Novelist Sophie Hannah, who does recognise Murdoch’s comic brilliance and wrote the introduction to the centenary edition of The Black Prince, says the comic and the serious are inextricably linked in her novels: “She understands that the often-comic absurdity of life is absolutely inextricable from its utmost seriousness. The humour enhances rather than detracts from the seriousness, and vice versa.”
If that sounds familiar, then it should: literature is awash with books that are both very serious and very funny. “Writers are funny because life is funny,” as Amis puts it. That’s true not just of satirists like Charles Dickens, but even those traditionally seen as merchants of gloom like Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, whose absurdist vision of the world – broadly put – is that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Take Waiting for Godot: what could be funnier, more ridiculous, than waiting around endlessly for someone you know will never turn up – twice?
The best comedy needs tragedy, as essential ballast to stop it from floating away: the Booker Prize does from time to time recognise comic fiction, and Howard Jacobson’s Booker 2010 novel The Finkler Question, about ageing and death, is not just connected to tragedy but steeped in it. When a Jewish woman is faced with a feeble attempt at antisemitic intimidation, she “wasn’t going from fear to amusement and back again, she was experiencing both emotions simultaneously. It wasn’t even a matter of recording opposites because they were not opposites for her. Each partook of the other.”
What could be more complete – what could be better value? – than tragedy and comedy entwined? Kurt Vonnegut’s best work exemplified this hybrid approach, in books such as his Holocaust novel Slaughterhouse-Five, his tragicomedy Slapstick – about the modern epidemic of loneliness – and his manic end-of-the-world fable. Marie Phillips, author of several comic novels including Gods Behaving Badly, agrees in a Beckettian way: “The world is absurd even – or especially – at its worst.”
Phillips says that “people make the mistake of thinking that the opposite of funny is serious and thus if you’re funny you can’t be serious and vice versa.” The opposite of funny, of course, isn’t serious; the opposite of funny is unfunny. Funny and serious are symbiotic because humour is not just an example of intelligence but a form of intelligence. It requires lateral thinking; making unexpected connections; being one step ahead of the reader. To another Booker winner, George Saunders, “Comic, for me, means there’s always a shortfall between what we think of ourselves and what we are.” It goes, that is to say, to the heart of character in fiction.