps the greatest practical joke ever played - the eating of his own (Russian salad) vomit, here described in all its glory.

However, the book does little to illuminate the eternal mystery: the relationship of Dame Edna to her creator. Of course, the finger of Freud points at Humphries's mother, and she does indeed seem to show many Edna-ish characteristics - egotism, snobbery, malign wit, violent mood-swings, possibly even a hint of madness. Barry as a boy found her alarming and thought she 'was perhaps several women'. She in turn viewed her eldest son with a baleful eye and would tell him that she could 'read him like a book' - though, as he points out, she never read books. Her unmotherliness was such that he once asked her point-blank if she loved him. She equivocated, saying that 'naturally' she loved her husband first, and then her parents, but that he and his siblings had the next tier in her affections.

He records this story, he claims, 'in order to show the warmer side of my mother's complex personality'. In fact she seems to have disliked him quite keenly. Near the end of her life Humphries took his son Oscar to meet her for the first time. When they arrived, she ignored them, preferring to remain listening to a radio programme, which turned out to be a phone-in of people attacking Dame Edna. Humphries finally in a fury went through to the next room and rang the radio station, as Edna, and said that 'the millions who laugh at his shows should be ashamed of themselves, and I happen to know that his mother agrees with me]' As he returned to the room, his mother switched off the radio without comment and greeted him as if he had just arrived. Perhaps as a final act of revenge, Humphries fails to identify any photograph of his mother in the book: presumably she is the woman holding him as a two-week-old baby, but he doesn't say so.

In his final chapter, he remarks: 'I wish I knew how to give an account of my life that was less egocentric, but the art eludes me.' Actually I don't think it's the art that eludes him, because he is nothing if not artful: it is the capacity and the will. He doesn't seem to see other people - friends, lovers, wives, children rarely become more than names on the page, and although the book is dedicated to his three siblings, 'who would probably tell you a very different story', they feature not at all in his book.

He admits that he cannot remember much of his twenties and thirties because they passed in a haze of alcohol. Despite years of psychotherapy, including spells in mental hospitals, Humphries seems as puzzled by 'the real Barry Humphries' as the rest of us, and the well-springs of his genius remain obscure. But genius he is, and this autobiography deserves to be read.