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Funny Book

One needs to be careful about using a phrase like “black comedy”: its very modishness makes it suspect, for it has been bandied about by the fashionable and ignorant in defense of a variety of repellent oddities. Still, it underlines the truth that there is a trace of blackness in all comedy though we usually notice it only in its exaggerated forms. What we laugh at, basically, is the discomfiture of others, whether this is gentle, like the mild frustrations of a pair of Shakespearean lovers, or extreme, as with the brutalities of Ben Jonson’s comedy. Hobbes spoke tersely of laughter as a “sudden glory” at the sight of others’ misfortune, and Bergson elaborated the idea of the comic as arising when the organic and vital is suddenly transformed into an object, colliding mechanically with other objects. The classical example, of course, is of the self-assured man suddenly slipping in the street on a banana peel: this is funny, though it would seem less so if it became apparent that he had broken an arm; and the mirth would fade if a couple of bystanders decided to kick him savagely in the ribs. All comedy involves some withdrawal of sympathy by the onlooker, and the difference between the gently comic, the black comic, and the horrifyingly unfunny, is one of degree—often a very large degree, admittedly—rather than of kind. Different civilizations have placed the threshold at different points along the scale; the Elizabethans were a good deal less sensitive than we are, and, as Northrop Frye has remarked, the audience of Roman comedy would probably have laughed uproariously at the Passion of Christ.

Among contemporary writers no one is blacker, or more comic, than Anthony Burgess, an Englishman in his late forties who started publishing novels less than ten years ago, after devoting much of his life to composing music. He combines a unique sense of humor with a desolate philosophical despair in a way that makes him one of the more remarkable of living novelists, though his qualities have yet to be fully recognized on either side of the Atlantic. The Long Day Wanes provides American readers with his first three novels—the British editions came out between 1956 and 1959—in one volume; six later ones have already appeared here, and in addition to these Burgess has published two other novels in England under the pseudonym of “Joseph Kell.” There is something awesome about such a rate of production, particularly as Burgess is anything but a slick or careless writer; he has a Joycean preoccupation with language, particularly in his later books where it plays a large and active role, such as the Russianized teenage slang in A Clockwork Orange or the Elizabethan English of his most recent novel, Nothing Like the Sun, which is about Shakespeare. Burgess admits to a fascination with language, and has just published a simple primer of linguistic study, Language Made Plain.

Compared with the later works, The Long Day Wanes is a fairly unsophisticated piece of writing, in which Burgess was obviously still feeling his way into the art of fiction. It is set in Malaya, where the author worked for some years as an education officer, and in a general way is reminiscent of an older master of black humor, Evelyn Waugh, particularly of such books as Scoop and Black Mischief. The organization is casual and episodic: Burgess’s hero, a conscientious but faded British schoolmaster named Victor Crabbe is subject to a variety of minor persecutions, though he remains less interesting than the rich collection of racial types that surround him, which Burgess presents with rather unfocused comic exuberance. One of his underlying subjects is racialism, though presented in more complicated terms than the simple image of white vs. black in which the English or American liberal usually sees the question: Burgess’s Malaya is a melting pot of races in which, quite apart from the British, we see Malays, Chinese, Tamils, Sikhs, and Eurasians all expressing a profound contempt for each other. Possibly this is one more nefarious result of colonialism; but equally possibly it is because human beings tend to be that way about each other: Burgess, in whose vision of the universe an Augustinian sense of human depravity plays a large part, evidently inclines toward the second opinion. At the same time he extracts plenty of abrasive comedy from these racial collisions; this is genuinely funny, though rather uncomfortable for readers who are used to displaying a decent sensitivity about such questions.

The Long Day Wanes deals with a Malaya not only shaken by internal racial tensions but also afflicted by active violence from the Communist terrorism of the mid-Fifties; at the same time it is preparing for independence, and Victor Crabbe is about to hand over his educational duties to a Malayan subordinate, who actively patronizes him. The trilogy thus takes its place in a line of literary descent from the minor epics about the White Man’s burden produced by Conrad and Kipling in the heyday of British Imperialism, which later included A Passage to India as a memorable statement of the beginning of the end of the colonialist mentality. The Long Day Wanes, in fact, marks the end of the line.

Burgess’s novels since then, though very varied in their subjects, have shown a certain consistency of thematic pattern. After the Malayan trilogy he published one other book with an exotic setting, The Devil of a State, placed in the mythical African kingdom of Dunia (in which he seems to have used quite a number of memories of his Asian experiences); this is the most Waugh-like of his books, consistently funny though with an accompanying sourness of tone. At the end of the novel, the hero, a battered Englishman who has spent all his life in the tropics and has become involved in some unenviable marital entanglements, is subjected by his author to a fate very nearly as bad as Tony Last’s at the end of A Handful of Dust. (Burgess’s contempt for his creations is disturbing; towards the conclusion of the trilogy the dim but likeable Victor Crabbe is stubbed out as casually as a cigarette.)

In both works the author’s skepticism about progress and the reality of political freedom is made evident (in Language Made Plain he remarks, with Nominalist distaste, “in every serious discussion much time has to be spent in redefining common terms like ‘love’, ‘justice,’ ‘freedom’ “). The first sentence of Beds in the East, the last volume of the trilogy, reads, “Dawn of freedom for yet another nation, freedom and all the rest of the abstractions”; in The Devil of a State there is a spirited account of a Ceylonese demagogue:

Mr. Bastians used the colorful generalities of the skilled demagogue, the gestures, the rhythms, the controlled crescendi, the teeth-baring climaxes, now working his fingers delicately into the mudra of exposition, now thrusting his arms out in crucified agony, at one point smashing the drinking-glass, at another kneeling and praying to a sort of ectoplasmal wraith—Liberty, Progress, the Zeitgeist…Mr. Bastians ended fortissimo, suit sweat-soaked, hair raked by agonized claws, teeth and the heaven of his mouth on view, to languid claps and the calls of “Aaaaah.” Translation was not merely supererogatory, it was impossible. There was nothing to translate. Mr. Bastians had said nothing and everything.

It would, I think, be a mistake to project this skepticism into any system of right-wing political thinking (though I can imagine the National Review looking kindly on some of Burgess’s attitudes), for its real implications are metaphysical and religious rather than political. The word Augustinian, which I have already used about him, presents itself with some insistence: Burgess was brought up as a Catholic in Manchester (he now describes himself as a renegade Catholic) and much of his view of the world seems to have the Jansenist flavor of certain kinds of English Catholic upbringing.

Against the early books, with their picture of a colonial world in which the Englishman has increasingly little place, one can set, in the pattern of Burgess’s development, several other novels in which he concerns himself with England: its past, as in Nothing Like the Sun, its present, as in The Right to an Answer, and its imagined horrific future, as in The Wanting Seed and A Clockwork Orange. A degree of idiosyncratic, English cultural nationalism is implicit in these books, and he has made one or two illuminatingly explicit references to this, notably in Language Made Plain, here he remarks that he shares the minor anguish displayed by assertive British patriots when English journalists use “American” forms like “I guess,” though he is quite well aware that this is an authentic old British form that can be found in Chaucer:

But, like most of us, I do not really like submitting to reason: I much prefer blind prejudice. And so I stoutly condemn “I guess” as an American importation and its use by a British writer as a betrayal of the traditions of my national group.

Burgess managed the transition from his “exotic” to his “English” novels in the first of the latter, The Right to an Answer (published in 1960, this comes between the Malayan trilogy and The Devil of a State), by telling the story through the eyes of a wealthy and complacent English businessman who comes home on leave from Japan and regards with increasing disgust the cheapness and vulgarity of an England which takes all its values from television. This is also one of Burgess’s funniest books, containing some plummy characters, like the put-upon but infinitely resilient Ceylonese sociologist, Mr. Raj, and the cheerful but shifty pub-landlord, Ted, who claims to be descended from Shakespeare’s mother’s family and in whose attic a long-lost quarto of Hamlet, is discovered. But, as always with Burgess, the humor has a shadowy side; The Right to an Answer gains a good deal when it is read in conjunction with one of his blackest books, A Clockwork Orange, a superb tour-de-force of impersonatory writing. The narrator is a teenage hoodlum who is morally but not mentally stunted: he writes an alert, witty narrative in a teenage slang that uses a large number of Russian root-words plus a variety of home-made idioms. The construction of this language—which is hard to read at first, but becomes successively easier as one goes on, especially if one uses the glossary that Stanley Edgar Hyman compiled for the Norton Library edition—is a brilliant achievement on Burgess’s part. It serves a number of functions: one is to stress, by implication, the Americanization of current English teenage speech; by imagining the importations as Russian instead they become more noticeable (in another novel, Honey for the Bears, the main character sees Russia and America as equally alien to English culture). Another function of this dialect is to keep at a distance the horrors that Mr. Burgess’s narrator so cheerfully describes: to say “we gave this devotchka a tolchok on the litso and the krovvy came out of her rot” is less immediate than the equivalent, “we gave this girl a blow on the face and the blood came out of her mouth.”

The underlying philosophical assumption of A Clockwork Orange is the idea, which can be found in T.S. Eliot’s essay on Baudelaire, if not in Baudelaire himself, and in certain works by Graham Greene, notably Brighton Rock, that it is better actively to do evil than to be spiritually dead. On the face of it, it seems that the sadistic excesses of the teenagers of A Clockwork Orange are to be preferred to the living death of the suburban-provincial England described in The Right to an Answer. Considered simply as a proposition this is not difficult to reject; but Burgess does not advance propositions. He makes larger demands on the imagination and these are not so easy to shake off. A Clockwork Orange is cruel and still inescapably comical; it is at times repulsive and yet strangely ambiguous, for at no point does the author do anything so crude as directly to endorse his young hero’s view of life. It is, above all, a difficult book to forget; and at a time when a great deal of efficient, mass-produced fiction erases itself from the memory as soon as one closes the book, this is a high tribute.

Such a diverse and complicated writer is easier to enjoy than to summarize. More than any of his British contemporaries, it seems to me, he brings to the novel a genuine content of ideas, no matter how unfashionable, and an extraordinary sensitivity to language. And his obsessions are sufficiently marked to give his books both feeling and continuity of theme. With so many gifts, there is now one more thing that Burgess needs: a critical and receptive audience.

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