Friday, January 21, 2022

'They Are Thought Not to Be Serious'

“Nabokov is not serious and he isn’t funny. He is trivial. He is not a good writer. I don’t know why people like you take him seriously.” 

So says an unhappy reader who may be surprised to find himself in the company of a notably comic novelist, Kingsley Amis. In his 1959 review of Lolita, the author of Lucky Jim accused Nabokov of “dullness, fatuity and unreality” – an unlikely trio of sins. If you’re trying to convince someone that a given piece of writing is funny, you’ve already lost. Laughter is a hair-trigger psychophysical response not unrelated to sneezing. You can’t browbeat someone into laughing -- or even tittering. The novelist John Gardner, when I interviewed him almost half a century ago, convinced me that Moby-Dick is a comedy complete with penis and fart jokes. Our host, Ishmael, is a combination of Mark Twain and Lenny Bruce. Is Moby-Dick serious? Of course. Is it funny? Damn right it is. The same goes for Shakespeare.


So, I won’t argue with my reader. Few writers have given me as much pleasure, of all sorts – laughs, drama, “aesthetic bliss” -- as Vladimir Nabokov. Another serious/funny writer, Anthony Powell, after receiving the Ingersoll Foundation’s T. S. Eliot Award in 1984, said in an interview published in Chronicles of Culture:


“[H]e can’t see that because [John] Betjeman made a lot of jokes, that didn’t mean that he was not serious. It is one of the most appalling things to happen these days. If people do occasionally make a joke they are thought not to be serious. But I think [F.R.] Leavis is very responsible for that and a lot of left-wing criticism generally. In point of fact there is not a single major novelist who didn’t have a very good sense of humor—from Petronius to Proust.”


Edward Bauer said...

I don't want to go looking for the exact quote, but Howard Jacobson insists that the term comic novel is redundant and that a novel without the comic element is a failure (he excepts Middlemarch because Eliot is a genius). I have mentioned it before, but I always remember the comment you quoted years ago: 'terribly funny, like life...'

Craig said...

It seems rich for Kingsley to accuse Nabokov of "dullness".
Anybody who has waded through Kingsley's post EJH period ("Stanley & The Women" etc.) will let out a snort of derision.

mathew said...

German novelists (Hesse, Mann) don't go in for humour. The only German-language writer I find funny is Thomas Bernhard, and he was Austrian. Even Hitler's comedic moments are a bit laboured.