The Sunday Times

October 17th, 2010

With a burp and a pratfall, the comic novel crushes the puritans

Much to the bookmakers’ surprise, Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker prize last Tuesday for his novel The Finkler Question. Many of the literati were surprised too because this book, like many of Jacobson’s, is very funny, and the comic novel is seen in this country as slightly infra dig — beneath the dignity of the serious and perhaps tragic literary novel. Jacobson’s publisher had not even thought it worth submitting his novel to the Booker judges. Predictably, commentators made much of the fact that The Finkler Question is the first comic novel to win the Booker.

Actually, that is not quite true. In 1969, the first year of the competition, Something to Answer For, a supposedly comic novel by PH Newby, won the prize. Only a minority find it funny, but it is an intentionally comic novel. And Jacobson said last week that there were lots of novels you could call comic that have won the Booker. Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils won in 1986.

All the same, as Jacobson says: “There is a fear of comedy in the novel today. When did you last see the word ‘funny’ on the jacket of a serious novel?” The Booker has been through a period of a certain solemnity, he added. Perhaps that had little to do with the prize. “Maybe culture went through a brief period of solemnification.”

It is one of the oddities of literary life that, while stand-up comedians, sitcoms, satire and funny films are so hugely successful in this country, and while we are grudgingly admired worldwide for our sense of humour, comic novels have for so long been assumed to be of an inferior genre.

Ian McEwan, a dominant literary figure who has won the Booker once and been shortlisted six times, actually said two years ago that he hates comic novels. “It’s like being wrestled to the ground and being tickled, being forced to laugh.”

This attitude is incomprehensible to me. I find being tickled by a good writer into the joy of laughter is not an assault but a delightful seduction. But for decades, novel-writing in this country has largely been seen as a serious, worthy business, grimly dedicated to the sorrows and injustices of the world — or at least to the miseries of bourgeois adultery.

When I was reading literature at Cambridge, comic novels were not even mentioned. Even Dickens seemed surplus to requirements, no doubt because Professor Frank “high seriousness” Leavis didn’t think him worthy of inclusion in the canon of the Great Tradition, at least not until the end of his academic life. The inimitable PG Wodehouse said he never expected to be taken seriously by “the intelligentsia”, who tended, he thought, to look down on comic writing. Comedy could never be serious and therefore never great.

That, of course, is the opposite of the truth. Some of the greatest novels are comic, or what one might call comic, and they do not lack underlying seriousness for those who are able to perceive it. Even more than high seriousness or tragedy, comedy is humanity’s best defence against the harshness and meaningless of life; comedy defies absurdity with absurdity.

As well as the hog-whimperingly funny masterpieces of Wodehouse, particularly those set in Blandings Castle, there are, for example — and in no particular order — all the novels of Jane Austen, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, Dickens, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, much of Trollope, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, much of Philip Roth, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, much of Milan Kundera, Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and the heartbreakingly funny, elegantly painful short novels of Evelyn Waugh.

If there aren’t many contemporary British comic novelists in this list, I suspect that is because of the repressive atmosphere that for years has hung over the literary establishment. There has been a somewhat smug cult of moral seriousness, probably due to the long-lasting influence of the puritanical and intolerant Leavis. His influence was still powerful when the literary lions and lionesses of the present establishment were young students, and has remained so, despite the onslaught of postand post-post-structuralism. It gave rise to a politicised and functional view of literature as moral improvement.

More widely speaking, I suspect there is a natural bias against humour in the leftist mindset, which has dominated all cultural life for nearly 50 years, and an inbuilt censoriousness and censorship. We should not forget that under the last, left-lite government, certain kinds of joke were made criminal offences. Like today’s leftism-lite, high-minded socialism has often been distinguished by priggery. It goes with a dislike of vulgar folk taste and sentimental detail, which has expressed itself in minimalism.

There is and always has been something undeniably vulgar and self-indulgent about the comic tradition, from the fool with his pig’s bladder balloon to the music hall knees-up, from the endless mother-in-law jokes to Pete and Dud’s reflections on gauze-covered busty substances in the National Gallery. Comedy captures low life, as well as high life and indeed all life. We all bleed, as Shylock suggested in the voice of tragedy, but we all burp and fart and take pratfalls too, stumblebum clown and countess alike. Comedy is an acceptance of all of life.

That’s because comedy and tragedy are indivisible, in life as in art, no matter what the ancient Greeks may have thought about theatre. In the midst of high seriousness, we are also in the midst of jokes and laughter, and risible embarrassment. It is a kind of emotional stupidity to think that because something makes you laugh it cannot be serious as well.

To borrow a well-worn sentiment from Horace Walpole, comedy is for those who think and tragedy is for those who feel. But great art needs both feeling and thought, both tragedy and comedy. In practice there are no merely comic novels: there are bad novels, good novels and great novels.

At last literary fashion seems to be moving in this direction. Comically, the stern McEwan won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction in May. Wodehouse must be laughing gently from his Blandings Castle in the sky. Comic novels are no longer infra dig.