Flora Poste, the heroine of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm (1932), is a bright, flippant, unsentimental, bossy, manipulative, brisk young woman who descends upon a nest of her rustic cousins at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. The Starkadders are unkempt, amorous, ebullient, uneducated, temperamental wild, poetical, beautiful, territorial, and brutish. They say things like:
Hamm: The whole thing is comical, I grant you that.
Beckett’s play Endgame (1957) has no story, no plot development, is set in an depleted world of four characters confined to a room with two small windows out of which, because they are too high, it is impossible to see. Hamm is blind, paralytic, cannot stand and in constant physical pain. Nagg and Nell have no legs and are confined to dustbins; they indicate a desire to kiss and touch each other (they are married) but their bins are too far apart for that. Clov can walk and so is keeping the others alive but he is unable to sit down. Even the toy dog lacks a leg. The only dramatic tension comes from Hamm’s insistence that Clov leave him alone while making his exit impossible, and Clov’s repeated failed attempts to leave Hamm. Hamm provides Clov’s food and shelter and Clov stands in for Hamm’s legs and eyesight, but each is antagonistic. They are locked together by an adversarial dependence. Continue reading
In P. G. Wodehouse’s comic world language is king. He delights with a verbal abundance of fantastical specificity. Take some of his fluid, hyperbolic similes:
She looked like a tomato struggling for self expression.
He withered like an electric fan.
He wilted like a salted snail.
She looked like an aunt who had just bitten into a bad oyster.
He vanished abruptly, like an eel going into mud.
He looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow.
Dostoevsky wrote this letter to his niece Sophia Ivanova on 13th January 1868 while he was writing The Idiot:
“The main idea of the novel is to present a beautiful man…There is only one positively beautiful person in the world, Christ, and the phenomenon of this limitless beautiful person is an infinite miracle itself. The whole Gospel according to St. John is about that…I’d only mention that of all the beautiful individuals in…literature, one stands out as the most perfect, Don Quixote. But he is beautiful because he is ridiculous. Wherever compassion toward ridiculed and ingenious beauty is presented, the reader’s sympathy is aroused. The mystery of comedy lies in this excitation of compassion.”
Mikhail Bulgakov was a Ukrainian doctor who gave up medicine in 1921 at the aged of thirty and, living in Moscow, devoted himself to literature. He wrote absurdist, fantastical, grotesque comic plays, and novels such as A Dog’s Heart and The Fatal Eggs. He mocked the Soviet belief that science would solve all human problems and that society could progress to utopia and showed a magnificent disdain for this ethos of certainty. He deployed a prose style of boisterous nonsense to confront the new dour utilitarianism.
Edward Lear did not invent the limerick, a form that has been traced back to England in the early eighteenth century, and limerick was not the word he used (the term not being documented until the 1890s). Lear called them nonsenses, but he did fashion them into a literary form that made them famous.
There was a Young Person of Smyrna,
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her;
But she seized the cat, and said ‘Granny burn that
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna’
There was a Old Man of Peru,
Who never knew what he should do;
So he tore off his hair, and behaved like a bear,
That intrinsic Old Man of Peru. Continue reading
Rise from your bed of languor
Rise from your bed of dismay
Your friends will not come tomorrow
As they did not come today.
The poet of many voices Stevie Smith was an English original, both child-like and un child-like. Bordering on nonsense her poems roll with a jaunty sing-song timbre and a kick in the groin at the last. Continue reading
Will it be Emma or Mrs Elton who dances first at the ball at The Crown? Will it be pigeon-pie or cold lamb for picnic tea at Box Hill? Will the snow be too deep for the carriages to travel from Randalls to Hartfield on Christmas Eve? Why did Jane Fairfax walk to the post office in the rain? Will Mrs Elton invite Emma to dinner at the vicarage? Who sent the pianoforte for Jane Fairfax? Why did Frank Churchill take so long repairing old Mrs Bates’s wretched spectacles? In volume one Mr Elton is in love with Emma but she is incapable of seeing it. In volume two Emma thinks Frank Churchill is in love with her, but he isn’t. In volume three Emma thinks Harriet is in love with Frank Churchill, but she isn’t. Emma then discovers at the last that in fact she is in love with Mr Knightley, and marries him.
On 12th December 1969 a bomb exploded at a bank in Milan killing seventeen people. There followed a roundup of left-activists that included the arrest of an anarchist railway worker called Guiseppe Pinelli. As it happened Pinelli had an alibi and was innocent of the crime, but the police interrogated him for three days and nights before he fell to his death from a window on the fourth floor of the Police Headquarters. Controversy has raged ever since as to the circumstances of how and why he tumbled to his death:
- The Italian left accused the police of being responsible for Pinelli’s murder.
- The police claimed Pinelli has committed suicide because he was deeply compromised in the bombing. At a news conference Milan’s Chief of Police asserted that Pinelli after confronted with the irrefutable evidence of his complicity leaped from the window crying ‘This is the end of anarchy’.
- The first judge to carry out an enquiry ordered the case to be shelved in May 1970. He heard the original blast from his office a mile away: ‘No, I don’t think that was a boiler exploding. I think that was a bomb, and it sounded to me like an anarchist bomb’.
- The original police explanation was abandoned and replaced with: Pinelli went over to the window to smoke a cigarette, fainted, and fell out.
- Luigi Calabresi, the police officer who had interrogated Pinelli just prior to the defenestration, sued the editor of a newspaper, Pia Baldelli, for defamation after Baldelli had alleged murder. There was a libel trial in 1971.
- In the light of contradictory police statements about the affair the Italian Ministry sent a second judge to open another criminal inquiry.
- A new left wing version widely circulated after examination of the site of injuries on the body: Pinelli was killed by a police karate chop and was already dead when he was tossed out of Calebresi’s office window. Pinelli’s wife Licia sued Calabresi for her husband’s wrongful death.
- Calabresi was shot and killed in front of his house in 1972. A huge crowd attended his funeral to honour him.
- By1975 there was a judicial finding on the case: “The air in the room was heavy, oppressive. The window was open [Pinelli] went over to the balcony for a breath of fresh air, he felt dizzy, he put out his hands in the wrong direction, his body falling over the railings…all the evidence points in this direction”. In other words Pinelli had neither committed suicide nor been murdered but had suffered from what the judge called an ‘active affliction’. This ruling of accident satisfied nobody and was the subject of ridicule.
- Three neo-fascists were convicted (not confirmed on appeal) of the Milan bank bombing, one of whom, called Giannettini, turned out to be a police agent-provocateur who had played his part in instigating the bombing. This theory was that neo-Nazis intended to destabilise Italy making it ripe for a right wing coup. On this view the state, trying to suppress left wing dissent with a spy embedded in the anarchist group, was able to organise the massacre, manufacture the public outrage, denounce the innocent, eulogise the dead and coin medals for the widows and orphans.
- Three left wingers were arrested and later convicted on the flimsy evidence of pentiti of murdering (or ordering the murder) of Calabresi (not all confirmed on appeal).
“When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools”
King Lear at the outset of the play is a commanding figure, an imperious monarch. With pomp and circumstance he deploys imperative words to bend the world to his will. But his position of power makes him suspicious of the spontaneity of others’ love. A King can never be sure if professed love at court is deceitful flattery or genuine affection. In the vanity of his dotage, and with a craving for affection, Lear stages an abdication ritual in the opening scenes of the play. He divests himself of his kingdom based on an expression of love by his three daughters. Goneril and Regan, who do not love him, conjure a surfeit of language of love and are unjustly rewarded with land. They have a mouthful of words but nothing to say ‘Sir I love you more than word can wield the matter’. In a bout of hyper linguistic inflation they seek to over articulate that which does not exist. Cordelia, his youngest daughter who genuinely loves him, refuses to play her sycophantic sisters’ game by seeking to verbally outdo them. Invited to be more opulent in her praise than they she replies ‘nothing’. Lear is dismissive ‘Nothing will come of nothing’’ and divests his land in favour of the other two and banishes Cordelia from the kingdom. Continue reading