Wednesday 25 January 2023

Review: An Anatomy of Laughter by Richard Boston

 I picked up An Anatomy of Laughter by Richard Boston from the cheapie section of my favourite bookshop because I like the ‘anatomy’ approach, using lot of different sources to tug and pull at a subject. When I looked at the book closer and saw there were whole chapters about Laurence Sterne and Samuel Johnson, I was very glad I had.

The book was written in the 1970s by an eccentric journalist who launched Britain’s first eco-magazine and was also a large part of the campaign for real ale, despite the fact he preferred gin. Looking up his obituary before reading this book, an ex wife said he was always laughing and was the only person she had ever known who’d woken himself up with his own laughter. The sources and attitudes in the book are a little white guy with a classics education but are livened by the genial, generous attitude of the writer.

He starts off with a chapter where he describes how the current era (the 1970s) has a rather queasy laugh and how some have declared it the end of humour and comedy. To be fair, though some sitcoms from the 70s still hold up okay, there is much of 70s humour, such as the club comedians, which have not aged well at all. In contrast, now (in the 2020s) comedy is in rude health, at least if that health can be judged by the swarming multitude of stand-ups I’ve never heard of on panel shows. Boston plays a switch on the reader though, discovering similar write-ups on the ‘death of comedy’ going back for years and years. Rather like music, it seems that many individual’s taste for comedy deteriorates as they grow older and each generation feels like things aren’t as funny as they used to be.

The next chapter is about the physical expression of laughter, mostly using early-modern medical textbooks as Boston seems to enjoy watching people of the past groping towards more accurate physical knowledge. One theory is that the lungs act as bellows, blowing the spirit of life through the body in laughter.

Then there’s a chapter on theories of laughter. These are mostly pretty grim. Plato thought that laughter was caused by the sudden feeling of superiority over another person, whilst Hobbes agreed and included the notion of feeling superior over a past self. A man called Bergson said that laughter policed the lines of conformity, when a person crosses that line they are laughed back into submission. These are all laughter as a form of attack and control which Boston says misses another aspect of laughter, the one based in the joy of play and pretend. There’s the laughter at pure inventiveness, silliness, fun - even the more attack-based laughter of a stand-up comic bantering with an audience is aggression that takes place in a suspension of real life, a kind of pretend. He concludes that the things that make us laugh involve aggression, obscenity or playfulness, often in combination.

The book then looks at different ways of making people laugh. There’s a chapter on mediaeval fools (which I read a few books about in 2019), one about slapstick and the silent comedians (he’s a Buster Keaton fan more than Chaplin, as he thinks the sentiment disables the laughter). There’s a chapter dividing wit (which yokes two dissimilar ideas together in a persuasive way) and humour (which involves the comic observations on the frailties of the human species). Incidentally, France tends to pride itself on wit and Britain on humour, though both have had examples of each. None of what is said is particularly original, I’ve heard that comment about Chaplin many times, but they are nicely put.

The book also has a great time in finding examples of wit, humour and such to give to the reader. Some of these I had heard of, like Spooner telling the student he’d ‘tasted the whole worm’ or the very funny textbook English as She is Spoke. Others were new to me, like the witty vicar, Sidney Smith, who could dissolve a room into tears of laughter, or Daisy Ashford, the nine-year-old author of a grown-up society novel, The Young Visiters.

Then came the case studies. The first was Rabelais, whose work I was planning to read this year anyway. It gave me a good grounding in Pantagruelism, ‘jollity of mind, pickled in the scorn of fortune’ and made me rush the book right up in my reading plans. Another was about Shandeism, emphasising how Tristram Shandy has not lost its power to tickle, antagonise and amuse readers - I’ve read it before but I’m reading it with my book group in April.

Another case study was Samuel Johnson, who seems like an unusual choice for a book about laughter to the uninitiated, though when Johnsonians get together and talk about him, there’s often laughter. Unfortunately, the chapter doesn’t really talk about how funny a writer he can be, it’s not about Johnson as a comic but as a laugher. Many accounts of him describe how his long, insistent laughter was quick to arrive, long to stay and could cause other people to laugh even if they didn’t know what he was laughing at. I was reminded of the Tom Davies quote that he laughed ‘like a rhinoceros’. Boston also made the point that Johnson often laughed at very small things, whether it was the rats line in Grainger’s Sugar-Cane, or a friend making his will. Johnson’s huge laughter was equal to his huge depression, a vital boost in his battle against his own melancholy feelings.

The next chapter ran with this idea, talked a lot about Byron and talked about a book called The Savage God by by Al Álvarez, mostly about Sylvia Plath but also about a Romantic obsession with suicide. He slices that idea right down, emphasising the laughter among the Romantics, saying that the doomed Byron is the least interesting, and not very accurate. 

   “Johnson and Byron experienced life as something disorderly and irrational, that needed the disorder and irrationality of laughter to make it bearable.” 

This book, while in many ways a scrapbook of quotes and (slightly worn) anecdotes does manage to be a fairly enlightening look at laughter from physical, emotional and cultural perspectives. It is also frequently funny, Boston having a good turn of phrase himself, and good at bringing the reader to other funny things. Ultimately it proves the point he quotes from Scottish poet, Norman Cameron, that laughter is ‘the sunlight in the cucumber’.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Review: Coelebs in Search of a Wife by Hannah More

 I read Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife for something of a dare. The Dr Johnson Reading Circle took a literary tour around Bath and I’d sampled a little something from most of the stops except Hannah Moore’s. We were told of her only novel, an interminably boring tale of a man looking for his perfect wife and, as a single man, was at the receiving end of a number of jokes that it might hold useful information. I decided to read it, just so I could say I had.

One of the biggest problems of the book is that Coelebs isn’t really in search of a wife. Not only has he been raised in such a way that most women wouldn’t fulfil his peculiar and exacting standards, he’s been raised in a way that only one woman can. This woman has herself been raised to be the perfect wife for him - a plan cooked up by both their fathers when the children were born. What’s more, Coelebs has been told to hold off his decision until he meets this woman, so when he’s meeting others, he already has that in the back of his mind. He hardly talks to any of the prospective candidates and actual spends far more time thinking about their mothers.

This is another problem with the book, Coelebs is weird. His ideal woman in the prelapsarian Eve as depicted in Paradise Lost. He particularly cites a moment when an angel pops down to see them and Eve can easily knock up a scrumptious meal and then doesn’t join in the conversation because the men are talking big talk. He doesn’t have any opinions that don’t come from his own father or from a rigid selection of books. When one woman says she enjoys literature, he starts a conversation with her about Latin poetry and is very disappointed that she can’t read Latin. (When it turns out Lucilla, his made-to-order bride does read Latin, it’s treated as something of a dirty secret.) Coelebs is far more interested in the parents and educational theories that have shaped the potential wives than the women themselves, having long conversations about how the woman was disciplined as a child and such. He’s a weirdo.

Most of the potential wives are barely characters, very few of them having dialogue, with far more attention paid to their mothers’ failings. Lucilla is allowed to speak for herself a little. She’s not an unpleasant person but so cowed under by her upbringing that she regards complements as dangerous to her spiritual welfare. She’s been educated to be knowledgable about music, literature and art but has been utterly discouraged to think of herself as a musician, writer or artist - what would women have to say in these mediums after all? (Says the female author…) Her sister Phoebe shows a little more life but that’s being ground out of her by maths lessons.

Lucilla’s father, Mr Stanley is presented as the ideal Christian. He is naturally kind and charitable but these acts are motivated by his deep faith. Many of the other characters in the book don’t quite reach his saintliness as they have all the right faith but none of the right actions, or all the right actions but none of the faith. He’s the worst. He hogs conversations, assuming that everyone wants to hear his opinions. He has been training his children in carefully manipulative ways, and training one of them to specifically be a perfect wife to Coelebs. He looks down on most people but if complemented says that he is just the same as other people with dark urges - we never find out what these are. He might not be outright abusive but his wife and children have been badgered and bothered and brainwashed into agreeing with everything he says.

The worst thing about this novel is that is is 400 pages long and dull. Even the potentially interesting notion of a search for a wife is squandered. There are no twists, turns or events in the book and there’s almost no dialogue, just monologues in succession. Despite being written by a woman, it reads like boring old man with nasty, narrow views opining on the world after a glass of port. It’s not a good book.

Wednesday 11 January 2023

Review: Hermsprong by Robert Bage

 Marketed as satire, Hermsprong should be sold as an out-and-out comedy, it’s a very funny book written in a deft, playfully ironic tone similar to the one I love in Fielding. 

I expected the book to start in the third person, telling the birth and childhood of the young Hermsprong amongst the natives of America. Then I expected him to get into some misunderstanding or romantic disappointment which sent him travelling into England, arguing with various representatives of the status quo. I thought the narration would be pretty straight-forward and a little flat, the highlights being the caricatures of stuffy English types. Instead, the book starts in the first person, told by the wonderfully ridiculous and ham-fisted Gregory Glen, who decides to settle down in the quaint village of Grondale. Then we are introduced to the key characters in Grondale, their quirks and flaws, before Hermsprong turns up and stirs the pot. As such, it’s structured a little more like a sitcom and rather than being tied to the slightly-dull Hermsprong, we spend more time seeing how he effects the other far more interesting characters. 

I think the key to this book’s humour and pleasure is Gregory, the narrator. First, it unsettles the reader, learning of his own birth as a bastard and how he was paid to stay as far away from his noble father as possible, so he settles in Grondale with enough money to mooch about - he’s a sap and not the person the reader expects to meet first. When he is mildly unlucky in love, he plans to throw himself in the sea like Sappho but faints before he gets the chance, instead of this being treated sentimentally (or even mock-heroically) it’s treated ridiculously - the reader learns that this isn’t going to be a romance full of sighs and tears. 

What’s more, Gregory’s tone is so wonderful. Early on, he has a go as a poet and, “produced some poetry which I thought sublime. I could not bring the booksellers to coincide with this opinion.” - If that’s not an accurate description of being an unsuccessful writer, I don’t know what is. The zingers keep coming, whether it’s describing “the agreeable garrulousness of a fretful woman” or a young man “with a sweet, pretty face and two well-enough shaped legs” which then goes on for a page describing how that young man’s sense of self is built on those legs.

Gregory also has Shandean moments where imaginary interlocutors from the readership mock and question him. One pesters him to get on with the story itself, there’s a small digression about digressions and, when he actually enters the story as a character, he awkwardly explains that he’s going to refer to himself in the third person and he actually does. I loved him as narrator.

My other favourite character was Miss Fluart. She’s the female protagonist’s funny, outrageous best friend - and she is. Indeed, she’s a little too vivacious and sometimes puts the meeker, more sensible female protagonist in the shadow. She’s an orphan taken in by the eccentric Mr Sumelin and his less eccentric family. She has personal wealth and doesn’t have the pressure of carrying on a family name, or marrying for stability, as such she is free to play and have fun. Her name sounds like ‘flirt’ and she does but not to climb social ladders or advance herself. She flirts to distract unwanted men away from her friend and to have fun. Never lost for a witty remark, she even manages to lead Lord Grondale on, without ever promising anything (even getting a peek into his pornovallion), as she also distracts the odious Lord Chestrum. She and Hermsprong have a fun, teasing relationship and it’s her that gets him to loosen up the most.

Lord Grondale makes a great villain, he’s vain, conceited and expects respect and love because of his wealth and titles. He’s a blustering, noisy baddie, yet there is a little sadness for him at the end of the book even as he brings the comeuppance on himself. He’s joined by the slimily upward mobile priest, Doctor Blixen and helped by the lawyer, Corrow. At one point this lawyer gives a speech where he tries to make Hermsprong look bad in court and so magnifies some small inconsistencies about him. Corrow’s speech starts, “At a time when the nation is so greatly, excessively, alarmingly alarmed, agitated and convulsed” and goes on in that thesauristical vein for two pages.

Another inconvenience is Lord Chestrum, a weak, mummy’s boy who applies to Lord Grondale to be his daughter’s husband. Grondale's daughter is Miss Campinet, who loves Hermsprong but is too dutiful to her father to marry without his permission. The chapter where Chestrum chats her up for the first time but is so ham-handed about it that she doesn’t realise, is very funny. Though Miss Campinet isn’t as lively as Miss Fluart, she’s not a total wilting lettuce and she gets some good lines in against Chestrum. When he declares that he’d die if he can’t marry her, she replies that she’d die if she did and if one of them must die, she’d rather it was Chestrum than herself.

But what about Hermsprong, the title character himself? He’s intended to be the ‘natural’ man, honest to a fault, full of benevolence and free of selfishness and vice - he’s rather dull. It’s a real merit to the book that his main role is to pop in and out, causing problems for our bad characters and benefits to our good ones. His playful, unserious flirting with Miss Fluart is fun though and he readily admits that his private wealth make things easier for him, “One lives well everywhere if one has money, and ill, if one does not.” (Is this a famous quote? I’m sure I’ve heard it before.) There’s also the interesting sting in the tail that Hermsprong wasn’t as impartial and disinterested as he made out.

All in all, this book was far more engaging and enjoyable than I expected and deserves to be better known.

Wednesday 4 January 2023

Top Ten Books of 2022 (5-1)

 Last week I counted down my  books of the year 10-6. 

If you want to see if you’ve read what I’ve read, here’s the list.

I’ve also been naughty and bought too many books and here’s that list.

In at Number 5

The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi - Andrew McConnell Stott (also What Blest Genius?)

I’m starting with a cheat. I read two Andrew McConnell Stott books and they were both great fun. He has a real skill at telling a fun story, emphasising the most fun parts and finding supplementary fun stories that don’t feel like filler.

I wrote about What Blest Genius here and The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi here. I think Joseph Grimaldi edges it slightly. While the central story of Jubilee plays far more into my interests, the sheer range and lunacy of the side stories in Grimaldi were too fun to ignore. A book that includes a craze for a ten-year-old playing Hamlet, a clown sailing a ship through a storm and a trained dog called Moustache, is one that has to be in a top ten somewhere. 

Number 4

Moonfleet - J. Meade Falkner

I wrote about Moonfleet here. It’s hard to say any more about it, this book is exciting, well constructed with clear and interesting characters going on exciting journeys. The set pieces are put together extremely well and the whole book wraps up movingly and satisfyingly.

Number 3

The Color Purple - Alice Walker

This is very unfair, because I’d always assumed The Color Purple by Alice Walker was boring because it was made into a prestige film that won Oscars (a film I’ve never seen). However, when I saw it at a local book-swap I gave it a look because I recognised the name. The copy I picked up had the name anglicised into ‘colour’ and had been published by The Coventry Evening Telegraph as the third in a series of ‘Great Family Reads’. I read the first page and was utterly shocked, while it seemed like a great read, it is certainly not a good choice for a family bed time.

The first page features a paedophilic-incest-rape, performed and described terribly matter-of-factly. Shortly afterwards the baby conceived by that act is taken away. Not only were the events terribly shocking but the tone of normality made them more so. Celie lives in a society where, as a poor, Black woman, she is utterly disregarded, mounted by men as they please and passed off to another family because she can keep a household fed and clean. Her world is so narrow and her place in it so low that she barely registers or questions it at first.

I was amazed at how expressive the telegrammatic style could be. When she says, ‘Not much funny to me.’ She sums up how little in her life has been something she could laugh at - there were many other incidences of this throughout.

What made the book truly wonderful was how, despite being ‘nothing at all’, she does grow. First she asserts, ‘I am here,’ and from there she even finds family, purpose, talents and hope. The first key to this is Shug, a blues singer with a tarnished reputation. It’s her admiration and love of Shug that starts her progression. Shug even shows her how to love her body. But Shug isn’t the only one. She accumulates all sorts of broken, wonky people into her found family, even finding space for the husband foisted on her who abused her so. That’s what I loved about the book, every person in it developed and changed and they did it because of the impact of the other characters around them. That we reach a happy ending at all is because of the resilience of the community that Celie builds around her.

Which is to say nothing of the sub-plot about Celie’s sister, finding her own family. The discussions of God that both women have, their refashioning of God into an ‘it’ that can be found anywhere rather than another male with a fragile ego. There’s some very interesting discussions on white people, how the characters in the book almost see them like dogs, they may seem friendly and wag their tails but you should always be wary of their bite. There’s interesting talk about sexuality, about how many of the male characters try to project strength by beating down before discovering joy in something more community.

It’s a short book but it says a lot.

Number 2

The Monk - Matthew Lewis

I wrote about The Monk here. Did I use the phrase ‘ne plus ultra’? If not, I should have, It’s the that of Gothic books. Everything Gothic books has been working towards at that point is accomplished by The Monk in fine, entertaining and grandstanding style. The book even manages to award the stiffness that afflicts later Gothic works. It’s bonkers, it’s genuinely disturbing at times and it’s very memorable.

Number 1

The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is a genuine classic, a masterful blend of tight plotting, varied and interesting narrative voices and characters that burst out of the page.

It starts with a sly joke about how the book has been created because the legal system needs too much ‘lubricating by the oil of gold’ to be the proper place to lay out the story and set the record straight. It then warns the reader that the book will be told in a number of different voices, much like witnesses in a trial. These voices are one of the main triumphs of the book. The first is Walter Hartright, he essentially takes the part of prosecutor and his is the most neutral. There’s also the diaries of Marian Halcombe, packed with her forthrightness, bravery and intelligence. There are the voices of various accountants, lawyers and functionaries that show their understanding of their positions. Then there’s Fairlie’s account, a whiny, petulant piece full of complaint and blame. Finally, there’s the narrative of Count Fosco, as amoral, grandiloquent and strangely appealing as the character himself. Victoria novels, especially these serialised ones, sometimes get a bad reputation for eking out a story in long, needless prose but the switching of voices in this book not only adds a range of flavours to the book but show Collins’s skill at ventriloquism. Although I love his friend and mentor, Charles Dickens, the Inimitable could not have put himself in so many roles.

As for the plot, it starts proper with Walter Hartright walking down the Finchley Road at one in the morning and meeting a woman who seems a little ‘off’ though not dangerous, so he helps her out. As someone who lives a little away from that road, I have often met such people whilst coming home late at night, though none have embroiled me in a labyrinthine plot of abduction, identity theft and false imprisonment. The reader is given the pieces of the main plot fairly early on but because the villains themselves are concocting the plot as the book goes on, the reader can’t predict ahead too far as the villains haven’t got there yet. It walks that beautiful tightrope of being feasible whilst being outlandish and has a particular spiciness because one of the villains is fiendish but stupid and the other is too clever to cause harm where it’s not necessary.

There are some huge coincidences in the book and it’s a weak and slightly peculiar conceit of getting Hartright to go on a barely explored Patagonian adventure with disease, cannibals and shipwrecks - but the big things land right and comeuppances are as sad as they are satisfying. A big, driving element of the plot is the keeping of Sir Percival Glyde’s Secret. While The Secret doesn’t seem worth all the energy and heartache it took to keep, it ties in with the theme of how flimsy such things as identity, position, wealth and sanity really are. 

If the book soars above many others, it’s because of the characters. Walter Hartright is a decent-enough hero character and his love interest, and the centre of shenanigans, Lucy isn’t an awful example of that Victorian ideal child-woman. The fact that some of her experiences actually reduce her as a person and make her more pathetic than before is actually quite moving and show her relative agency before.

Marian Halcombe, her half-sister is a different prospect. She’s initially described as a butterface with a moustache but such ‘deficiencies’ allow the writer to treat her as a proper agent in the story. She’s smart, sneaky when needed, strong and loyal. She speaks her mind and reads a room. She makes plans and acts them out. She’s great. Unfortunately, she does get relegated to her sister’s keeper but her strength in the first half, and the respect she gets from Fosco keeps her flame alive in the second.

Fosco is a brilliant character. He’s undeniably evil, utterly amoral and goal orientated but he does have a sense of kindness (if principally to small, cute animals) and his intelligence dictates that he doesn’t cause suffering he doesn’t deem absolutely necessary. Marian says she is won over by him despite herself, and I, as a reader, found myself won over by him too. The biggest suggestion of his darkest side, the utter devotion of his wife, he attributes simply to that, devotion. I’m not convinced there isn’t a far nastier backstory there somewhere. 

I also loved Anne, the woman in white, an utterly unreliable witness but deeply intriguing. I also has a huge soft spot for the wimp, Fairlie, he’s so deliciously, selfishly pathetic. 

It may be no surprise, seeing as I have gushed over this book, but I thought it wonderful and would easily recommend it.