Is the comic currency of literature a beer coaster?

The Irresponsible Self
July 9, 2004

In a Soho pub called the Pillars of Hercules where much of the business of the literary journal The New Review was conducted, Ian Hamilton, the poet and editor of the journal, was sitting at his usual table one afternoon when a haggard poet walked in. Declining Hamilton's offer of a drink, the poet replied: "Oh no, I just can't keep drinking. I must give it up. It's doing terrible things to me. It's not even giving me any pleasure any longer." To which Hamilton responded stoically: "Well, none of us likes it."

Opening his study of laughter in the novel with this anecdote from literary London that concentrates minds, the critic James Wood moves swiftly on to dissect the New York Times obituary of Hamilton that reproduced the exchange but failed to italicise "likes" - altering its temper altogether. Having thereby proven in his first few paragraphs that humour and comedy, however subtle, can be studied - contrary to all those schools of resistance - without killing a joke, Wood draws a distinction between the forced and the gentle schools of comedy, that is, between the comedy of correction and the comedy of forgiveness. We see how Henri Bergson's theory of comedy, which argues for "the absence of feeling that usually accompanies laughter", does not fit V. S. Naipaul's novel A House for Mr. Biswas , while Freud's theory of a "broken humour" or "the humour that smiles through tears" does. In his introduction to The Irresponsible Self , Wood allows us to follow the evolution of the comic element from the time of the tracts to that of the novel, with Erasmus and Shakespeare bridging the gap by prefiguring the novel in their work.

Wood then turns to essays on fiction that range from the "gloomiest Russian literature" of Saltykov-Schedrin, which makes Job seem like romance, to what Wood dubs, instead of the usual magical realism, the "hysterical realism" of Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and their ilk. Halfway through the book, he comments: "A genre is hardening. It is becoming possible to describe the contemporary 'big, ambitious novel'. Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: Dickens." Thus begins his only chapter on a genre - all the others deal with individual writers or particular works. At the end of a hectic discussion that follows on the even more hectic world of "hysterical realism", we come to a quiet reckoning when Wood says simply: "The truly unhostaged, the Chekhovs, are rare."

Elsewhere we learn how, like Hamilton, there were other writers in very different circumstances who kept their ears close to the pub table. The Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal sat for hours in his favourite Prague establishment, the Golden Tiger, listening to beer-fuelled stories. After the Soviet tanks rolled in, and the prolific Hrabal was silenced, the beer coasters came in handy. Hrabal began work on I Served the King of England during this period of prohibition in the early 1970s; it was circulated in samizdat form by 1975; and he was keen for it to be formally published. His supporters in the jazz section of the Czech Musicians' Union published the novel semi-legally in 1983 in the form of a "private" edition and distributed a leaflet telling people that they could come and collect it from the jazz section's offices. Hrabal's drinking friends turned up with their beer coasters, on which was written: "Give him one copy of I Served the King of England - B. Hrabal."

A defining feature of many of the essays is the application of the biographical element to the fictional. Thus Wood is able to trace the outlines of Dostoevsky's life in the development of his work, gauge the importance of a local event in the life of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and understand Coleridge's appreciation of the irresponsible self - Coleridge who lacked Dr Johnson's moral shudders and desired the irresponsibility of Shakespearean creation.

Occasionally, however, there is a perceptible gap between these supposedly complementary biographical and literary readings. Wood's extended focus on Dostoevsky's sociopolitical and religious development, as recorded by his biographer Joseph Frank, does not sit well with his discussion of the comic element; one feels a strong sense of artifice in the shaping of the critique.

Again, while the range of Wood's study is impressive and his insight into these diverse worlds is intimate, a caveat he issues early on is a disturbing influence. The introduction states: "I want to avoid over-assertion." And yet over-assertion is precisely what the book is often guilty of: although there are several very good essays on the study of the comic element, there are far too many that fall far outside the parameters indicated in the book's subtitle, "On Laughter and the Novel". Entire essays deal with characterisation, realism, authorial incursions, societal cruelty, plausibility and other subjects without once looking at laughter or the comic element.

In fact, the organisation of the book is sadly inorganic, hinting that it may be a collection of the author's published and unpublished essays. There would be nothing wrong with that were it not for the misleading subtitle, which can lead only to disappointment, not to mention the loss of precious library vouchers or time for some poor research student. There is even a significant discrepancy between the book's subtitle and the subtitle given in its press release, "Essays on Comedy and Fiction". Perhaps a future edition should stick to the latter one.

Nonetheless, while one may not always agree with Wood, one cannot deny the closeness of his readings. In an age when much literary criticism suffers from obfuscation and self-referential rambling, here is a critic who takes us back to the essence of criticism, as defined by Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction : to read aright, to get into touch with the book as nearly as may be.

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in post-colonial literature from Bristol University.

The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel

Author - James Wood
Publisher - Cape
Pages - 312
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 224 06450 9

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