Anna Karenin by Leo Tolstoy; Bachelor Boys: The Young Ones Book by Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Lise Mayer - review by Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis

Two Great Books

Anna Karenin


Penguin 853pp £1.50 order from our bookshop

Bachelor Boys: The Young Ones Book


Sphere 132pp £2.95 order from our bookshop

During the course of one afternoon, an official on this magazine both asked me to review the Young Ones book, Bachelor Boys, and advised me to read Anna Karenin, which she described as ‘wonderful and really great and it’ll teach you a lot’. Obviously there are great differences between the books. One seems to be a rich novel about adult life and love in nineteenth-century Russia, featuring many complex and serious characters. The other is a higgledy-piggledy comic exploitation book vaguely about student life obsessively featuring four completely juvenile bastards. Nevertheless, I have been reading them simultaneously, one in the bedroom, the other in the toilet, and so my reflections upon them have inevitably overlapped. These are the categories I have considered while working out which is the greater of the TWO GREAT BOOKS.

The Characters: So far, and I’m only on page 262 of Anna Karenin, the characters are definitely better in the Young Ones. No-one in the Tolstoy leaps off the page with quite the vigour of the four students, Mike, Rik, Neil and Vyvyan. Anna herself is something of a mystery still, Vronsky is just another good-looking guy, and Oblonsky looks like he might be fun, but hasn’t had much to do yet. On the other hand, the Young Ones’ characters are as clear as the spots on their faces and absolutely great. For a start, there are pictures of them throughout the book. Also everything is actually written by them, in their own voices, so you really get to know them properly. Tolstoy is much to be admired for the way in which he moves around inside the heads of his characters, but when he does, their speech patterns are all exactly the same. Which can’t be said for the Young Ones: could this be anyone but Neil, the wingeing hippy, here discussing shoplifting:

Supermarkets are a total bummer ‘cos the head Breadhead’s troops all hang out in white coats and hit you with heavy rap numbers like ‘can I help you sir you seem to be looking for something’ just when you’re about to slip some mueseli into your sock.

Names: Again in this category Tolstoy falls way behind, coming up with almost no gags at all. I suppose there may be a sort of media joke in the fact that the most boring character in the book is called Levin, but you must admit, that in terms of sheer energy and imagination, that’s got nothing on the Young Ones’ lively Count Totalandutternobendfartybreathsky.

Sex and Girls: Tolstoy has a much more mature attitude towards sex and girls in his novel. He is very interested in the psychology of women and very deep indeed on the subject of adultery. Meanwhile, as far as you can tell, the Young Ones have never met any girls, whom they refer to continually as ‘girlies’, and if they did, I can’t imagine any reasonable woman giving them the time of day. (Although the same could of course be said about Vronsky.)

Plot: Again, Tolstoy is far better because the Young Ones is not a novel at all, but a series of comic sketches, scraps and snippets, all of which are, of course, fab.

Ned Sherrin: Also in Tolstoy’s favour is that his book is unlikely to be reviewed by Ned Sherrin. One of the most terrible things about all new comedy in this country is that it sooner or later, and usually sooner, gets reviewed by Ned Sherrin, who inevitably compares it, always very unfavourably, to an extraordinarily old TV programme he was once involved in called something like That Was The Boring Old Black And White Show That Was (not particularly good, or doesn’t look it nowadays.) I don’t know if TWTBOBAWSTW ever released a book, but if it didn’t Ned will stride out of the woodwork and say that if it had it would have been better than the Young Ones Book. No such disadvantages with Anna Karenin: which is perhaps odd, since chronologically speaking Sherrin is closer to Tolstoy.

Farting: Counting against the Count is his almost complete failure to exploit his material for farting jokes. The extreme formality of Russian society is the perfect setting for a good woofter gag, and it brings tears to the eyes to think of the wasted opportunities during the scenes in the health spa, where presumably all the sick were endlessly breaking into the conversation with breaking wind. No such problem with the Young Ones: their Art humour obsessively zeroes in on the bottom and surrounding regions and reaches its climax in a glorious series of song titles in Rik’s section, Lav Games, featuring such crackers as ‘Hey, Big Farter’ (Shirley Bassey), ‘Twist and Fart’ (The Beatles), ‘Do Ya Think I’m Farty?’ (Rod Stewart).

Maturity: No comparison here. Tolstoy seems very deep and mature, while the Young Ones are unbelieveably juvenile in every way. But then, linguistically, that’s the point of being young, I suppose.

Practical Usefulness: No comparison here either. While Tolstoy burdens you down with details of how to mow fields in Russia and how not to cock up your formal dance card, the Young Ones offer a lot of really useful hints on such varied topics as How to Hitchhike, How to Cope with Launderettes, How to Make a Gardin out of Your Underpants, and How to be Popular. There is a particularly good section on How to Cheat in Exams, so those of you who read this magazine and officiate in exams will know what to look out for this year.

SO finally we come to the big question in Tory Britain when making any choice. Which book is better value for money? And the answer is, it doesn’t matter, because the three authors of the Young Ones book are all seriously committed politically and would much prefer that you gave the £2.95 you would have spent on their book to the miners, and just borrowed your kid’s copy or even better, stole it from a shop. So that’s the thing to do. Particularly if you’re a boring old stiff carrying a copy of the TLS, no-one will ever think you really meant to steal it and you can say, ‘O, I’m sorry, Mr House Detective, I was just browsing through it and was so disgusted I put it in my pocket and walked out of the shop.’ If you do then get arrested, well, you’ll go to prison, which will be good for 3 reasons. 1) It might force the government at last to do something about prison overcrowding. 2) It may give you time to read Anna Karenin. And 3) if you are a writer it will let you meet some people who aren’t writers so you can write books about them instead of about other writers. So all round the stealing seems a pretty attractive idea. Go on. Be daring. Live a little. You’re only young ones.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter