While waiting for my flu shot I was reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and sharing the waiting room with two middle-aged women reading magazines. A nurse holding a clipboard entered and asked cheerily, “Who’s getting the mammogram?” I exchanged looks with the woman seated across from me and said, cheerily, “Not I.” The woman beside me had started to stand, on her way to the mammogram, but fell back laughing into her chair and the nurse and the other woman joined her. Another sermon on political correctness and sensitivity narrowly averted, and to their credit all spared me the “Men-get-mammograms-too-you-know” lecture.
I had already begun rereading The Bookshop (1978) when reading Nige’s account of the English novel and its essential comic genius:
“..the most vigorous tradition in English fiction is surely a comic one, from Fielding, Smollett and Sterne to Wodehouse and Waugh and even Amis pere et fils (before they discovered 'seriousness'), by way of Peacock, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Meredith and the greatest and most English of them all, Dickens. Against that joyous, tumultuous stream, the sobersided tradition in English fiction - Richardson, George Eliot, Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene?, the Booker-winning set - seems a thin, sour trickle. Why did 'seriousness' come to be valued above all else?”
I might quibble as to Eliot and Conrad but Nige is right. More than ever I’m drawn to the comic, especially in fiction. Comedy is more serious, truer to the squalor and pain of living than tedious rectitude. It brings us lower faster and provides a convenient litmus test for mental health. Beware the bacillus of self-seriousness. The same goes for the dominant strain of American fiction – Twain, Melville ( thanks to Ishmael, our first stand-up comic), James, Wharton, Cather, Faulkner (I defy you to read As I Lay Dying or The Hamlet without laughing), Bellow, J.F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor and Nabokov. The last makes an oblique appearance, as does Graham Greene, in The Bookshop, set in the nineteen-fifties in an English seaside town:
“Opening the shop gave her, every morning, the same feeling of promise and opportunity. The books stood as neatly ranged as Gipping’s vegetables, ready for all comers.
“Milo came in at lunch-time. `Well, are you going to order Lolita?’
“`I haven’t decided yet. I ordered an inspection copy. I’m confused by what the American papers said about it. One of the reviewers said that it was bad news for the trade and bad news for the public, because it was dull, pretentious, florid and repulsive, but on the other hand there was an article by Graham Greene which said that it was a masterpiece.’”
A sad and very funny masterpiece. Funny fiction has been on my mind since recently rereading much of Flann O’Brien and all of Charles Portis. Another admirer of both is James Marcus with whom I exchanged e-mails last week while reading Masters of Atlantis. James writes:
“Portis is the funniest writer ever. Everything in Masters of Atlantis leaves me paralyzed with laughter and admiration--the hats, the internecine struggles, the crazy gold-extraction scheme, the decaying temple, and so forth. How does he sustain that deliciously poker-faced tone? I have no idea. I'm sorry he stopped publishing and went into seclusion, more or less--no interviews, no journalism, no new books. The Coen Brothers have now made a new version of True Grit, with Jeff Bridges in the role originally played by John Wayne. Perhaps that will nudge Portis back into the limelight a bit, but I'm afraid that he's too subtle for a mass audience.”
I hope that’s not true. Here’s a passage from early in Masters of Atlantis, when Lamar Jimmerson and his followers in the nineteen-twenties are organizing the Gnomon Society in the United States:
“Bates too pitched in anew. Through a friend at the big Chicago marketing firm of Targeted Sales, Inc., he got his hands on a mailing list titled `Odd Birds of Illinois and Indiana,’ which, by no means exhaustive, contained the names of some seven hundred men who ordered strange merchandise through the mail, went to court often, wrote letters to the editor, wore unusual headgear, kept rooms that were filled with rocks or old newspapers. In short, independent thinkers, who might be more receptive to the Atlantean lore than the general run of men. Lamar was a little surprised to find his own name on the list.”
Again, Nige is right: You won’t find that sort of thing in To the Lighthouse.