1. i’m currently staying with Juniper in Kassel. The house is still half a construction site (workmen spent 8 hours hammering frenziedly away in the cellar, on Christmas Day) and she rarely uses internet so hasn’t bothered setting it up yet. i’m leeching a signal from a neighbour but it’s weak and sporadically cuts out completely.
In the absence of internet, i’ve been reading more books. i brought my Kindle and a Mumintal book by Tove Jansson, in German. i also borrowed Tony Parson’s Man & Boy from Juniper’s shelves. i didn’t expect to like it, i just wanted a real paper book in the Queen’s English. It was surprisingly good, however. i usually detest all these affluent middle class Southron media types with their pointless literary novels about affluent middle class Southron media types having midlife crises. Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love is a classic of the genre: technically proficient, well-paced, with tedious middle class media Southron characters and some unrealistic real life thrown in to add spice (a visit to drug dealers is notably shit). It’s exactly what you’d expect from someone who studied Creative Writing at university and lives in London.
i’ve read two McEwan books and he seems incapable of wit or lightness; and the substance is a kind of polyfiller ersatz seriousness, compounded from fashionable Southron issues. People i like and even kind of respect think this is a good book and i guess they see things i don’t, and don’t see the things i do.
2. Seriousness can be faked very easily; this is almost impossible with wit and lightness. If you can produce apparent wit and lightness then it is real wit and lightness. There isn’t anything hidden here, no mysterious depths. There’s just the surface (though it will have a hidden causation in the writer & his character). It can’t be faked; and hence is a less ambiguous sign of talent, or the absence thereof. It’s not that everyone has the same sense of humour, but i think you can more easily acknowledge “this is meant to be funny and it makes some people laugh, so it has some comic power”, whereas it just seems disgusting and dishonest when a writer tries & fails to be serious and profound.
Wit bears a curious relation to seriousness. In Parsons book, wit enters as something of a corrective force, as it were balancing the sadness or brutality; not so much detracting as modifying. i think it’s because most emotions take their place in the midst of our human complication, influenced by everything of which we are capable; it’s very rare that an emotion is so strong as to drive out all others, to wholly dominate our character. Even in my most murderous moods, i feel traces of humour, playing around the edges; and even in my gentlest moods there is the possibility of murder. When we experience an emotion, we are also conscious of seemingly irrelevant thoughts & feelings, and so i think Parsons’ humour serves to deepen and anchor his seriousness, to show how we in fact think and feel. For example:
Men of my age like younger women because the younger woman has fewer reasons to be bitter.
The younger woman is less likely to have had her heart bashed around by broken homes, divorce lawyers and the sight of children who are missing a parent. The younger woman doesn’t have all those disappointments that women – and men, too, don’t forget the men – in their thirties drag around with them like so much excess luggage.
It was cruel but true. The younger woman is far less likely to have had her life fucked up by some man.
Men in their thirties and forties don’t go out with a younger woman for her bouncy body and her pierced tongue. That’s just propaganda.
They go out with her so that they can be the one who fucks up her life.
This is funny, even if uncomfortably so. He could also have said: “Men of my age prey on younger women because they don’t realise what bastards we are. Then we can use and discard them like trash”, i.e. without humour. But in reality, very few people are outright emotional/sexual predators. i have met a few people like this, who simply wanted a fuckdoll, and someone to cook and clean (my old sociopathic tai chi tutor said, disapprovingly, that MILF are always “damaged goods”, an odd thing to say about a human being), but even they don’t set out to hurt and wound people; it just happens as a necessary sideproduct of their actions. So to write the “use and discard” version would be dishonest – unless it was written by a fully conscious rapist or killer. And in reality even horrible people don’t generally crash through lives with the intention of causing pain. When i asked my ex-colleague Michael (who leaves a trail of damaged women & lives, trashed apartments, broken promises, theft, etc.) why his relationships never last longer than a couple of months, he grinned and said: “I guess I’m just a bastard.” But even he doesn’t mean to be a bastard; it just happens, and i’m sure he doesn’t really think of himself as a bastard: he’s just aware that most women do, and he doesn’t care because he can always find another woman.
3. Perhaps humour always requires a countering sobriety. Most of my favourite funny books are also fairly brutal (e.g. Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Pete Dexter’s Spooner). The only non-brutal comedies i can think of are Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, and PG Wodehouse’s perfect fictions. The former isn’t as savagely brutal as Dexter or Thompson, but it is shot through with grumpiness, mishap, discomfort, frustration, absurdity. And for me Wodehouse’s books are both mesmerising and poignant, as are the accounts of Adam & Eve in the garden of Paradise Lost, soon to fall. They are funny, but there’s also a pervasive sense that this is not real, that real life is discordant and merciless and ugly and savage. Hence the simultaneous glee and sadness, like revisiting a (good) childhood memory. Of this, one could cite Dante’s Francesca da Rimini:
Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
(there is no greater sorrow, than to recall a happy time in misery)
Wodehouse’s fictions are so evidently fictions, not true, and yet one feels they should be – and this is, for me, an important part of the humour; and makes them great.
4. My current Kindle books are Tom Brown’s Schooldays, GK Chesterton’s A Short History of England, and Malory’s Le Mort d’ Arthur. Coincidentally, all three present a version of Englishness that would now seem ludicrously old-fashioned and would no doubt attract the enraged contempt of most young people and all Southrons (they would talk about “progress”). The first two are new to me; the Malory i originally read 13 years ago.
i like Le Mort d’ Arthur very much. It has a loose-limbed, colloquial prose style and a welcome lack of moralising. Individual knights moralise but Malory does not. An example of the prose, and the character of Sir Lancelot:
Fair damosel, said Sir Launcelot, I may not warn people to speak of me what it pleaseth them; but for to be a wedded man, I think it not; for then I must couch with her, and leave arms and tournaments, battles, and adventures; and as for to say for to take my pleasaunce with paramours, that will I refuse in principle for dread of God; for knights that be adventurous or lecherous shall not be happy or fortunate unto the wars, for other they shall be overcome with a simpler knight than they be themselves, other else they shall by unhap and their cursedness slay better men than they be themselves. And so who that useth paramours shall be unhappy, and all thing is unhappy that is about them.
This is well expressed in Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur, where Guinevere coyly asks if Lancelot has a love. He says, simply, that he is sworn to the quest and so can have no love. There is an understanding of the power of celibacy; and so, of the human difficulty and pain of Lancelot, “the perfect knight”.
Another knight here, Sir Lamorak (later treacherously slain by Sir Gawain and his kin):
When Sir Palomides heard him say so he kneeled down and asked mercy, For outrageously have I done to you this day; considering the great deeds of arms I have seen you do, shamefully and unknightly I have required you to do battle. Ah, Sir Palomides, said Sir Lamorak, overmuch have ye done and said to me. And therewith he embraced him with his both hands, and said: Palomides, the worthy knight, in all this land is no better than ye, nor more of prowess, and me repenteth sore that we should fight together.
And later, i think this is Lancelot threatening either Gawain or King Mark:
Beware, I rede thee, of treason, for an thou mischief that knight by any manner of falsehood or treason, by the faith I owe to God and to the order of knighthood, I shall slay thee with mine own hands.
Such a book would now be dismissed as “Fantasy” and “genre fiction”, but there it is. It’s fine when it was written long enough ago (The Iliad, Malory, Corialanus, etc.) but if it was written more recently it’s just worthless trash and those who read it are not intelligent adults but rather mentally retarded children, so goes the critical judgement today. For most of human history, stories about war and violence and heroism would have been perfectly normal and to despise them as “genre fiction” would have struck people as comically myopic (like a music journalist i once knew, who said he found Conrad tedious because he had no interest in jungles).
In Malory’s book, the noble and virtuous knights are betrayed by scum. The high standard comes to nothing and to a modern reader their nobility and knightly morality would seem ludicrous and impossible. A modern reader would talk about processes and initiatives and outreach community hubs and engaging with the people and egalitarianism and learning outcome scenarios and so on. Talk of God (or any God but Allah) or faith, of duty, shame, treason, evil, would strike the modern reader as risibly old-fashioned and most likely fraudulent and, all told, the kind of thing Hitler would have liked.
Even in Malory’s book the knightly ideal is unrealistic; but without unrealistic ideals one is satisfied with getting on, buying a Volvo, a slightly better Chardonnay, etc. Without an ideal, this is all there is; and when it is all, it is disgusting and bestial and beshitten. The ideal may be impossible; indeed, perhaps it should be impossible; for it must pull one up above the mundane, above the sump of self-satisfaction and gross-bellied Southron affluence.
In our culture it seems that there are no longer any real ideals. Or rather, none which enlighten and test, only those which brutalise and destroy. And so i am trying to construct my own, from the bits & pieces to hand.