Posts Tagged ‘Tristram Shandy’

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob

November 30, 2021

     ‘Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is… the perfection of imprecise forms.’ I love that.

I’ve been waiting a couple of years for this one finally to come out in English, and I resisted buying the French translation a year ago because I wanted Jennifer Croft’s English version. She’s translated other Olga Tokarczuk novels so well, and I was not disappointed here: she creates atmosphere and tone consistent with her other successes, and I felt I was reading the same Olga, if you see what I mean. Not knowing Polish well enough to read it means I can’t comment on the ‘feel’ of the translation, but this doesn’t alter the fact that translators are really important.

Nor is it possible to summarise the plot of a 900+ page novel, so I shan’t even attempt. Suffice it to say it centres around an eighteenth century Jewish heresy in Eastern Poland led by Josef Frank, who presented himself as the Messiah and urged his followers to accept Christian baptism. Wikipedia is your friend here if you want more details. The whole is also set against the backdrop of the beginning of the collapse and dismemberment of the Polish Commonwealth. But there’s so much more besides, with Tokarczuk’s familiar erudition and digression on display throughout. I found myself thinking at one point, is this Poland’s take on magic realism, with her blend of history and fiction?

I have to admit that this book will not be to everyone’s taste, as the arcana of Judaism and Jewish history is pretty pervasive; at times it all felt a little rambling and self-indulgent, but this did not put me off. It is a book to lose yourself in, a bit like Flights, where you are never quite sure where you are heading next. I thought of Tristram Shandy at times, the endless shaggy dog story; sink into it and go with the flow. It took me a fortnight.

You would have to say it’s a particularly Polish novel, with the focus on time and place, as well as a religious novel in some ways. There is the concept of the Messiah to wrestle with: Christians have had one, but the Jews not, so how will they know when theirs finally comes? And because considerable parts of the novel are set on what was then the border between the Polish Commonwealth and the Ottoman empire, Islam, the third religion of the book, also figures a good deal.

It’s very easy to see why traditional Polish Catholics hated and denounced this book on its publication. Tokarczuk is genuinely interested herself and through her characters in all sorts of heretical and semi-heretical notions; it’s a philosophical and theological minefield for a Catholic reader, as she validates elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And interestingly, too, when it comes to the Catholic Church interrogating Josef Frank and his followers to see if they are genuinely seeking to be united with the one true church, the questioning style and behaviour of the inquisitors is – deliberately – reminiscent of the behaviour of Communist party interrogators during various purges, as they have been recorded in history books. The atmosphere is sinister, threatening, ominous; the Church has spies and agents everywhere, just like the KGB

And then there are the scenes – based on history – set in Catholic Poland’s holiest shrine at Częstochowa. We are shown religious ignorance and trickery on both sides. In the end, for me, some of the most interesting and intriguing parts of the novel were those broader explorations of the meaning of religion, spirituality and the human future in the context of eternity.

Clearly it’s not a book for everyone. If you’re curious, I’d say go for it, but it’s a challenge. It’s evident why Olga Tokarczuk is a Nobel class novelist, for what that’s worth, with this as part of her complete works. I intend to read it again, hopefully in the not-too-distant-future.

As an ex-English teacher I’m a stickler for correctness, and there were quite a few bizarre typographical offerings in this version, particularly in the area of hyphenation, where I thought there were established conventions, but hey…

More books to get you through a lockdown…

April 14, 2020

Women get a look-in on this particular list of novels originally written in English; only three out of ten, but it’s a start.

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park. People discuss, argue even, over which is the best of Jane Austen’s novels. For me it comes down to one of the two on this list: ask me tomorrow, and the other of the two will be the best. Mansfield Park is the most complex of her novels, and one that for me is full of politics and ideas, and shows a depth to Austen that’s harder to find in her other works, as she subtly reflects on some of the enormous changes taking place in English society at the time she was writing, with the country in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, early industrialisation and enclosures of the common land to name but a few. Her heroine is not someone to easily warm to, the hero’s choice to follow the vocation of the church is hardly thrilling, and the Crawfords, though attractive, are Satanic tempters… Or, if you want something simpler, there’s Persuasion, which is about the survival of love in adversity and how the hero and heroine finally do get what they deserve. The final section is as tense, powerful and nerve-wracking as it’s possible for Austen to be.

Charlotte Bronte: Villette. I like Jane Eyre, but have always found Villette more gripping and compelling, partly because of the complex relationship between hero and heroine, and partly because of the exotic setting. Writing that last sentence I’m struck with how it is just as true of Jane Eyre. Evidently I prefer how Bronte works it all out in Villette! And the ending of Villette is just marvellous, perhaps the first ‘open’ ending in the English novel, certainly very daring, and for me incredibly moving…

Joseph Conrad: Nostromo. Conrad has always called to me because of his Polish ancestry; he has always astonished me by his literary production in what was actually his third language. I like the complexity of the narrative structure of Nostromo, and the way the author manipulates his reader; the setting of this novel also reminds me of Marquez’ masterpiece I wrote about a couple of days ago, One Hundred Years of Solitude. There’s also a subtle psychological depth to Conrad’s characters which fascinates me, and we are thinking about a writer who was active at the time that psychology and psychoanalysis were coming into the mainstream of people’s lives.

Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited. I realise I’m back with the ‘vanished past’ novels that I was listing in my earlier posts, and an English take on the idea this time. It’s quite easy to forget Waugh’s framing of the main story while one wallows in the luxury and decadence of the earlier years, and perhaps you need the experience of being or having once been a Catholic for the utter sadness of the central relationship to have its full effect on you. For me, not necessarily a great novel, but a small and perfectly formed gem, and one wonderfully brought to television many years ago now.

Lawrence Sterne: Tristram Shandy. I’ve read a goodly number of experimental and just plain weird novels in my time – search for posts on Ben Marcus in this blog if you like – but this takes the biscuit, written by an English country clergyman two and a half centuries ago. You can still visit his church and home if you are in my part of the world. It’s the world’s longest shaggy dog story, wandering all over the place and getting nowhere, as well as exposing, in one of the earliest of novels, the limitations of any pretence to realism in that form.

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones. It’s rambling, it’s fun, it’s vulgar, and the boy and the girl get each other in the end. That sounds really trite, and you really have to look at it from the perspective of it’s being one of the very first novels in English. And Fielding’s dialogue with his readers is superb.

James Joyce: Ulysses. This one has to be in here. Sorry if you’ve tried and failed, but it really is worth it finally to get through the whole novel. The stream of consciousness is a fascinating idea: you can do it with yourself if you concentrate hard enough, but to have a writer take you inside the mind and subconscious of another person is a different experience. And then there’s the cleverness, the mapping of Bloomsday onto Dublin, onto 24 hours, onto Homer’s epic poem. I know it’s not for everyone. I’ll confess: having read Ulysses, I thought I’d be brave and attempt Finnegans Wake. Fail.

Sebastian Faulks: Birdsong. I taught this a few times, and it took a good while for its cleverness fully to sink in: so many of the poems of the Great War, and so many events and places, and also writers who took part, are so carefully and subtly woven in to this amazing novel, and when I do finally go back to it, I’m sure I will spot some more. And then there’s the clever framing of the story, and the subplot as the grand-daughter rediscovers the past. It’s not flawless, but as a way of linking current generations into a traumatic past, I think it surpasses anything else I know of.

Philip Pullman: Northern Lights Trilogy. Highly-rated and very popular, but still underrated, in my opinion. I think it is an absolute masterpiece on many counts. Pullman’s imagining of the alternate and parallel universes, the wealth of detail – which was lost in the recent TV series – creating Lyra’s Oxford, the huge cast of characters and more fantastical creatures, many brought to life in great detail, unlike the wooden or cardboard characters that people a lot of fantasy. And then, the philosophical ideas that Pullman draws in, as well as the many parallels with Milton’s epic Paradise Lost… I’m blown away each time I come back to it. I’ve listened to Pullman himself narrating the entire work a couple of times, read the novels several times, seen the poor film The Golden Compass, and watched the amazing recent TV series – I can’t get enough.

There’s a couple of lockdowns’ worth of suggestions there; to be continued…

The five senses in fiction

January 21, 2019

When I wrote about Rupert Brooke’s poem The Great Lover, I referred to his use of the five senses in that poem; since then I’ve been thinking about writers’ use of their five senses more generally in literature, trying to remember novels where sensual experience has featured particularly powerfully.

Taste: the instant response was obviously Marcel Proust, of course, and that famous madeleine dipped in his tea, with the taste bringing back a whole world of childhood experiences and memories in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Which of us hasn’t experienced a similar moment at some time? It’s harder to think of a more powerful gustatory moment in literature. But then I recalled Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, set in the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and the importance of food throughout that novel, as a symbol of fellowship and sharing, especially when the recipient is in dire need. The descriptions of the preparation of food, the smells and tastes as well as the sensory pleasure enjoyed in its consumption and sharing are evident on numerous occasions in that book.

The sense of sight and its importance is brought home for me in two novels that deal with the loss of it. Firstly John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, where it’s the blinding of almost the entire population by a very powerful meteor-shower – that may have been a malfunctioning space-based weapons system, we never find out – that leaves everyone so vulnerable to the stings of the mobile plants which kill and then feed on decaying flesh. The powerlessness of the blind is evoked in many different ways, as is the reluctance of the few sighted ones left to be of help to their fellow-humans. But the shock of this novel pales into insignificance against the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, which I honestly do not think I would have the courage to read again, so horrific a picture of depraved human nature does it paint. I have wondered if Saramago was influenced by Wyndham. Nearly everyone is temporarily blinded in Saramago’s novel, and the viciousness and brutality of some of the blind in the ways they capture, maltreat and abuse the sighted ones, as well as their weaker fellow blind humans, is truly horrendous, and leaves one with very little faith in human nature.

The revolting smell of boiled cabbage permeates the world of Airstrip One’s London in George Orwell’s well-known Nineteen Eighty-four. It epitomises the poverty and deprivation of Big Brother’s world of rationing and control, along with the sickening smell and vile taste of the Victory gin. Indeed, I have found that Orwell is particularly attuned to the smells of poverty and deprivation in his writings. Tristram Shandy’s nose, and the unfortunate accident which happens to it during his birth, is at the centre of the eponymous novel by Laurence Sterne, and the whole of Patrick Süsskind’s novel Perfume centres on the central character’s olfactory skills. It’s also stunningly effectively translated to film.

Sound and hearing was rather more of a problem, and the only thing I could come up with was the character of Oskar in Günter GrassThe Tin Drum: his voice, singing or screaming, can easily shatter glass, and does so with various humorous, alarming and dramatic effects at many points in the novel.

Touch I found even more problematic, the legend of King Midas aside, partly as my acquaintance with erotic literature is somewhat limited, although I was again reminded of The Tin Drum: readers familiar with the book will know what I am referring to when I mention the episode of the woodruff powder…

I would be interested to hear from my readers if there are any novels I’ve either forgotten or don’t know about, in which particular senses feature strongly… I’m also wondering if some of our senses are more conducive to literary exploration than others.

My A-Z of reading: B is for Beginnings

October 16, 2016

What’s the most effective and memorable beginning to a novel (or a play or poem, for that matter) for you? Many will perhaps default to the obvious ones, like the opening line of Pride and Prejudice… but what makes a really effective start?

I suppose there are the ones we remember, and the ones that actually work, the ones that have an instant effect, and the ones that creep up on us. I’ve always liked the opening of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-fourIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That works for me partly because of the immediate shock – what sort of world is this, where clocks actually strike thirteen? And it takes me back to my childhood, at the end of the 1950s in the little village where I was born, where the next-door neighbour but one, a reclusive old woman, actually had a decrepit clock that did strike thirteen. This astonished me, and I used to love listening to that final, wrong strike.

But the one I remember most often is not actually an opening sentence, but the opening incident: the narrator of Lawrence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy is telling of the Sunday night ritual in his parents’ household: Sunday night is intercourse night and he is about to be conceived, when in medias res his mother enquires of his father if he had remembered to wind the clock… for me, this sets the tone for the rest of this wonderful novel, the longest shaggy-dog story in the world as someone once called it.

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, I was often conscious of the long opening section – Part One – which is getting on for a third of the entire novel, and appears to go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally a class would become somewhat restless as we read, and this caused me to reflect on it as the opening to a novel; it was often only at the end of the entire book that we could go back and reflect on what Harper Lee had been doing with that lengthy introduction – “too much description, sir!” – creating such a vivid sense of place that we could actually fit ourselves into Maycomb. The book needed it, before the real story of Tom Robinson could start.

Plays are no different, and looking at what Shakespeare does is instructive. Often he hurls us head-first into the action – the witches in Macbeth, the storm in The Tempest: we are instantly gripped and cannot look back, and in different ways he develops the stories and sweeps us forward. And yet, he can do slow and subtle, too: the discussion of Antonio’s melancholy at the start of The Merchant of Venice, for example, or the gentlemen comparing notes about the king’s erratic behaviour at the start of King Lear.

John Donne has some wonderful opening lines in his Songs and Sonnets: Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising), for example, or For God’s sake hold your tongue (The Canonisation), or When by thy scorn, O Murderess, I am dead (The Apparition), or Mark but this flea… as an exercise in seduction technique unequalled by any other poet I know.

So what works, and how? Something must intrigue us, either instantly and suddenly as in the Donne poems, or it must begin to insinuate itself, to sow a trail of loose ends and possibilities that we find sufficiently interesting to continue to pay attention, rather than go off to something else, as Shakespeare intrigues us at the start of King Lear. And whatever bait a writer or poet dangles before an audience or reader, it must go on to offer the promise of (eventual) satisfaction after that initial flash of inspiration.

My A-Z of reading: A is for Audiobook

October 10, 2016

(An occasional series)

I was very sniffy about audiobooks when they first came out; I couldn’t see why one would want to listen to someone reading a book rather than read it oneself. And, listening to text read aloud takes so much longer than reading it silently to oneself. I suppose I couldn’t visualise situations where I’d make use of audiobooks.

Then I ended up with a drive to work for a number of years, half an hour each way. As I grew older, I tired of listening to news bulletins, and Radio Three’s programming became less and less attractive. I came across a reference to the librivox website somewhere and began exploring, downloaded a favourite novel or two, and never looked back.

I discovered Naxos Audiobooks, too: higher-quality, commercial recordings of real favourites like Sherlock Holmes, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Paradise Lost. And, now that I’m retired, and regularly go off for solo driving adventures, I can listen to a lot more. Since I can actually ‘read’ a book whilst driving, I can get through more books than previously, which is clearly a good thing.

I choose carefully. Sometimes it’s difficult and obscure stuff that I’d probably get a headache actually reading – The City of God by St Augustine, or JosephusWars of the Jews are a couple of examples. Here, the text does come at you more slowly, so you have time to think about it, and it doesn’t matter if you miss a bit because you’re concentrating on the road; it’s not quite the same as skim-reading, or skipping pages. Other times, it’s old favourites I have loved for years; I can never tire of any of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the Naxos recordings are first class. The familiarity is there, so I can concentrate on different aspects of the stories. Occasionally it’s something completely new, perhaps impossible to track down in print: there is some wonderful travel writing, and some gripping personal accounts of service in the Great War available from librivox.

And this is where I get something I’d never imagined I would, before I got into audiobooks. Particularly if the recording is a good one (and not every librivox one is), it’s possible to listen out for nuances of style, a writer’s particular vocabulary, how s/he constructs sentences. Yes, you can do this with a printed book, too, but it’s a lot easier with an audiobook. Reading the Qur’an, for instance, I found pretty challenging, but listening to an English version was much easier, because that holy book was written to be recited… And listening to Milton’s Paradise Lost – another stunning Naxos recording – I can sink into the beauty, the complexity of the verse, the breadth of the vocabulary, the invented words, the rhythm. Truly magical.

Andrei Bitov: Pushkin House

December 15, 2015

51LvwcASCmL._AA160_This is apparently a Soviet post-modern novel. It’s extremely hard work, and I can see why the Soviets wouldn’t publish it. It’s chaotic, in a Joycean or Shandian sense, and parts of it recall the weirder bits of Ulysses; because it’s about literature and responses to it, it’s presented almost as an academic work, with sections and subsections and appendices and notes and footnotes…

The author is forever interfering, or deliberately intervening in his own narrative, sometimes interacting with his hero, offering variants of particular episodes, alternate endings and the like, so attempting to track a linear narrative is not really allowed or possible. The power of the author is obvious – he can do as he likes, and we are allowed at times to assume there is a direct identification between author and hero, and at other times not. He can also write himself into a corner with his hero’s mad antics, and then magic him out of it again.

Ultimately the plot isn’t sufficiently interesting to sustain this reader’s interest; it’s no doubt clever in its convolutedness and self-reference, but it doesn’t draw one along like Tristram Shandy or Ulysses do. Partly, I think, this is because so much of the detail and reference is Russian-specific; even my reasonable acquaintance with nineteenth century Russian literature didn’t help me wade through the mire of mentions of authors and quotations from their works, plus details of their biographies… and a novel that requires complex notes and glosses ceases to be a novel – though perhaps this is part of Bitov’s intention.

The one thing which did stand out as a consummate achievement was an astonishing drinking binge involving eight bottles of vodka being consumed by five people over a night or so; the weird states, hallucinations and outlandish behaviour are every bit as insane as the drug-fuelled ramblings of the late Hunter S Thompson, or the craziest section of Joyce’s Ulysses. Only Russians are capable of drinking like this, and if you do want to read a novel about epic drinking, then you should probably go for Benedikt Erofeev‘s Moscow Circles rather than this one, I suggest.

In the end, I’m afraid it wasn’t quite worth the eyeball time.

The best British novel?

December 8, 2015

51a2J0Q2vbL._AA160_I’ve been reading today that international critics have voted George Eliot’s Middlemarch the best British novel. Interesting.

Such polls of British readers have always had one of Jane Austen’s novels at the top if the ranking: is she too subtle or too parochial for non-British tastes? And what criteria were used for these international critics and their reading: did they have to read in English, or have they read in translation?

Some of the other choices further down the list I also find rather surprising: far too much Dickens, which may have good plots, but was certainly written by the yard; Virginia Woolf in second and third place? And Tristram Shandy – I’m certainly glad it’s appreciated by non-British readers, but also more than a little astonished. What, exactly, determines which British writers readers in other countries come across? I have a cousin who teaches English Literature at a university in China, and some of the texts he has to teach his students certainly caused me to raise my eyebrows…

Back to Middlemarch, which I do think is a very good novel. It’s broad in its scope, painting a panorama of English society at a crucial point in the country’s history; there’s a good range of characters, plenty of plot, and the whole is sustained for eight hundred pages or so, very entertainingly. And there’s plenty beyond this, to make the reader think about issues, people, ideas, language. I suppose one might put it in a similar class to social novels by Zola or Balzac, though I think neither of them have the subtlety of Eliot. Her canvas is broader than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, too.

Where does all this get us? Not very far, I feel. People from other countries also seem to have the picture of the nineteenth century as the great age of the novel. People love lists (shades of Umberto Eco here?) and league tables, and we can all get off on agreeing or pooh-poohing the choices in them. What would an English person’s list of the best French, or German novels look like, and what would a French or German person make of our choices? For that matter, what do you make of my choices in the ‘My lists’ section of this blog?

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….

Desert Island Books

June 7, 2015

I’m not a regular listener to this long-running radio programme Desert Island Discs, but like all other listeners, I have pondered the question of what book I’d take with me to my desert island.

You are automatically allowed the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. These are both weighty tomes, and I suppose are meant to reassure you that you wouldn’t actually run short of reading matter. The Bible is somewhat limited; there are the familiar stories, and perhaps also the various Wisdom books which might keep me going for a while, but there’s lots of rather tedious stuff like Leviticus, and the geneological lists and the history of Israel and the prophets…

I’d have no problem with the complete works of Shakespeare (you knew I’d say that, didn’t you?), with the possibility of working my way endless times through all the plays and deciphering the sonnets, and who knows, maybe even bothering with the long poems, which I admit I’ve still never opened.

So what should my personal choice be?

Do I need to go for another large tome, so I have plenty to choose from? Should it be a massive poetry anthology? The complete works of Donne, or Milton? A door-stopper of a novel, like War and Peace, or A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (which, again, I’ve never got very far with) ? Another spiritual text, in case my soul craved such reading in its isolation – the Qur’an perhaps, or the Tao, or Confucius’ Analects, or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, all of which I’ve found very useful and interesting at some point in the past…

Perhaps a favourite novel, so that I can revisit past enjoyments, and also enjoy the sensation of escapism that comes from reading a really good novel? After all, I’m obviously not going to be able physically to escape the island. But then, how many times am I really going to want to re-read any of the novels on this list? And, although I’m very tempted, I think the complete Sherlock Holmes stories would outlive any possible usefulness before very long…

Today, after a random scan of the bookshelves, I’ve narrowed it down to a choice between Tristram Shandy and Ulysses. Tomorrow? And what would you choose, and why, my readers?

 

Laughter and Literature

October 9, 2014

What makes us laugh, and why? I started thinking about this when I realised how long it was since a book I’d read had had me laughing out loud…

I decided that I laughed much more readily as a child. The Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle had me in stitches when I was at school, with their crazy spelling, eccentric teachers and mad antics. I have recollections of sleepovers (not that we used the term back in those days) at a friend’s where we reduced each other to tears reading aloud to each other from Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories – I don’t think anyone would get away with giving a character such a name nowadays. Again, it was the eccentricity of the character, and his actions that set us off. I still smile at the thought of anyone filling an envelope with mashed potato and sending it off to the gas or electricity board. Perhaps a tactic to be recommended in these times? Sellars and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That is still in print and still funny; here, I think it was the idea of twisting and warping the real events, and making up mock tests (do not write on both sides of the paper at once) that made me laugh.

I remember vaguely from my university days something of the theory of humour, the idea of human beings acting in non-human ways. As I reflected, I realised that there is falling about laughing – which I was very prone to as a child – and there is the more adult version where we snigger, chuckle, smile to ourselves in a more restrained way: we control and restrict ourselves, because falling about is non-human? We must not appear absurd. Very early in my teaching career, as we read aloud The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I realised that I could not restrain myself during the chapter where Huck, in a totally deadpan style, describes the house of the feuding Grangerford family: I had to get someone else to read…

Books like the Grossmiths’ Diary of  a Nobody, and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat ranged from the mildly amusing to the occasionally hilarious, but were pretty restrained, really. A challenge came at university, where we had to read Tristram Shandy. Now this is a book which I found difficult, and yet I loved, and have come back to several times in my life. In some ways it’s stunningly modern in its premise; it’s certainly absurd in its structure and the games the author plays with his readers; the characters are eccentric, and the situations are often insane. It has been described as the longest shaggy dog story ever written, and I tend to agree.

Two books discovered and loved in my adult days have had the power to reduce me to helpless laughter, and I love them for it: Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. The former, the only comic novel I know about the First World War, puts a congenital idiot into the Austro-Hungarian army and catalogues a series of utterly barking adventures; his innocence drives everyone to total distraction. And I don’t know what to say about Toole’s novel – time for a re-read, certainly – except that the blundering Aloysius’ adventures match Svejk’s in many ways.

Which brings me briefly on to black humour, the sort where you smile, or laugh, but guiltily, as if ashamed of laughing, feeling that the subject is too serious: an adult kind of humour, perhaps? For me, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is the supreme example: the utter absurdity of so many of the situations and characters he imagines, which then are perhaps not quite as absurd as we first thought, inter-cut with scenes of graphic horror just to remind us that we shouldn’t be laughing…maybe.

I love laughing, falling about, and always have; I know it does me good: I’m also wondering why I seem to laugh less as I grow older…

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