Canon light on for laughs
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