Sunday, 8 November 2015

Comedy presupposes distance

It's especially gratifying when you find your own ideas echoed by an eminent personage, someone whose word stands for something within the ambit of the relevant discipline, and such a person, for the discipline of novel writing, is one Karl Ove Knausgaard.

A couple of months ago on this blog I could be found cogitating about the nature of humour in the novel. For my main example I went back to the very beginnings of the form, to Jane Austen. The blogpost is titled, 'Where humour comes from in the novel', and in it I take a look at how humour developed under the guidance of Austen's authorial pen in order to accommodate a broad range of emotions experienced by the characters she deployed.
What Austen came up with in order to support the kind of emotional registers she sought was something that also enabled her to incorporate a quantity of humour into her novels. This was to flatten out the expressive values of events throughout her novel. If everything was described with a delivery at a regular level of expressiveness she would naturally produce humour because what was something that in the realm of the novel was actually quite high-toned for the character would be flat within the locus of description regulating things between the characters and the reader, in the fictive space itself.
"What results is a kind of loaded irony," I went on, and then I qualified that word by describing how irony can be used to convey a range of emotions. You have to remember that Austen was the first successfully to achieve a kind of "magisterial register" in the novel form, although of course she was by no means the first novelist. You can see humour working in the much earlier (around 1600) famous but flawed novel by Cervantes, Don Quixote.

For me in this blogpost the essential idea was to try to describe what it was that Austen did differently from other novelists in order to create the specifically innovative works she produced. What Knausgaard was trying to do in his review of Michel Houellebecq's novel Submission, was to describe the novel in a way that would satisfy both his readers and his commissioning editor. He said:
Such a disillusioned protagonist [as you find in the novel] allows, too, for a comic perspective, insofar as the comic presupposes distance, shuns identification and is nourished by the outrageous. Indeed, “Submission” is, in long stretches, a comic novel, a comedy, its protagonist Fran├žois teetering always on the brink of caricature, his thoughts and dialogue often witty ...
Now I am merely inserting Knausgaard's words here in an effort to substantiate what were otherwise the mere ravings of a complete amateur - since I am neither a novelist nor an expert in novels - but I think that the trick works. What you get in Austen is the author's voice entering into the narrative, I go on to say in my little blogpost. "This third presence offers a further sort of "distance" between the characters in the novel and the reader." The distance was already there of course as a result of the author flattening out the emotional registers deployed in the book, but there she is plopping herself down into the narrative as another point of view, another persona in the flux, as it were.

What I particularly love in Knausgaard's exegesis is the term "shuns identification" that he uses, because that was precisely what Austen was trying to do with her characters in her novels even, as I say in the blogpost, from the very beginning. She resists herself identifying with the characters and their conundrums, and merely describes what they are going through. And by doing so she pushes the reader away from the personas of the characters as well, substituting her own instead as a locus of enjambement.

It is hard to express the surprise and delight I felt when I came across these words in Knausgaard's otherwise very long critical review of Houellebecq's novel. It made my day.

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