Posts tagged Humour
Posts tagged Humour
Blindness is tragic, deafness is comic. That is the premise Deaf Sentence, the latest by the British author David Lodge, begins with. The first few chapters explores this perspective through Desmond, a likable character, spending his early retirement as professor of linguistics from the English department, but still in academic setting and company continuing with his research (or purporting so). He has accepted his deaf state and its mostly comic and tragicomic flailing in stride, without indulging in self-pity (David Lodge acknowledges his growing deafness for the authenticity of the portrayal of the protagonist). Through him we learn of the (non) workings of hearing aids, what is Lombard reflex and how deafness saves one from that, why TV is a good companion (close captioned) for the deaf than the movie halls, of ‘quiet coaches’ in England trains, of Beethoven’s despair and how his reclusive character is a put-on to cover-up his growing deafness (as he explains in his letters), how Francis Goya’s deafness could have enhanced his concentration to do better paintings in his later years and several such interesting deaf stuff. These sections are peppered with word play and dead-pan humour
One of the strongest curses in English language is ‘Damn your eyes!’ (much stronger than ‘Fuck you!’ and definitely more satisfying) […] “Damn your ears!” doesn’t cut it. Or imagine if the poet had written, ‘Drink to me only with thine ear…; It’s actually no more illogical than saying drink with thine eyes […] Nor would ‘Smoke gets in your ears’ be a very catchy refrain for a song […] ‘There’s more in this than meets the ear’ is something Inspector Clouseau might say, not Poirot.
The novel moves on from that relatively light premise to a ‘deafness is tragic’ premise for few chapters and ends with chapters that conclude ‘deafness is not tragic, only death is’. The plight of a geriatric parent, living separately in London, and refusing to move ‘up North’ near to his son (Desmond) and daughter-in-law, and the doting deaf son’s inadequacy in convincing either his dad or his wife for a ‘move in’ solution is only familiar to most of us in such a state in our lives. A less familiar track, perhaps to readers who are not ‘academics’, is the episodes between Desmond and Alex Loom, an attractive but unhinged PhD student who is only too aware of her charms and doubly eager to use them for getting her research and laundry done by someone else capable. The despair felt by a bright professor (not Desmond) beguiled by Alex, the dread he and Desmond feel when a suicide was threatened by her, the associated academic quibbles, jealousies and integrity, are all portions of the novel I could lap with sympathetic unease. In the end Desmond gets lucky — not with Alex, but with his integrity.
Apart from Desmond, his ageing dad is given enough coverage and care in character depth (again, David Lodge acknowledges his personal life for this). Next comes his asserting and business savvy wife Winfred. The character of Alex Loom is also given some flesh and detail. The rest don’t have a major role of impact in the novel. This perhaps is deliberate as the novel unfolds from the perspective of Desmond and the rest of the characters are discussed and detailed only to the extent he knows of them. The novel has several anecdotes that are original and amusing if not LOL-type funny, while engaging in wry observations about familiar human relationships.
Given the scope the deafness tempts, thankfully, the novel is not bitter, kept mostly upbeat, if not cheerful. The writing as one expects from David Lodge, is elegant and taut. The narration moves between first and third person, an exercise Desmond is fond of giving to his students. That and long paragraphs often spanning two pages, with long sentences that use the language and written form to its potential (with parenthetic contrary observations appearing in the middle of the already long sentences, a style that I have observed to annoy several non-British English language readers, particularly non-native-English speakers), a writing style that demands undivided attention from the reader in return for the assured enjoyment.
Book: Deaf Sentence
Author: David Lodge
Year of Publication: 2007
London based publishers Prion have sometime now been re-publishing most of the classics from around fifty to hundred years back, from the stiff-upper-lip-Brit humour (notice the ‘u’) to the more unabashed slap-the-back American ones. Authors include (complete list) E. F. Benson, Saki, Jerome K. Jerome, Max Beerbohm to Anita Loos, James Thurber, Mark Twain, S. J. Perelman across the pond to the relatively obscure E. M. Delafield (Diary of a Provincial Lady). I picked a relative unknown for me, How to Travel Incognito written by Ludwig Bemelmans.
Ludwig Bemelmans, born in Austrian Tyrol in 1898 and a colorful personality in his times, was raised by his uncle who was a successful hotelier. The book has a nice introduction by Robert Warnick on Bemelman’s real-life adventures — shot a staff in his Uncle’s hotel and ran off to America by 16 with two pistols to “fend off hostile Indians”. Bemelmans is not exactly obscure, for he is a popular author for children and has written more than fifty books, most of them light-hearted and humorous. How to… is also written in similar style. It is a collection of easy adventures by the protagonist, semi-autobiographical, set in 1950s France.
Monsieur Le Comte de St. Cucuface is an aristocrat fallen on hard times, with his head and appetite held high, living on parties. He convinces our protagonist, Ludwig, to travel ‘incognito’ with him, as the Prince of Bavaria and join the fun. And so the adventures begin in post-war France, gallivanting from one hotel to another buffet through bar-rooms, gobbling gastronomic delights to gaffes, from one castle to another party via train journey that gets misdirected. Each sojourn is spruced with a story of local color, some interesting others plainly boring. And in the end, all misadventures along with the adventurers come to a happy tepid ending.
Here is a sample from the whacky prose to prick your interest:
“The painter Dali once told me that turtles are very useful. They make excellent ashtrays,” said St. Cucuface. “The way to do it is simple: you take a turtle of medium size, a young one, preferably between fifty and seventy-five years of age, and you have a jeweller attach a metal rod to its shell. On the top of that an ashtray is put, a detachable ashtray that you may take off in order to have it cleaned. The advantage is that since the turtle always tries to get under something, it will always be next to a couch or an easy chair where you want the ashtray.”
“Very practical,” said the Princess.
“And besides,” added St. Cucuface, “when you leave, you can say to the housekeeper - ‘Good-by, and don’t forget to feed the ashtray.”
Such passages and a re-working of Sleeping Beauty into a really wacky story, slipped in as part of an adventure, are the high-points. The book entirely is not that way, interspersed with several un-interesting passages that tested my resolve not to skip, saved only by occasional one-liners that promised more and the contextual line-drawings by the author. I am reminded of an observation on the music of Richard Wagner that goes something like: His music has beautiful moments and awful quarter-hours. But then, I would always complete reading such honest books than feeling lost and guilty over certain literary-tomes.
Author: Ludwig Bemelmans
Year of (Re-)Publication: 2003
The Humorist, P. G. Wodehouse has written over a hundred books, most of which have remained popular crossing three generations, even today. It is surprising that one of the verbose Tamil critics I read found PGW less appealing, after ‘going through’ two of his books. Wrong books coupled with a lack of appreciation for excellent English, I should say in my kinder moods, instead of wondering in prose on the misfortune of creators having to cast pearls among pigs. If one wonders where to begin to bask in the sunlit prose of those cataloged hundreds and laugh oneself to tears, Leave it to Psmith is a recommended place. You may then move on to The Code of the Woosters or Right Ho Jeeves, available for download at the gutenberg.
Indignant and harmless, effacing and enlightening, light-hearted and lilting, complex sentences of creative elegance, careening the plot into chaos, only to be unraveled like a quipu with no loose ends, the story revolves around a happy-go-lucky chap Psmith (p silent), endeavoring to purloin the necklace of Lady Constance Keeble, at the behest of her nephew Freddie, only to redouble his efforts for benefiting his friend Mike and his wife Phyllis, who is the step daughter of the Lady with the necklace. And re-triple his efforts in the guise of Ralston McTodd — the poet who originally got invited to Blandings Castle by the Lady’s brother the Lord Emsworth, but absconded — having realized that Eve Halliday, a friend of Phyllis and on whom he got love-struck the first sight, is also going to Blandings Castle as a cataloger. The plot is more complex than I have described, but the eliciting prose is of supreme clarity I wish I could write a few sentences that way in English, in my lifetime.
Here are two samples to get you going:
Are you really broke?
As broke as the Ten Commandments.
and the next
Planting his foot firmly on a golf-ball which the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, who had been practicing putting in the corridor before retiring to bed, had left in his casual fashion just where the steps began, he took the entire staircase in one majestic, volplaning sweep. There were eleven starirs in all separating his landing from the landing below, and the only ones he hit were the third and tenth. He came to rest with a squattering thud on the lower landing, and for a moment or two the fever of the chase left him.
Book: Leave it to Psmith
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Year of Publication: 1923 (reprint 2008)
I like essays. Even the entirely fictional ones. I like the most, essays that blur the difference between fiction and non-fiction. They are the creative ones that shape your thought through the unease they suffuse through their fine mix of facts and fantasy. Finding such essays, leave alone finding such essayists, is hard. It is an endeavor. In Tamil, several essays/short-stories by Nanjil Nadan repeatedly define this standard with ease. Recent collections titled “kAvalan kAvAn enin” and “sUdiya pU sUdarka” (that won him the sAhithya akAdemy award) are treasures that demand your thinking and action. Discussing these books is for another note.
While on a recent splurge at a local bookstore for such essay collections in English, along with the relative heavy-weights like “The Collected Essays” of A. K. Ramanujan, “Patriots and Partisans” by Ramachandra Guha, “Selected Essays” of G. K. Chesterton, “Readings” by Michael Dirda, “Inventing the Enemy” by Umberto Eco, “Some Remarks” by Neal Stephenson, I also picked “My Husband and Other Animals” by Janaki Lenin with a prompting from my dame and on a lark, Never Push When It Says Pull by a guy named Guy Browning, a relative unknown to me. But that is one reason we read books, don’t we — to meet over a course of their printed discourse made available for a price, strangers whom you could become life-long friends with.
Never Push When It Says Pull is a collection of 800 word long (short?) essays with titles beginning with a “How to…” discussing everyday topics. The essays are segregated under ten categories ranging from “Out and About” to “Reading and Writing” to “Shopping and Spending” to “Lying and Swearing”. Intended as humorous asides peppered with unintended profundities, on several occasions they fall between sarcastic observations and ignorant hyperbole. The prose with distinctly understated British humor reminds one of those “How to Be…” books by George Mikes, popular from several decades back. But then, George Mikes was an emigrant (Hungarian) who ‘became’ a Brit.
Several of the first sentences of these essays are deadly. Sample these: You don’t realize how important your dignity is until you suddenly lose it (How to…embarrass yourself); The golden rule of healthy living is to make sure you keep your total units of alcohol below your total number of cigarettes (How to…live cleanly); Singing is what you do when you want to make a noise but haven’t got anything much to say (How to…sing); Things are very like people in that at any given moment one tenth of them are poorly (How to…fix things); Having too many choices leads to moral obesity (How to…choose); tourists are people who spend their life savings travelling many thousands of miles in order to stand directly in front of you when you are trying to get somewhere in a hurry (How to…be a tourist). One does feel some of the essays in this collection shouldn’t have been written beyond such first sentences.
Science is the religion for people who can’t cope with religion. That is the first sentence of “How to…be scientific”. If the humorous intent is kept aside, that first sentence only exposes the ignorance of the writer about science. In fact, many of the observations on science in this essay, if not taken as humorous observations, are either confused or wrong or both. But then, in the next essay on art, he observes:
Impressionism was the world seen through a couple of glasses of vin rouge. Expressionism was impressionism after the whole bottle. Vorticism was when the room started spinning and modern conceptual art is the throwing-up stage
Humorous and barbarous, respectively, for those who don’t know and know about art/paintings.
Like any short story or essay collection or even the omnibus of an author, this is a book not to be read in one go. It should be visited periodically, if not often, like chatting with our beer-buddy or meeting the town wise-counsel. Else the humor would begin to appear cynical, the reflections would appear judgmental and before long, the wry would turn dry. That is when the prose of such essays would settle into boring fiction or bland facts.
Author: Guy Browning
Year of publication: 2005 (paperback, 2010)
Buy at Amazon
Caught in the middle of an agonizing gum inflammation that precluded any sensible activity, and needing something to cheer me up, I picked up “Dave Barry Turns 40”. What do you know? The book starts with the following sentences:
Well, its finally happening. I’m talking about the long-predicted Aging Process. I see many signs of it in my own life. For example, I have become tremendously concerned about my gums.
Considering that I will be hitting the milestone myself in a few months, it was hilarious that I should be reading that concern for gums is a sign of aging.
Nothing helps overcome the adversity of middle age than a good laugh. In 10 chapters, Barry lightens, through his sophomoric humour, the mundane issues that hit you at 40 - the disintegrating body, midlife marriage, parenting, sex after 40 (or sex? after 40?), time management, financial management, politics etc. And while you are, as the cliche goes, rollingOFL, one sudden poignant section “Lost in America” tears you up, and it takes a while to get over the constriction at the throat to go on with the rest of the book.
Dave Barry is a welcome read if you are looking for a light book that will make you laugh without thinking too much. The humour is fairly clean, and what impresses me most is the up-beat-ness of thoughts that makes you laugh in, not laugh at, life. We have “Dave Barry turns 50” as well, I am debating if I should read it now, or wait a decade longer to laugh out louder through association.
Book: Dave Barry Turns 40
Author: Dave Barry
Year of Publication: 1991
Without Feathers is a collection of 18 eclectic works of Woody Allen. The pieces are humourous and the humour is both wacky and intelligent, a combination only Allen can pull. The collection includes two plays - Death and God, both of the ROFL variety. Allen also has the obligatory French painter piece - If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists - where Vincent van Gogh writes to his brother Theo about the travails of being a dentist and concludes that he would have been a lot better had he chosen to be a painter, like their mother wanted !
My favourite piece in the collection is The whore of Mensa, a brilliant short story about a call-girl racket, where the call girls provide “intellectual” escort service. An excerpt from this story (the story is available online, so I am sure I am not violating any copyright agreements here):
Seconds later, a silky voice answered, and I told her what was on my mind. “I understand you can help me set up an hour of good chat,” I said.
“Sure, honey. What do you have in mind?”
“I’d like to discuss Melville.”
“Moby Dick or shorter novels?”
“What’s the difference?”
“The price. That’s all. Symbolism’s extra.”
“What’ll it run me?”
“Fifty, maybe a hundred for Moby Dick. You want a comparative discussion - Melville and Hawthorne? That could be arranged for a hundred.”
“The dough’s fine,” I told her and gave her the number of a room at the Plaza.
“You want a blonde or a brunette?”
“Surprise me,” I said, and hung up.
Allen’s movies are usually breezy with oodles of the feel-good factor, and his books, enormously entertaining. Woody Allen can be considered the contemporary P.G.Wodehouse.
Book: Without Feathers
Author: Woody Allen
Year of Publication: 1975
The Britt-understating, stiff-upper-lip, self-deprecating good-natured dig is truly timeless. “The Clicking of Cuthbert and other golf stories” were written, when Sir Wodehouse was, according to his confession, in throes of agony of carefully preserving the handicap at eighteen and not let it slip into the twenties, unlike his other works that were written with a perpetually cheery disposition. If this were the soul-pourings of a “very nearly desperate man”, one hopes that he were desperate more often.
The Penguin publication that I possess, is a collection of ten stories, not counting the dedication “to the immortal memory of John Henrie and Pat Rogie who at Edinburgh in the year AD 1593 were imprisoned for ‘Playing of the Gowff on the link of Leith every sabbath the time of the sermonses’ and also of Robert Robertson who got it in the neck AD 1604 for the same reason” and ‘fore’word , which themselves are vastly entertaining. In all but the last, the story is narrated by “The Oldest Member” of the golf club, who is well past his prime, most of which was, you perceive, spent golfing. Now he is an arm-chair golfer and a store house of tales that enthrall. He has one for every occasion – for souls seared by romance of the fairer kind, for friendships, family. My favorite is the last story – The Coming of Gowf, a hilarious fable of how the new religion, Gowf took a kingdom by storm.
Each story in the collection is wholesome, and gives the reader a feeling of positive glow, at a love story that ended well, a stroke improved. And while reading it, as with any Wodehouse, you feel not the need to guffaw, but smile constantly so that you reluctantly close the book for a small break to thaw your mandibular muscles. The exaggerated style makes the setting ridiculously funny. Although you were born way after Wodehouse, and do not know of life in England at the turn of the past century except from reading tedious prose in high school, you can relate to the emotions and a wave of nostalgia sweeps through, like the whiff of whatchamacallit that flits past when you remember your grandmother’s house in summer.
Book: The Clicking of Cuthbert and Other Golf Stories
Author: P.G. Wodehouse
First Published: 1922