Archive for the 'humour' Category

Jerome K Jerome: Three Men on the Bummel

March 3, 2018

51Fi2+wwa4L._AC_US218_Late nineteenth-century humour seems very tame, and a good deal of it relies on gender and national stereotypes that feel very jaded or even unacceptable today. I remember laughing my head off as a child reading Three Men in a Boat, and when a work colleague introduced me to Three Men on the Bummel quite a few years ago, I remember enjoying it. This time round, having been prompted to re-read it by a newspaper article about forgotten books by well-known writers, I found it rather tiresome. Except that, reading and feeling it’s all rather jaded, one suddenly comes across a moment that does make one laugh out loud… and there were a decent few of those.

Three Victorian men, two married and one a confirmed bachelor, leave their wives behind and go for a walking and cycling holiday in Germany. It’s suitably, if mildly chaotic, and full of the usual mishaps and misunderstandings. A great deal of the humour derives from each other’s faults and failings as seen by the others, and from quick-fire conversations which seem to be the forebear of modern stand-up comedy.

There’s a lot of rambling and digressing from the main idea, which feels a bit like padding, covering a wide range of topics, gently mocking of both England and the English, and foreigners. Jerome easily finds the occasion for fun in the Germans’ perceived penchant for tidiness, neatness and order. There are long drawn-out anecdotes based on linguistic misunderstandings; overall the tone struck me as rather flat, too even, lacking variation.

When I tried to think about what had disappointed me, I think it was hindsight, in a way: in 1900 it was easy to make fun of Germans being sticklers for law and authority, with rules for everything and penalties and fines for infringements; after seeing the effect of this on a global scale twice in the twentieth century such national proclivities somehow seem rather uneasy or inappropriate sources of humour… Germans are bred to obey anything with buttons, he says at one point. Humour is a funny thing in more ways than one. And I feel minded to look up Mark Twain‘s accounts of travel in Germany to see if he makes me feel the same way.

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Ionesco: Macbett

February 12, 2018

51IYbJ5xszL._AC_US218_I’ve always liked the theatre of the absurd, ever since I had to study Ionesco for French A-level; my recent reflections on Macbeth sent me back to his version of the play, Macbett, which I hadn’t read for many years.

There are the moments where a pair of characters share and repeat identical or almost identical lines, pantomime-fashion, just as in some of his earliest plays like La Cantatrice Chauve, echoing each other; often the phrases repeated are platitudes or even nonsensical, contradictory. Elements of farce develop as an aftermath of the opening battle where in Shakespeare‘s version Macbeth and Banquo show great valour: war is portrayed here as insane, with lengthy catalogues of slaughters and millions of innocent deaths, and the two ‘heroes’ make identical speeches and claims, which further undermines them. Indeed the entire train of events is absurd, for Duncan is a coward to whom no perceptible respect is due, and he and his wife are caricatures, anyway. Everything is called into question when the women appear far braver than the men, and the king spouts rambling nonsense rather than making regal speeches…

In this play the witches appear with their prophecies in the middle of the play, and their encounter with Macbeth and Banquo is much lengthier and more serious: they spend considerable time persuading Macbett that he should move against Duncan. And Lady Duncan is actually one of the witches, physically seducing Macbett at the same time. Ionesco’s emphasis is clearly on the fact that wealth, sex and power are inseparably intertwined.

Although for me the play lacks the power of Le Roi Se Meurt, it does nevertheless work, particularly because it is a re-writing, a re-conception or re-imagining of an original we know well and are very familiar with. Thus, although there are most of the events and plots of Shakespeare’s play here, and the end results of them are very similar, the words are different, the focus is different, and the thought processes of the characters are different; it’s alienation in the true Brechtian sense that unsettles the audience. It’s very much a twentieth century play. And it ends, after the death of Macbett and Macol‘s coronation, with his rehearsing the speeches of Malcolm in that very tedious interlude in Act IV of Macbeth where he tests Macduff‘s loyalty – Ionesco has translated Shakespeare’s text word for word here – except that we have the eerie impression that here, Macol really means what he is saying…

So, definitely not a tragedy – a farce if anything – deliberately absurd, very entertaining although very tricky to stage, I think. And I came away from it with all sorts of comfortable Shakespearean preconceptions shaken and stirred.

George and Weedon Grossmith: Diary of a Nobody

September 17, 2016

51qjywbue3l-_ac_us160_This semi-humorous Victorian work conceals quite a hefty punch behind its deliberately understated exterior. I first came across it at school and enjoyed it then; I think it’s the first time I’ve been back to it, whilst on a recent touring holiday, courtesy of the excellent Librivox website.

For a couple of years Charles Pooter keeps a diary of his life beginning from the day he and his wife Carrie move into their new rented house in Holloway; they are soon joined by their (for Victorian times) raffish son Lupin who has been ‘let go’ from his job with a bank in Oldham. Charles has a job with a broking firm of some kind in the City, and is moderately successful. They both have a group of rather dull and sometimes boorish friends and relations.

If everything so far sounds almost deliberately dull and boring, that’s because surely it’s meant to. The adjective, ‘pooterish’, has passed into the language. The family is very petty bourgeois in its tastes, lacking in wit, liveliness, interests, not wanting to offend anyone, or to be offended. No-one has an interesting or original thought in their head… The most enterteining and subversive moment of the novel comes when the Pooters somehow end up at a social occasion where the guest of honour is an American writer who deliberately challenges his hosts’ attitudes, beliefs, and everything they do and stand for – no doubt in the stereotypically rude and outspoken American fashion that people used to condemn in Victorian times – and Charles Pooter, to his horror, finds himself acknowledging the truth of what the guest is saying and agreeing with him! Fortunately, this wobble is only brief, and our anti-hero shakes off his temporary rebellion and returns to normal.

What is really challenging about The Diary of a Nobody, what makes is so very different from that other gem from those times, Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, is that the Grossmiths inevitably get their reader reflecting on her or himself: we come to realise, as we mock the Pooters for their tedious ordinariness, that there is some, if not a lot, of that ordinariness in our own lives, no matter what story we may tell ourselves and others about how interesting and exciting our lives are. For do not we live in ordinary houses, often in suburbs, where we wrestle with the daily chores of shopping, tradesmen, making the house into a nice home, whilst dealing with our awkward children? And are not our values, beliefs and attitudes replicas of those with whom we spend our time? Are we really any different from the norm, or are we kidding ourselves?

If what we seek in our lives is contentment, and surely there is nothing wrong with that as a goal, then the ending of the book is comforting, as Mr Pooter gets a promotion which means he will be financially secure for the rest of his life, and his son lands a decent job. But it’s also very scary: where is the excitement, the adventure we feel we need?

The other wonderfully subversive thing about the book is its indirect challenge to the realist fallacy, that idea that fiction or cinema or television can ever portray our existence in a ‘true to life’ or realist fashion, rather than cut and edit for the sake of plot and excitement: The Diary of a Nobody really does consist of all that tedious stuff that has to be left out of so-called realist works to make them bearable: no-one in War and Peace argues with the butcher’s boy, moves a boot-scraper, paints the stairs, gets lost in a cab, or any of a host of other unbelievably dull and tedious things; here they do. God, it’s boring, and the scary thing is, it could be us…

Laughter and literature

March 30, 2016

My friends would tell you I can laugh loudly and heartily, and that I laugh easily and at lots of things. Something provoked me to start thinking about those books which have made me laugh the most…

I have to go back to my childhood, and Norman Hunter‘s amazing Professor Branestawm books (a couple of stories have recently been televised by the BBC quite successfully, I think) – silly stories about a mad professor and his crazy adventures: I remember friends at sleepovers when I was a kid, trying to read the stories aloud to each other, and it being impossible to keep a straight face much of the time.

Jerome K Jerome‘s masterpiece Three Men in A Boat had a similar effect on me as a teenager when I discovered him, and then, a little later on, I first came across Jaroslav Hasek‘s wonderful Good Soldier Svejk! The brilliance of his idea – sending a congenital idiot off to be a soldier in the Great War, and in the incredibly bureaucratic Austro-Hungarian army, too – allowed him to write by the yard (he never finished the novel, but there are a good 800 pages to keep you smiling) and have his hero in a great number of scrapes. My favourite pages are probably those where he is batman, first to a chaplain, and then to the amorous Captain Lukas. And the stories are always enhanced by Josef Lada’s great in-line illustrations.

Later on in life I came across John Kennedy Toole. His was a tragic story, in that he committed suicide thinking himself a failure, before The Confederacy of Dunces was published and was acclaimed a masterpiece. It will soon be time to read this minor classic again, and each time I’ve read it in the past, it has reduced me to helpless laughter. There is a second book, not as good – The Neon Bible – which I remember as being rather darker.

I’m conscious of the fact that all these are boys’ books, ie written by men and enjoyed – most probably – by male readers (although I know of one former female student who has enjoyed Svejk) and there’s a conundrum here. Firstly, I’ve racked my brain for any novels or stories by women writers who have had a similar effect on me and can’t think of any; this may, of course, be my own limited acquaintance with female humour, and I will be grateful for any suggestions any of my readers have to offer. And secondly, there’s the question of what makes us laugh. I can vaguely recall exploration of the nature of humour whilst at university and the mention of the name of Henri Bergson; the idea that we are laughing at a fellow human either being ridiculous or being made ridiculous; the idea that we are laughing at the misfortune of someone else. And I haven’t ever found these explanations completely convincing. For me, there’s something about the pure absurdity of situations involved, rather than the people. I’ve always been attracted to the Theatre of the Absurd, ever since I was introduced to it. And, as far as people are concerned, for me it seems to be something about them being allowed to act, react and interact in absurd ways, and the incongruous consequences of such actions. Whatever it is, I have always enjoyed laughing heartily.

Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

January 27, 2016

51NjXWbSjBL._AA160_When I wrote about The Taming of the Shrew last month, I mentioned that I’d come late to the enjoyment of Shakespeare’s comedies, and considered some of the reasons. I’m back here again, having revisited Much Ado About Nothing, which I realise has some similarities with the former, particularly in the central male/ female relationship.

The idea of a comedy being a story – a drama – that ends happily, rather than something that you spend a lot of time laughing at, is a difficult one for us to take on board, although if tragedy is a story with an unhappy ending, then the contrast is logical. And in a Shakespearean comedy there is usually a good deal to laugh at, even if it isn’t the primary focus. And then there is the tragi-comedy – a drama of tragedy averted – as it was so succinctly put by my English teacher at school. There are certainly tragi-comic elements in Much Ado.

I don’t find the sharpness and the displays of wit between Beatrice and Benedick anywhere near as funny or as enjoyable as those between Petruchio and Katherine, though I do like the idea of their being so ‘up themselves’ that they can be manipulated into admitting that they fancy each other, love each other, and will marry. I do find the plot which leads to the public shaming of the chaste Hero quite a shocking element in a play which will eventually turn out to have a happy ending, and Claudio’s behaviour seems quite unforgivable: thank heaven for suspension of disbelief, I suppose. And there is a reminder that the first Elizabethans prized different things from us, found different things humorous, and different behaviours acceptable.

And then there’s Dogberry and the watch: I’ve always warmed to this bumbling crew with their hearts in the right place, and the whole happy ending depends on them, of course. Somehow their blundering and their malapropisms mean the mounties get their men, as it were, and we realise how much of the success of this play depends on overheard conversations, and who overhears them and what they do with that eavesdropped knowledge…

Because it’s a comedy, the punishment of the evil Don John is deferred beyond the end of the play: there is no real assurance that he will get what he deserves, unlike what is promised Iago, for example; again an instance of the difference between tragedy and comedy.

I have yet to see a performance of this play; I suspect I will enjoy it much more when it’s brought to life. I have a DVD of the recent RSC production which I must get around to watching.

Umberto Eco: How to Travel with a Salmon (& other essays)

September 29, 2015

41cDaA0Pp0L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Umberto Eco contributed a regular column to an Italian news magazine, and this is a collection of pieces from it. He writes humorously, satirically, mockingly about a wide range of aspects of our world: the title piece is about his attempts to store a salmon in his hotel minibar fridge. He is wonderful on Italian bureaucracy, too, with the saga of trying to replace his stolen driving licence. It is like something out of Kafka, and while sometimes I did suspect him of exaggerating for effect, somehow this tale rang true.

Eco does write very entertainingly, putting many of today’s no doubt overpaid columnists who knit words to earn their weekly fee to shame. I’m astonished at his scope and versatility – a series of best-selling novels, humorous columns, serious art history and criticism, learned tomes on language, linguistics and translation – I wonder what else I haven’t discovered. His is a mind I can admire.

Some of the columns are doubly amusing because of the way that they have dated, as, for instance, when he writes of wrestling with modern technology like the mobile phone – he takes us back to the problems of the pre-smartphone days, the days of primitive computer programs and the limitations of dial-up internet…those dark ages of a couple of decades ago.

There are also some great intellectual games: how various historical characters might have responded to the question ‘how are you?’, and how his friends attempted to construct an anti-university and an anti-encyclopaedia. And he does also indulge his love of lists, this time in a true Rabelaisian fashion.

It’s not great literature, but it is a good time-filler; like everything I’ve read of his, there’s quality there…

My love of Czech literature

September 22, 2015

I first came across Svejk (or Schweik as he was known then in the bowdlerised translation then in print; Cecil Parrott‘s full and unexpurgated version came along rather later) in the sixth form at school and laughed myself silly over his antics, and Josef Lada‘s wonderful illustrations. Humorous writing, satire even, about the horrors of the Great War, was new to me and an eye-opener – it wasn’t long before I was to come across Joseph Heller‘s masterpiece Catch-22, the only novel I know that rivals Hasek’s.

My teenage years overlapped with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and its consequences, particularly for its literature, which I came gradually to know as a student, the bitter disillusionment and wholesale repression after the Prague Spring. Some writers emigrated, Milan Kundera to settle in Paris and write in French, and Josef Skvorecky to Canada. Others wrestled with censorship at home, or wrote for the ‘bottom drawer’.

I’ve enjoyed the fizzy lightness of Kundera, and Bohumil Hrabal – who can forget Closely Observed Trains, once you have seen the film? – I’ve tried Ivan Klima but didn’t really warm to him, but my all-time favourite has to be Josef Skvorecky.

Much of his fiction seems to be semi-autobiographical, covering his younger days as a teenager and jazz fan and would-be rebel in the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, through the character of the hero of a number of novels, Danny Smiricky. Danny and his friends, parents and peers populate many adventures, tinged with a love of jazz – forbidden as degenerate music during the war, of course, the teenager’s urge to try and get into bed with as many females as possible (which may perhaps make him a bit of a boy’s writer, though certainly not in any misogynistic way). Life becomes more serious in the post-war years, especially the first three, before Stalinism completely fixes its iron grip on the country. There are risks, dangers, difficulties in playing the music, chasing the girls and trying to be free. The Cowards, and The Republic of Whores deal with the immediate postwar years but my favourite is certainly The Engineer of Human Souls (Stalin’s description of what a writer should be) which has the author in exile in Canada, lecturing to high school students on American literature whilst reflecting on their incredible immaturity and naivete compared with his peers, remembering his younger days under the Nazi occupation, and the trial and tribulations of running an emigre publishing enterprise.

Skvorecky earned my adulation when I discovered he also wrote detective fiction, irresistible to someone reared on Sherlock Holmes. Three collections of short stories feature a melancholic, sometimes depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka, who has to solve a range of crimes, but whose life is further complicated by the fact that he lives in a totalitarian regime where certain people enjoy particular privileges or are untouchable. He also has a beautiful teenage daughter whom he loves, and who he knows will leave him one day. If you’re going to create a detective in the days when they are almost two-a-penny then you need an original take and an unusual character, and Skvorecky manages masterfully.

There are plenty of reasons why Czech literature of those times has a sad, even gloomy, introspective feel to it, but even under the heaviness of Nazi occupation and subsequent Stalinist rule – a grim half century – the irrepressible Czech spirit seems to shine through, and is probably my favourite of all the national literatures that I have to read in translation.

A Westerner tries to understand Russian literature

September 19, 2015

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed the impression that Russia is so very different from anywhere I know and am familiar with. I’ve read its history and followed the ins and outs of communist politics for many years, and I’ve read a good deal of Russian literature, and explored a lot of the country as an armchair traveller, through many and varied travel writers. And the place seems vast and unknowable, the more I read and try to understand.

Partly this must be through the sheer size of the country, which defies the imagination. Many years ago, I was given a Soviet road atlas of the USSR. It’s a very slim volume, with very small-scale maps, and vast areas simply do not feature, not because the Russians had anything to hide, just because there are no roads. And the places where a single road goes on for five or six hundred kilometres, through a handful of small towns and then just stops…well. And then there’s the Russian idea of government: autocracy is as far as it seems to get – one all-powerful ruler, whether a tsar or a First Secretary of the CPSU or V Putin. It seems that only such a ruler can hold such a country together. Democracy they don’t do. When you get to religion, that is also alien to us in the West. Yes, it’s Christianity, but they think that theirs is the one and only true and original version, rather like the Church of Rome does. Which came first? Their services are obscure, in a mediaeval language, last for hours…

And yet I have been more than curiously fascinated by all this for many years; I am drawn to the unusual, the strange and inexplicable. Dostoevsky is hard work: The Idiot – what is it all about? and The Brothers Karamazov? at least Crime and Punishment is approachable, and frightening in its convincing psychology and paranoia. But I still find the ending, redemption through love and forced labour, hard to take, sentimental. It is a brilliant novel, though. Tolstoy is actually likeable, perhaps the closest a Russian gets to ‘the Western novel’ for me, even though they are vast tomes that make even Dickens look manageable… War and Peace I really like (I’ve read it three times so far) and am in awe of its vast scope, the sweep of its action, and the author’s direction of and dialogue with his readers. I like the ideas of Anna Kerenina and find the character of Levin fascinating, sometimes comprehensible and sometimes alien. Just as in France, the nineteenth century novel reached great heights in Russia.

Those writers had to grapple with the censorship and controls of Tsarist times; writers in the twentieth century didn’t have it anywhere near as easy, as the Soviets wanted to control everything, and literature was meant to serve the party and the revolution. I gather it produced a great deal of grim hack-work known as Socialist Realism, which I am sure was (badly) translated into English but probably never reached many bookshops here.

And those times also produced great writers and great literature. Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War provide the background for Vassily Grossman‘s epic Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s astonishing Arbat trilogy. Grossman’s work has finally begun to achieve some of the recognition it merits – it really is a twentieth-century War and Peace – but Rybakov attracted a brief, post-Soviet flurry of interest with his first volume and then no further notice, which is a great pity. One can read historical accounts of the madness and paranoia that was the 1930s in the Soviet Union, but you can only begin to feel what it could have been like through a cast of convincing characters living through those times.

I still fail to understand how Mikhail Bulgakov survived, having written The Master and Margarita, but I have read that he was perhaps protected by Stalin. The devil appears in Moscow and creates scenes of utter mayhem; Pontius Pilate and his wife attempt to make sense of Jesus and his message; magic and anarchy reign. It’s a marvellous novel, a tour-de-force, but Socialist Realism it ain’t…

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek‘s hero Svejk, an anarchic anti-hero who creates chaos in the Austro-Hungarian war effort wherever he goes; he has his Soviet era equal in Ivan Chonkin, in a couple of novels by Vladimir Voinovich, where Soviet bureaucracy and managerial ineptitude are satirised quite mercilessly.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s earlier works made a great impression on me at school. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a powerful read (the film is utterly unmemorable) as a political prisoner in the gulag shares his work, thoughts, hopes and fears, knowing that it’s back to the start every night for twenty years; Cancer Ward explores (as I recall) the vulnerabilities of the powerful and the weak, reduced to the same equality by the dread disease, its treatment and consequences, and The First Circle, which I think is probably the best, explores Stalin’s paranoid world, urge to spy on and control people through the eyes of prisoners and ‘free’ men involved in a research project that will allow the regime to identify people from recorded voices alone. Solzhenitsyn, like other Soviet era writers, tries hard to create Stalin as a fictional character, and thereby come to some understanding of his psychology and power.

I have yet to read anything written since the fall of the Soviet Union that is worth the eyeball time.

Peter Simple: The Stretchford Chronicles

July 27, 2015

I think Peter Simple is an acquired taste; I think the Way of the World column may finally have disappeared from the pages of the Daily Telegraph. I’m not a committed reader of the paper, I just like to keep up with what the emery is thinking…

The column was intended as satire (I think…but I’m not sure!) written from the political perspective of someone a little to the right of Attila the Hun or Genghiz Khan, poking fun at the ways of the modern world, modern music (epitomised by Mahler) left-wing local authorities, and trendy lefties espousing any kind of vaguely liberal cause. It was populated by invented characters with names madder than those of Dickens, who would pontificate randomly on the wrongs of the world. My favourite was the mad psychologist Dr Heinz Kiosk, who managed to blame everything on society, and excuse any kind of outrageous behaviour.

This little book had selections from 25 years of the column and its invented experts; I enjoyed it but ended up feeling that the column had been better in small doses three times a week; it got a bit much when it was a whole book: often the case with such things, I have found.

On humour

July 25, 2015

I love anything that will make me smile or laugh; that means I’ve read a good deal of humorous writing in my time, and I have come to appreciate how hard it is to do well, and also how what people find funny has changed and developed over time. It’s hard to describe and classify humour, and it’s also clear that to be humorous can, at times, be dangerous for the humorist. Increasingly I’ve also noticed that there are considerable differences between what women and men find funny. This post is inevitably written from a male perspective.

I studied Francois Rabelais at university: in Gargantua and Pantagruel he satirised the religious and intellectual abuses of his time and was inevitably obscenely humorous while he was about it; you realise that scatology has always been part of humour as you read of the experiments to find what is the best thing to wipe your backside with, how the prostitutes of Paris defended their city, or the astonishing lists of books in various (imaginary) libraries. The far-fetched and the absurd are important aspects of the humorous. Whatever people laugh at today has been used before…

I’ve loved Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – the longest shaggy dog story in the world – ever since I had to read it, again as a student. It’s full of funny characters, humorous incidents, witty observations.

I’ve laughed loud and long at what must be the relatively mild Victorian humour of writers like Jerome K JeromeThree Men in a Boat – and George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody.

Some of my former students will be aware of my love of Jaroslav Hasek, anarchist author of The Good Soldier Svejk (and his adventures in the Great War). Satire again, on the bureaucracy of the Austro-Hungarian army through the adventures of a congenital idiot and the chaos he causes as he strives to do his duty: none of this can possibly be as insane or absurd as the war itself… and the illustrations are marvellous, too.

The Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich managed a similar kind of satire in rather more dangerous times with The Life and Adventures of Ivan Chonkin, with his eponymous hero’s adventures taking place during the Great Patriotic War, and causing just as much amusement and anarchy among the Soviets.

For sheer rolling around on the floor laughter, it’s hard to better John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, uproarious and obscene in equal measure. Much milder is Garrison Keillor’s laconic Lake Wobegon Days and other related titles (and the accompanying radio series The Prairie Home Companion). And then there’s the total bonkers-ness of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings stories, some of which have been wonderfully televised.

As a child I loved funny books, too, and probably my most treasured memories are of the Professor Branestawm stories by Norman Hunter: at sleepovers we would drive each other into hysterics as we tried to read these stories aloud to each other…

I’m aware that I haven’t, despite racking my brains, mentioned a single female writer or character above, and would dearly like a nudge, prompt or hint if anyone can offer any. And when it comes to trying to explain what makes me laugh, or what exactly is funny about any of the books I’ve mentioned above, I’m hard-pressed. Absurdity makes me laugh, taking the normal and ordinary over the edge into the realms of the ridiculous, anything which brings chaos to what should be a tidy and boring and ordered world. I have also found myself wondering how much humour is a trait of our younger days, and whether, as I grow inevitably older, I laugh less and find less to laugh at or about….

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