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