Funny Book

Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess; drawing by David Levine

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…

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