No genre makes my skin crawl more than comedic writing. I don’t mean those puerile books like The More I See of Men the More I Love My Dog…. that congregate by the tills in bookshops, impulse purchases for people that wandered into the shop thinking it was the next door tanning salon. My disdain is for the humorists, sometimes camouflaged as satirists, that lay the humour with a bricklayer’s trowel. In this category, this side of the Atlantic, are writers like Tom Sharpe, Douglas Adams, Ben Elton, Stephen Fry; on the other side are Carl Hiaasen, Dave Eggers and P. J. O’Rourke. Is it coincidental that this genre is an all-male pursuit?
Genuine, unforced, subtle humour as an integral element of a writer’s voice offers a fresh perspective on what it is to be human. This quality coruscates from the pages of The Essential Rebecca West. In the following passage from The Novelist’s Voice, West is writing of her father’s tutor, Elisée Reclus, known as a geographer (and in informed political circles as an anarchist):
He accepted the post quite innocently, without any attempt to deceive, because she had told him she was a member of the Plymouth Brethren, and he imagined that this was a small revolutionary body. When he discovered the truth he behaved with great correctness. He said nothing. He liked my grandmother, he liked her sons, and he thought he could teach them better than the next man, and he made it a rule never to recommend to them any idea of which their mother might disapprove; and there was forged a bond between them which never broke. My father used to tell the story with a chuckle, which became to me the sign of his appreciation of the random nature of human life, and the queer ways human beings counter it and impose a kind of order. Out of bigotry my grandmother had engaged the best possible kind of tutor for her sons, in fact the tutor most likely to prevent them growing up bigots themselves.
In the multitude of ways a writer could have chosen to tell this story, West does so with wit, elegance and percipience. The essay itself is superb, dealing with West’s conviction to become a writer, and how she discovered her voice. West’s humour announces itself on every page, but is satisfied with a gentle smile.
[Is there a better example of British wit that Alan Titmarsh’s book entitled Trowel and Error?]