Sunday, 5 January 2014
Comic writing: lit lite?
Nicholas Lezard, in his Guardian ‘best paperbacks of 2013’ piece (and Todd McEwen’s The Five Simple Machines from CBe is in there, I’m not going to not mention that): ‘Howard Jacobson has always said that the literary establishment in this country severely undervalues comic writing, and he’s right, but why? Why?’
Because, perhaps, of a lingering high-churchy notion that the proper realm of literature-with-a-capital-L is the big abstracts and if it makes you laugh it cannot (as John McEnroe said) be serious. (There’s something northern and Puritan about this: anyone know any good Scandinavian comedies?) So the writers who consistently make you laugh are placed in an annexe (lit-lite) behind a door labelled ‘comic writers’. Which is daft, because all good writing includes comedy. Beckett is funny; Chekhov is funny; Pinter is hilarious. But still now, if I laugh aloud during a performance of their plays I get the feeling I’m being looked at as the man in a Bateman cartoon.
Sue Townsend once said that at the age of 13 she wanted to write like Dostoievsky; then she grew up, and wrote the Adrian Mole books. Through my own teens I locked into Shakespeare’s tragedies; David Warner’s surly-student Hamlet at the RSC in 1965 was a key moment (though Hamlet is often very funny too: I guess I skipped those passages at the time); now, I’d much rather the comedies. Tragedy for adolescence and comedy for maturity is too simple, but how they differ is this: tragedy is threatened by comedy; comedy lets everything in. Everything. See Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. Or the reporter John Gale (in Clean Young Englishman, one of my favourite two memoirs from the last century) visiting a concentration camp in 1945: ‘The sun shone, the earth breathed, and against a line of dark pine trees this pale girl in the grey SS uniform carried the remains of what had been human beings and loaded them into trucks for burial. I felt then I could never make love to a German girl. I remember noticing that the trousers of the SS men had stitched creases: a practical device.’ That last sentence is brilliant detail: how, as a man aged 20 and interested in girls and making a good appearance, do you keep the crease in your trousers, and here’s one answer, learned at a concentration camp. And the detail – the snotty handkerchief kept up the sleeve of the sneezing priest, the one thing I remember of the service in which several of my school peer group were taking their first Communion – is comic.
Comic writing is not about playing it for laughs – when that happens I feel I’m being manipulated. It’s to do with staying close, not over-pitching, not trying to be literary, and it’s do with a cast of mind that’s inclusive: death and war, yes, but also farts and banana skins, in one single package. Comic writing of any worth = good writing. And vice versa. Standard advice for a man trying to woo a woman is to make her laugh, or smile at the least. Endorphins get going. Same goes for writer wooing reader, if the reader is me. I don’t mean you have to tell me jokes. But sentences shaped with wit and delight, yes.
(The picture above is by Goya. As also the below: ‘Man looking for fleas in his shirt’.)