Wednesday 23 March 2011

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

"... Home, where my thoughts escape, at home, where my music's playin'
Home, where my love lies waitin' silently for me..."

'Homeward Bound' (Simon and Garfunkel)

Everytime I come back to my London home from a trip abroad there are a handful a songs I have to play as soon as I saunter through my front door. These are tunes that exude domesticity, comfort and warmth. One of them is that timeless classic by Art and Paul, 'Homeward Bound'. The melody works at several levels for me but it is in the chorus where it takes on a special meaning. The 'thoughts' that 'escape' in the track, represent my memories, both conscious and unconscious (it also works when I go back to Cuba; that's also 'home', obviously). The 'music' stands for my domestic surroundings: the familiar sounds, the ordinary lights and the instantly recognisable furniture. Finally that 'love' of which Simon and Garfunkel sing is my next-of-kin; both in Cuba and here in GB.

However, away from the world of D minor chords and C majors, that song also represents how I feel sometimes about certain books. Especially those penned by authors whose works I have never read before and yet they immediately make me feel 'at home'. Have you ever come across a writer whose name might have caught your attention but of whose oeuvre you are unaware? Maybe you've even read the odd little non-fiction piece in a newspaper or magazine, but still, you have not quite got around to dig into their proper opus. When that happens, I tread carefully, especially if the work in question comes with a few awards attached. What if I don't like it?

Nevertheless, that initial apprehension is soon overcome because of the way the writing reflects my preferences. This is not to say that the author's writing is a replica of someone else's. It's based, rather, on how the writer taps into areas of my brain that lead me to that 'homely' feeling. One of them is the one labelled 'humour'.

There's a difference between comic novels/short stories and novels or tales that contain a high level of facetiousness. I rarely come across the former (unless I'm reading Woody Allen, then again, that's almost like an extended version of his erstwhile stand-up act), but I absolutely love the latter. The late Virgilio Piñera, Chimamanda Ngozi, Borges and Kundera are good examples of how serious works of fiction needn't be po-faced. These writers, and many others, achieve hilarity without compromising their narrative. In Ngozi's 'Half of a Yellow Sun' there's plenty of tragedy since the novel is set during the Biafran war. At the same time there are moments of pure mirthfulness that render the piece effortlessly graceful. Not having been exposed to her work before, I finished reading 'Half of...' thinking of delving into her previous novel 'Purple Hibiscus' as soon as possible. Part of the motivation was based on her sense of humour.

When I mention humour in novels and short stories, I don't mean the thousand-laughs-a-minute type. In my case I prefer the slow-cooking, thoughtful kind. It is comicality not as buffoonery, but as wit. Especially when you decode references in a passage that might otherwise be irrelevant. This is the sort of humour that breeds a strong intimacy between reader and writer.

The most recent example I've come across lately is Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall', a historical novel of gargantuan ambitions. What makes Hilary's work so enjoyable is her unconventional approach. She writes about a historical period well covered in schools: Henry VIII's kingdom, his lack of a male heir and his tussle with the pope. However, she injects each character with a believable and dynamic personality. And one of the key elements in making her story believable is her use of humour to convey the deep changes occurring in England in the 1520s.

Recently, the author Howard Jacobson, winner of the Booker prize 2010, wrote "Show me a novel that's not comic and I'll show you a novel that's not doing its job." I half-agree with him and half-disagree. 'Wolf Hall' is not a comic novel per se, and yet it contains many laugh-inducing moments. These become more poignant as we learn of Thomas Cromwell's difficult childhood (he had an abusive father) and the misfortunes that befall him and his family when he loses both his wife and his two daughters. Cromwell's dry and warped sense of humour match his no-nonsense approach to life and it is this fortitude of character that ultimately leads him to become Henry VIII's chief operator. What I think Jacobson is saying in his essay is that novels that lack humour, fail to convey what I call the 'plausibility of life', that fine line between accepting what's happening in a book as an alternative reality (albeit a temporary one) and an outright impossible scenario. We're all aware that it's very unlikely that cars will ever be possessed by supernatural forces, but still that won't deter people from reading Stephen King's 'Christine' and sympathising with Leigh Cabot, the vehicle's main target. Incidentally, if my memory serves me correctly there's hardly any humour in that novel. Come to think of it, after reading my fair share of King's books, I don't recall much mirth in them. Something to consider.

I do agree with Howard that fun should be as much part of a novel's DNA as a strong plot and credible characters. It won't hurt anyone, let alone publishers, in these times of distress and economic uncertainty to include a caption like 'this book is seriously amusing' in the novel's cover. However, a piece of fiction where you're reading jokes from beginning to end is neither taking itself too seriously nor the reader. If I want unadulturated comedy, I'll tune into 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks' on a Monday evening, thank you very much.

Hilary follows in the footsteps of many novelists who have used, or used in the case of those who are no longer amongst the living, humour as an incidental tool. Cervantes did it with 'Don Quijote de la Mancha'. In fact, most people remember the magnum opus of Spanish letters more for its delusional protagonist, his illiterate squire and the absurd adventures they encounter on their way than they do for its groundbreaking literary approach.

In the same way that Simon and Garfunkel's song always reminds me of the comfort I find back home when I return from a trip abroad, humour in a novel, especially one that first introduces me to an author's work, feels as cosy as a quilt on a winter night. Silently cosy.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music’, to be posted on Sunday 27th March at 10am (GMT)


  1. I enjoyed this post because it is a subject on my mind. Thank you Cuban. I travel the distance daily to arrive home. At the end of the day, daily, I look forward to be home. To be in the comfort of familiarity. At times, music would ease the trip home but not many interest me. I don't read much or at all lately but books lining the shelves do give me comfort that I could get to them whenever I want to. As for humour, to me, they come from tv and only American.

  2. So much to think about here, Cuban. And I do believe that you're absolutely right. When I think about the novels that I believe to be truly "great," they are all humorous in some way -- or at least demonstrate that the author has a sense of humor, a quirkiness -- insight -- wickedness.

  3. Elizabeth took the words from me. It's the exact way I feel about "great" books!

  4. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.

  5. I have deep respect for any writer who pulls off the combination of literary and humorous. That is very hard to do well.

  6. Oh, and I meant to tell you I like your blog's new look.

  7. I haven't visited your page for a while and the new header just knocked me out. It's absolutely gorgeous and made me want to dance. I think it was Mandel's humor that made Cromwell come so alive and made the character so believable and likable. In fact, her book encouraged me to read some non-fiction bio's of Cromwell who was a far better man than we have been led to believe. I am afraid that I won't be able to read Mandel's next novel on Cromwell because we all know what comes next. It's had to inject much humor into a tragedy and Henry VIII spread tragedy around him like a dirty rug.

  8. Writing humour needs a deft touch, I think - probably more so than any other kind of writing. If the writer tries to hard, or works too laboriously at it, it just doesn't work.
    You know what I liked best about this post, Cuban? It's originality. The idea of find 'home' in literature. I can always count on finding something fresh here.

    (Homeward Bound used to be what I listened to in my first French life - made me melancholy as all get out, but I couldn't stop.)

  9. Many thanks for your kind words.

    The post should have included a passage from 'Wolf Hall', but, alas, I couldn't find it by the time I began to write this regular section. It was in fact the excerpt that inspired me to write this column. For that I apologise. It serves me right, though. A lesson for future posts: always make a note of a particular scene that's made an impression on you. :-)

    Greetings from London.



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