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Posts Tagged ‘humour’

A quote from Douglas Adams – one of my heroes – who died ten years ago yesterday at the depressingly young age of 49. Here’s what the Guardian has to say about the occasion.

And here are some more Adams quotations.

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Charlie Brooker introducing a round called This Putrid Modern Hell on the Radio 4 panel game, So Wrong It’s Right:

Critics say our reliance on text messages and tweets is making us worryingly inarticulate, but luckily there’s a wealth of scientific research to suggest the truth is actually a whole opposite bunch of stuff to that.

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Howard Jacobson just won the Man Booker Prize with his novel, The Finkler Question. The main talking point of this event is the fact that it’s the first comic novel to win the prize in its 42-year history.

When I think of comedy fiction, three writers come to mind – Robert Rankin, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. For me the first two – and I love Robert Rankin, and am on the positive side of indifferent to Terry Pratchett (it’s just been announced that Pratchett is a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award winner) – are fairly self-indulgent reads. People read Rankin and Pratchett because there’s something comforting about the worlds they’ve created and sustained in the five million novels they’ve written between them (five million is an approximate figure). They are full of wordplay, silliness and running gags. Douglas Adams, for me, is a much more serious writer. When I read the Hitchhiker books I get a sense of existential melancholy; that series explores the fundamental pointlessness of human existence. The answer to the question – the question, about life, the universe and things of that nature generally – is 42 – which is about as meaningful as any other answer people have come up with.

Jacobson’s thesis, from what I’ve read and heard in the past day, is that comic novels are not or should not be a minor sub-genre, but the totality of literature – all novels should make you laugh, he says.

Well, I would say that humour is a useful tool in any writer’s kit – any novel can have flashes of humour that arise from the characters or the situations. But comic writers also use a certain voice – an authorial voice that is itself humorous, witty, punning, observational – that doesn’t often sit well with literary quality. Of the three writers I mentioned, I would say Adams achieves it, but Rankin and Pratchett do not.

It would be nice to think that all writing and writers are published simply for their literary merits, but it seems like the reality is that many books are published because they fulfil(publishing companies’ perception of) market demand. Fantasy novels have to be about 8,000 pages long and tell the story of a young hero, or group of young heroes, in excrucating detail from childhood to confrontation with the ultimate evil that killed their parents. And comedy novels, clearly, can’t be serious literature – it would confuse people.

My favourite series of books is Stephen R Donaldson’s Gap series. It’s a gripping, brutal space opera – but it has one joke (if that’s the right word) that stood out for me. Introducing one character, Godsen Frik, the book says something along the lines of, ‘He had the fleshy smile of a pederast who’d just been made the head of a boys reform school.’ Appropriately dark, but in as much as it is funny (opinions may differ), it’s somehow out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the story.

I think, ultimately, that each book should just be good at was it does, whether it’s a comedy, a funny book with serious bits, a serious book with funny bits or a work of unleavened humourlessness.

I’ve never read any Howard Jacobson, although I’ve seen him in the media over the years and he’s always seemed plain-speaking and likeable. I should get a copy of one of his books at some point – maybe even The Finkler Question. You can read more about him and his shiny new 50,000 pound prize on the Independent website or over at the Telegraph – or any other news site (but you’ll have to search for them yourself).

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Namely, Brobdingnag.

The nurse, to quiet her babe, made use of a rattle, which was a kind of hollow vessel filled with great stones, and fastned by a cable to the child’s waist: but all in vain, so that she was forced to apply the last remedy by giving it suck. I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast, which I cannot tell what to compare with, so as to give the curious reader an idea of its bulk, shape, and colour. It stood prominent six foot, and could not be less than sixteen in in circumference. The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both of that and the dug so varified with spots, pimples, and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous: for I had a near sight of her, she sitting down the more conveniently to give suck, and I standing on the table. This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their defects not to be seen, but through a magnifying glass, where we find by experiment, that the smoothest and whitest skins look rough and coarse, and ill coloured.

Source: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, ‘A Voyage to Brobdingnag’, Chapter I.

That which gave me most uneasiness among these maids of honour, when my nurse carried me to visit them, was to see them use me without any manner of ceremony, like a creature who had no sort of consequence. For, they would strip themselves to the skin, and put on their smocks in my presence, while I was placed on their toylet directly before their naked bodies: which, I am sure to me was very far from being a tempting sight, or from giving me any other motions that those of horror and disgust. Their skins appeared so coarse and uneaven, so variously coloured when I saw them near, with a mole here and there as broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging from it thicker than pack-threads; to say nothing further concerning the rest of their persons. Neither did they at all scruple while I was by, to discharge what they had drunk, to the quantity of at least two hogsheads, in a vessel that held above three tuns. The handsomest among these maids of honour, a pleasant frolicksome girl of sixteen, would sometimes set me astride upon one of her nipples; with many other tricks, wherein the reader will excuse me for not being over particular.

Source: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, ‘A Voyage to Brobdingnag’, Chapter V.

Earlier in the book, in ‘A Voyage to Lilliput’, the narrator describes how he voided his bowels for the first time since washing ashore and the Lilliputians carted his effluence away in wheelbarrows; later, Gulliver puts out a fire at the Emperor’s palace with his own, personal, built-in fire hose. In addition to the very accessible style of writing, this somewhat puerile interest in bodies and bodily functions has made reading the book quite a pleasure.

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Source: FailBlog.org.

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