Adrian Mole is thirteen (and three quarters) going on thirty, and not just because this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of the fictional diaries of Leicester’s answer to Holden Caulfield. In the books, Mole’s utter pretentiousness ages him beyond his carefully recorded years- as a self-appointed intellectual and cynical observer, he carries a snap lock executive brief-case, sends prolifically purple poems to the BBC whilst writing his own literary magazine (the first and only edition of The Voice of Youth contains a punk poem, a piece about window-box gardening and an expose about the school bully) and looks confidently forward to the day when he can come back from his travels ‘tall, brown and full of ironical experiences.’-whilst simultaneously revealing his immaturity. He is perpetually sorry for himself: ‘nothing in my life is simple or straightforward anymore. I feel like a character in a Russian novel half the time’, alternately comparing himself to Jesus: ‘it must have been dead awful for him. I wouldn’t have the guts to do it myself’ and the man in the iron mask: ‘I know exactly how he feels’; and treats every incident as potential fodder for his career as a poet: ‘I expect the experience will give me a trauma at some stage in the future. I’m all right at the moment, but you never know.’
Symbolic of this tension between how he sees himself and how he reveals himself to us; the list of books that Adrian Mole has read is impressive- War and Peace, Hard Times and Madame Bovary, to name just a few. It may read like a compilation of the greatest books in Western literature, but with Mole’s unique take on these novels- ‘I am reading The Mill on the Floss, by a bloke called George Eliot’, ‘I am reading Madame Bovary, by another frog writer’, ‘I am reading Crime and Punishment. It is the most true book I have ever read.’- it is quickly revealed to be a canon not of prestige, but of pretentiousness. Whilst this makes for a highly humorous experience, from the beginning- ‘Started reading Animal Farm, by George Orwell. I think I might like to be a vet when I grow up.’- to the end- ‘Finished Animal Farm. It is dead symbolic… From now on I shall treat pigs with the contempt they deserve. I am boycotting pork of all kinds.’, it is also an uncomfortable one.
Not only will you see in these Mole-apropisms aspects of people you have laughed at- who doesn’t have a friend who has made a mistake on a par with the comments: ‘he gave me a book to read, it is called The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. I haven’t looked through it yet but I’m quite interested in stamp collecting so I will read it tonight.’ and ‘Finished at 11:25 p.m. Know just how Rembrandt must have felt after painting the Sistine Chapel in Venice.’?- but you will see your own worst ones. Who doesn’t recognise their own New Year’s resolutions from Mole’s list: ‘I will study hard for my O levels and get Grade ‘A’s', ‘I will help the poor and the ignorant’, ‘I will learn a new word and use it every day’, and who doesn’t recognise how he breaks them just as soon? Who hasn’t, at some point in their school career written a creative essay making full use of a thesaurus, or catalogued their bedroom library, or been too busy revising to stand up for their principles? You may never have worn red socks to school to rebel and then, on conceding to the headmaster, continued to wear them on principle under your black socks even though it makes them too thick for your shoes, but you will certainly recognise the adolescent mix of idealism and utter bathos and disappointment.
This horrifying realism gives Mole’s Diary its edge, which has not dulled in those thirty years that have passed since its publication. Indeed the book is sharpened by its similarities to the present day- references to Royal Weddings, strikes and cutbacks give it extra resonance, and indeed Mole’s alternative nativity play, in which he, as Joseph, gives a speech about the Middle East situation, spoiled by the ‘three punks/wise men’, and the angels representing Margaret Thatcher get hissed by the audience so loudly that their spoken chorus about unemployment’ is wasted, could have been put on to parody the year that has just passed.
Mole’s diary is just as comedic and relevant as it was three decades ago, and, whilst in many ways the reader despairs of him ever becoming truly self-aware, Mole himself is not so much an answer to Holden Caulfield as an antidote. Consistently wobbling on the edge of being tongue in cheek and losing her tongue in cheek when writing Mole, and using an astonishing range of literary reference in an incredibly witty way, Townsend has created an entirely unpretentious book in antithesis to the attitude of its protagonist; which, every now and then, can even give him the impression of enlightenment, ‘I am reading The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch. I can only understand one word in ten. It is now my ambition to actually enjoy one of her books,’ however fleeting it may be- ‘then I will know that I am above the common herd.’