Howard Jacobson: Dickens is proof that humour improves with age


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In total agreement with Terence Blacker's remarks earlier this week in these pages about "a new fear of seriousness" in our culture leading to an overabundance of feeble, inappropriate and half-hearted "humour".

God knows, we like to speak up for the comic in this column, but this on-tap facetiousness is another matter entirely. And I'm sure it's true that a terror of appearing to lack a sense of humour is behind it.

Watch Live at the Apollo and you'd think the audience was undergoing the popular culture equivalent of "extraordinary rendition", having been dropped at the Apollo on the way from Guantanamo to some hellhole in the Middle East and ordered to laugh on pain of being waterboarded when the curtain comes down. We like to think of laughter as liberating, but it is just as much an expression of copycat submissiveness. He who would subdue a people has only to command the trigger points of laughter and he has their obedience for ever. But something else Terence Blacker said intrigued me, and that was that Billy Connolly, like John Cleese, is paying the price of no longer being a bloody-minded outsider. "Of course he is not funny any more. Why should he be?"

This raises interesting questions about the relation of comedy not only to age but to satisfaction. Have we had it as far as comedy is concerned once the warm embrace of the establishment has taken all our rage? We could, of course, rage against being neutered, but for that to be convincing we'd have to give up all we've won – wealth, fame, easeful complacency and the friendship of Prince Charles. So are we comedians only so long as we haunt the margins snarling? And where, then, does that leave Dickens?

Some people are tiring of the Dickens hubbub, but I am not. No praise is too high for him, in my view, and no celebration of his genius excessive. I was fortunate enough to be at an event at a snowy Highgate Cemetery last week, in which we were trooped around a number of Dickens family graves (though not his), and treated to Joanna Lumley and Simon Callow being Mrs and Mr Micawber.

That they were excellent goes without saying: how can you be a good English actor and not read Dickens well? He is in the blood. If we declaim, we declaim Dickensianly. If we delight in the preposterous, it is because Dickens taught us where to find it, how it sounded, how to love its outrageous resourcefulness. As with Shakespeare, so with Dickens; it is as though he invented us. And if you think that praise too lavish, then try imagining the English without either.

That there was irony in commemorating the Dickens bicentenary with a visit to the grave of the wife he treated abominably was not lost on us. Much has been made of the many acts of actual or emotional infidelity to which Dickens subjected Catherine. Discovering that writers are bastards to their nearest and dearest is all the rage these days – Joseph Heller was recently done over, Vonnegut ditto, and doubtless there are a thousand similar revelations about living writers waiting to be disclosed.

It's naïve of us to be surprised. What goes to make a writer is unlikely to be what goes to make a sound family man. The thin skin of the writer, his dissatisfaction with whatever condition of life he finds himself in, his impressionability, his conviction that every feeling he has is no more than a first draft of feeling – that such a man ought not to marry or have family is obvious but, to such a man, it is precisely what's obvious that is slowest to present itself to him.

Late photographs of Dickens show how cruelly his own nature ravaged him. The face is heavily lined; the once full mouth has lost its sensuousness and generosity; the light of laughter is extinguished from his eyes. He died at 58 looking 20 years older. If being the most famous writer on the planet was any consolation to him, you wouldn't guess it from his later novels. That they were no longer funny in the way of David Copperfield (published when he was 38) would appear to corroborate the argument that you aren't funny when there is no reason or necessity for you to be so.

But here's the wonderful thing: if the exuberant, life-loving comedy is gone, what appears in its place is more exhilarating still. The forever indebted Mr Micawber, in whom the lamp of hope is never extinguished, becomes the dithering debtor Mr Dorrit, the comedy of whose humiliating delusions is as black as hell. Where marital incompatibility is gently and sadly dealt with in David Copperfield, and a second chance of happiness is bathed in a near religious glow, the comedy of love and marriage in Our Mutual Friend is nothing short of murderous.

Only think of Alfred and Sophronia Lammle, who married under the impression that the other has a fortune, strolling "in a moody humour" across Shanklin Sands – Mrs Lammle prodding "little spirting holes in the damp sand" with her parasol, Mr Lammle trailing his stick after him – having discovered that each has lied and they are penniless.

Embraced by the establishment, wealthy and prematurely ageing, Dickens wrote some of the greatest darkly comic novels in the language. Thereby proving that the best comedy comes about when we stop finding everything funny. And, of course, it helps to be desperately unhappy.

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