Wednesday, October 11, 2006

`Hilarious Frustration'

Some enterprising publisher, while returning his novels to print, ought to collect the scattered interviews of Peter De Vries, a writer who seems to have evaporated since his death at the age of 83 in 1993. For the initiated, his name evokes happy memories of puns, graceful prose, and laughing out loud – as well as the pain and sadness (and comedy) of his greatest novel, The Blood of the Lamb, a heavily autobiographical account of a widower losing a daughter to leukemia.

As editor of Poetry and a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, De Vries was safely pigeonholed as a gentle satirist of suburbia – John Cheever with yucks. Between 1940 and 1986, he published 27 works of fiction. Some were minor bestsellers later adapted into movies and plays. Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, two are in print: The Blood of the Lamb and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo. I’ve had to dig up the interviews De Vries gave to various newspapers and journals (even People). All are witty and thoughtful, and help illuminate an American literary culture now long gone.

Comic writers don’t earn academic respect. Humor, except when it’s in the service of politically correct satire, resists critical dissection. What could be funnier than an earnest attempt to define what is funny? Here’s De Vries, from an interview he gave in 1964:

“I’m past admiring [in literature] anything I don’t enjoy; divorce of appreciation from enjoyment…is the curse of academic literary analysis.”

De Vries once declared Anthony Powell one of his favorite writers, praising his “comedy-without-facetiousness,” Here’s what he said in a 1983 interview:

“The oblivious person, the fool, the man who slips on the banana peel is not funny in himself. There must be someone of wider consciousness watching the oblivious one….There can be layers and layers of this deepening perception, like the cow on the evaporated milk can.”

And more, from a 1966 interview with an editor assembling an anthology of “black humor”:

“Nobody has been funnier than Faulkner, nor has anyone had a better grasp of the human predicament than Mark Twain. And didn’t Yeats say Hamlet and Lear are gay? Frost said of this basic principle of playfulness (in discussing Edwin Arlington Robinson, of all people), `If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.’ Any comic worth his salt knows this instinctively, even without being able to put it in Charlie Chaplin’s word: `If what you’re doing is funny, don’t be funny doing it.’ Any attempt to isolate the `serious’ from whatever you want to call its opposite is like trying to put asunder what God hath joined together. The reverse is equally foredoomed. There’s a kind of hilarious frustration about it, like working one of those puzzles where you no more than get one pellet into its hole than the other rolls out again.”

Many writers and critics have blathered on about musical effects in literature. Poets, in particular, make pretentious claims about “writing jazz.” Here’s De Vries, perhaps speaking tongue-in-cheek, on the subject:

“The strongest single influence on my work is unmistakable – Debussy. Same emphasis on texture rather than structure; accumulated nuance rather than organized continuity; the chord of an experience in its own right apart from melody. That clear it up for you sweetheart?”


Anonymous said...

Slouching Towards Kalamazoo was one of my very favorite books growing up. I hadn't thought about it in at least 15 years.

Anonymous said...

Great to see how humor can pep up even those in the lowest of spirits. I prefer reading your awesome blog and just the humor section on SharingArena. Humor really cheers me up as I guess it does to everyone.