One more post inspired by David Foster Wallace’s essays before I leave base camp (Consider the Lobster, ‘a tour de force’ if you lookÂ here, or the work of an overambitiousÂ poster boyÂ for postmodernism if you lookÂ Â here) and head for the thousand-page summit of Infinite Jest…
Foster Wallace’s essay on ‘Kafka’s funniness’ takes off from this frank admission:
‘For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny. Nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the power of his stories.’
That statement rings true: there is a widespread misconception that ‘great’ writers must necessarily be ‘serious’ writers, and serious writers must necessarily be miserable old misanthropes, utterly devoid of a sense of humour. An exaggeration, perhaps, but far too many readers place ‘literary fiction’ and ‘comic fiction’ at opposite ends of a largely imaginary spectrum when in fact, ‘great… stories and great jokes have a lot in common.’
Foster Wallace’s explanation of the common features shared by great stories and great jokes runs to a full paragraph and an inevitable footnote, but his point is essentially that both stories and jokes are characterised by the subtle way in which their authors (jokes have authors too, of course, although they often remain anonymous, as did many folk storytellers) control information to provoke a certain response in the reader/listener. ‘Both depend on what communications theorists sometimes call exformation, which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.’
Extending that point, ‘The psychology of jokes helps account for part of the problem in teaching Kafka. We all know that there is no quicker way to empty a joke of its peculiar magic than to try to explain it…’ At the risk of over-explanation, Kafka isn’t often laugh-out-loud, embarrass-yourself-on-public-transport funny, but he can be witty and playful and masterly when it comes to exercising control over ‘exformation.’ He can also be ‘funny’ in the way that observational stand-up comedians are funny, provoking the reader/listener with unexpectedly piercing insights into everyday life. In many ways, it’s the same card Michael McIntyre et al are constantly attempting to play: the idea that things are as they are, not as we’ve been taught to see them.
That type of observational wit, which so often documents the absurdity of everyday life, is evident in so many of the great novels. Think of the blind beggar singing as Emma Bovary lies dying: the beggar she dismisses a chapter earlier, flinging ‘a five-franc piece over her shoulder’ because she is too ‘sickened’ to look at him, transforms the tragedy of her death into a farce by singing, ‘raucously’, the last lines of a bawdy song (‘She stooped low, the wind blew high/What a sight for mortal eye!’) at the very moment Emma dies. Think also of Tolstoy, one of the most deeply serious of all novelists (The Kreutzer Sonata, in particular, often seems soul-crushingly joyless), who includes the famous episode involving ‘Steve’ Oblonsky’s pear in the opening pages of Anna Karenina. ‘Das ist komisch’, as Foster Wallace ends his essay: funny, and incredibly powerful.