Canon light on for laughs

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

THIS time last year I tried, and failed, in my at­tempt to read one of the pu­ta­tively great nov­els of the West­ern tra­di­tion: Though sev­eral fac­tors con­trib­uted to my shame­ful in­abil­ity to breach the 200-page mark of Joseph Con­rad’s anti-im­pe­ri­al­ist clas­sic — a two-week break was be­set by fam­ily dra­mas, cy­clonic weather, and an es­cape from a snake­in­fested hol­i­day shack — I fear the real rea­son was of a more or­ganic na­ture. I sim­ply found the book, about po­lit­i­cal and mer­can­tile in­trigue in a fic­tional South Amer­i­can repub­lic called Costaguana, a bore.

Once put down, it was al­most im­pos­si­ble to pick up again. Each page was a los­ing bat­tle with an au­tho­rial hyp­no­tist. Pinches to the fore­arm’s ten­der un­der­side were re­quired to main­tain base­line pulse and con­scious­ness. The re­sul­tant bruis­ing had rel­a­tives quizzing my life­style, re­mark­ing on my panda eyes and pale de­meanour and gen­eral lethargy.

Now I’m rea­son­ably ha­bit­u­ated to the sprawl­ing na­ture of epic nar­ra­tive, but seemed rather ( and I don’t think it was the python dis­cov­ered on the cur­tain rod that put me in mind of this) to slither and coil. Any for­ward mo­men­tum in the nar­ra­tive quickly trans­ferred its en­er­gies into lat­eral, or even ret­ro­spec­tive, move­ment. The mood, too, was sat­ur­nine. And there were no jokes.

The ex­pe­ri­ence taught me a few lessons. First: re­sist the call of lit­er­ary duty, the whis­pered en­treaties of the book you want not so much to read as to I’d been vaguely aware since my un­der­grad­u­ate days that had been elected by F. R. Leavis into the rar­efied com­pany of his Great Tra­di­tion, and its cri­tique of ac­quis­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism seemed to make it an em­i­nently wor­thy book. Doubt­less there is a place for lit­er­ary worth un­matched by bright­ness of tone or nar­ra­tive brio, but it’s not the beach.

The sec­ond dot point of my lit­er­ary res­o­lu­tion pro­claims the im­por­tance of hu­mour. It’s not that I need to laugh with an au­thor, to clutch my sides, cackle or bray, but I do crave the qual­ity that ir­ra­di­ates Chaucer and Cer­vantes as richly as Jef­frey Eu­genides and Lor­rie Moore, and makes read­ing such a joy.

Moore’s sym­pa­thetic vi­sion is at once bleak and kooky and painfully real. Sex and long­ing, for this gifted ex­po­nent of short fic­tion, is the site where sad­ness and hu­mour col­lide with a shower of sparks. Here she is in De­bark­ing : The nip­ples of her breasts were long, cylin­dri­cal, and stiff, so that her chest looked like two small plungers had flown across the room and suc­tioned them­selves there. His mouth opened hun­grily to kiss them.

‘‘ Per­haps you would like to take your shoes off,’’ she whis­pered. ‘‘ On, no,’’ he said. There was sex where you looked in the eye and beau­ti­ful things were said to you and there was what Ira used to think of as yoo-hoo sex; where the other per­son seemed spir­ited away, not quite there, their plea­sure mys­te­ri­ous and crazy and only ac­ci­den­tally in­volv­ing you. ‘‘ You-

Per­haps hu­mour, ul­ti­mately, is a kind of sym­pa­thetic en­ergy or hu­mane in­tel­li­gence, the ab­sence of which is as sharply felt from any nar­ra­tive tex­ture as the front tooth from a pol­ished smile. Hu­mour was re­garded in the 18th cen­tury as a pe­cu­liarly English cul­tural virtue, an idio­syn­cratic coun­ter­point to the French cul­ti­va­tion of wit.

But this doesn’t stand up to much scru­tiny: there is both wit and hu­mour in Shake­speare, while Boswell’s great bear, Sa­muel John­son, is a comic cre­ation with a glad­i­a­to­rial wit. Voltaire’s

the great­est fic­tional work of the Euro­pean En­light­en­ment’s great­est wit, is a ve­hi­cle for satire leav­ened with a play­ful and gen­er­ous hu­mour that of­ten verges on the ridicu­lous. Wit and hu­mour are as easy in one an­other’s com­pany as Pooh and Piglet.

Hu­mour also keeps tight com­pany with the free­wheel­ing spirit of the ridicu­lous and openly courts silli­ness; Perel­man, Ch­ester­ton and Wode­house are writ­ers in this vein.

But de­spite Gra­ham Greene’s rel­e­ga­tion of his hu­mor­ous tales to the sub-lit­er­ary cat­e­gory of ‘‘ en­ter­tain­ments’’, hu­mour need not be a mid­dle­brow qual­ity. Joyce’s is suf­fused with hu­mor­ous vi­tal­ity and the sly de­lights of irony ( Bloom the Jewish Odysseus; Molly the faith­less Pene­lope).

If es­trange­ment ( from god or man) is a key mo­tif of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture — the cry at the heart of Dos­to­evsky, Ce­line, Musil, Kafka, Ca­mus — then hu­mour is its salve. In their dif­fer­ent ways both hu­mour and tragedy con­nect us to our bet­ter selves, awaken our larger sym­pa­thies, and com­pel our par­tic­i­pa­tion in com­mu­nal life; the for­mer through fond­ness, the lat­ter through awe. And while there is no et­y­mo­log­i­cal re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­mour and hu­man­ism, the as­so­nance is cer­tainly sug­ges­tive for there is no more hu­mane qual­ity in a writer than hu­mour.

This is not to say hu­mour is in­com­pat­i­ble with far sterner qual­i­ties in a writer: think of Jane Austen’s ‘‘ con­trolled ha­tred’’, or the mul­ti­fold ha­treds of Dick­ens, which are not so much con­trolled as un­leashed. Dick­ens’s satir­i­cal en­er­gies an­i­mate a sear­ing so­cial vi­sion that will ul­ti­mately ex­tend the com­pas­sion of in­dus­trial Eng­land to its ur­ban out­casts.

But then Dick­ens also has a fine ear for the sort of oddly tilted ab­sur­dity we tend to as­so­ciate with sur­re­al­ists such as Barry Humphries and John Cleese. There is the mo­ment in

when Mr Peck­sniff stops in the mid­dle of a typ­i­cally unc­tu­ous speech, search­ing for a ref­er­ence to the Sirens. ‘‘ The name of those fab­u­lous an­i­mals ( pa­gan, I re­gret to say) who used to sing in the wa­ter, has quite es­caped me,’’ he ad­mits. Mr Ge­orge Chuz­zle­wit sug­gested swans.

‘‘ No,’’ said Mr Peck­sniff. ‘‘ Not swans. Very like swans, too. Thank you.’’

The nephew with the out­line of a coun­te­nance, speak­ing for the first and last time on that oc­ca­sion, pro­pounded: ‘‘ Oys­ters.’’

Ours is an age of mid­dle-class neu­ro­sis about ac­cul­tur­a­tion, or lack of it. And this per­va­sive angst is re­flected in a raft of books about great books; not nec­es­sar­ily how to read them, but how to fudge cred­i­ble book chat when next as­saulted at a din­ner party with a ref­er­ence to


The para­dox of much great and se­ri­ous lit­er­a­ture is that it is easy to read only af­ter you’ve read it. If the lit­er­ary canon were reimag­ined around a few more hu­mor­ous clas­sics it would be less of a chore, more of a joy, and the con­ver­sa­tion at din­ner par­ties far more jolly.

rearview@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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