Dan Sandman

Posts Tagged ‘Comedy’

#25 Emma

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Romance on 16/06/2017 at 12:00 pm

#25 EmmaEmma Woodhouse, an heiress of £30,000 and two-and-twenty years old, plays match-maker with her less fortunate and younger friend Harriet Smith. But when her social schemes backfire, she is terribly upset.

As the writer Sebastian Faulks has said, Emma is a snob and her snobbery has emotional consequences, both for herself and for those within her society. Emma’s self-satisfaction, her selfish pretenses and her manipulative social behaivour make her a figure of fun because she takes herself too seriously. To Emma, the false manners and codified language of her class exist for her pleasure and delight. Admittedly, as a young woman living in a man’s world, Emma’s approach to her own courtiers needs to be cautious and considerate; but this does not, should not, excuse her hobby of interfering with the love life of her naive friend Harriet. Faulks is right to argue that Emma is a snob; and I would go further to argue that she is one of the worst snobs seen in English literature: interfering and selfish to extremes.

I have mixed feelings about Jane Austen, whose novels are often imitated but never surpassed. Clearly, Austen is a writer of some genius—she almost single-handedly resurected the sentimental novel from the dustbin of literary history and transformed into the modern romantic comedy. However, Austen often attracts harsh criticism because her novels appear completely detached from history, ignorant of the servant-class and devoid of any serious political intrigue. And much to the dissatisfaction of the male species, Austen portrays men as binary opposites to woman. For Austen, war is a man’s business; marriage: a woman’s affair. In Austen view, the struggles of the lower-orders are ignored in favour of the struggles of chivalric love—-i.e. whether X will marry Y for a good fortune or X will marry Z for love. In Austen’s defense, I might add–at least when it comes to the under representation of ordinary people–minus the occasional gravedigger or porter—Shakespeare has been accused of the exact same narrow-mindedness.

#21 Candide

In Adventure, Books, Comedy, Fiction, Romance on 19/05/2017 at 12:00 pm

#21 CandideCandide begins his journey in a German castle, closeted off from reality by his optimistic philosophy tutor Dr. Pangloss. One day, he innocently kisses the beautiful Cunégonde’s hand, strays his own hands into other areas, and is kicked up the backside by Baron Thunder-ten-tronchk. So then, as so many stories do, the trouble all begins with two young people falling in love…

First published in 1759, Candide sold twice more than Gulliver’s Travels within the first month. Like Swift, Voltaire sends his hero on an unlikely adventure with many twists and turns. Like Cervantes, he has a trusty servant accompany his hero along the way. On this hilarious journey of incredible misfortune, Candide is flogged, taken in by the Spanish inquisition and has the riches of Elderado fleeced from him aboard a merchant ship. And yet, despite the sheer scale of catastrophe that befalls young Candide, he continues to draw hope that this is ‘the best of all possible worlds’.

The question is, will he remain optimistic until the end of the tale? The answer is no. And so, what we have is a universal message about faith versus reason; optimism versus cynicism; youth versus experience; and romantic love versus companionship. Candide is foolish to trust everyone he meets along the way, believing them to be trustworthy, without making any reasonable judgement about their character beforehand. As he is scarred by his foolishness, he begins to develop into a more reasonable person, behaving in a way which is less trusting of other people.

Written during the Enlightenment, otherwise known as age of reason, Candide is both a moral and philosophical tale about the power of substance over superstition. At a time of great scientific discovery, a period that is often seen as a turning point from religious thinking to scientific thinking, this deceptively simple tale can be enjoyed on several levels. On the surface, it is a wonderfully funny boy’s adventure about a young man going off on an unlikely journey. Nothing is taken seriously, deaths occur in a sentence, and the children’s-story-like prose doesn’t appear to struggle with the depths of the human psyche. However, like all the greatest fictions, when its depths are delved into, Candide becomes a wonderfully informed discussion opener for any number of essential topics: war, love, death (to name a few). Give this classic to a ten year old boy or an elderly woman and they’ll each have something to say about it.

It was banned though, probably because of its flippant treatment of such delicate matters as murder, rape and slavery. I would argue that making fun of serious matters is a good way to challenge any preconceptions or prejudices we may have about them; other disagree. Without a liberal attitude, growing from the age of reason, there could be no stand-up comedy, no rock n’ roll and no critique of religious matters. Such a world would be full of solemn prayer, pious attitudes towards sex and (to be flippant myself) absolutely no fun whatsoever. It would also be a world where public shaming or public executions occur whenever an artist challenges the status quo. When censorship goes too far, suddenly, jazz music, Jewish poetry and black comedy are being stamped upon by the jackboots of fascists, as they burn the works of Voltaire outside the gates of the Reichstag. By the butt of a gun, in a world without liberal humanism, violent troops of young fools fight for some tyrant’s idea of a religious ideal: unthinking and under orders. With great wit and wisdom, Voltaire reveals the sheer absurdity of such human history and teaches us to see such serious matters in the true light of day. And most importantly, with a good sense of humour and a decent dose of irony.

#2 Rites of Passage

In Adventure, Books, Comedy, Fiction on 06/01/2017 at 12:00 pm

Edmund Talbot is the narrator of this comic sea adventure, set upon a warship heading out to colonize the antipodes. Talbot is an aristocrat, writing a journal addressed to his lorded godfather. His style is energetic, utilizing exclamation marks wherever possible. Talbot humorously conveys his boredom, his sickness and his desires on board ship. His aristocratic wit–literary and foreign language references brandished as intellectual insults–can be endearing, but his attacks, particular on the vulnerable, veer close to plain snobbery and can be abusive. As an influential man of some power, but a young man of little experience, Talbot learns that a high station in life comes with a high level of responsibility.


Primrose Hill 03/01/17


52: Complete Prose by Woody Allen

In Books, Comedy, Fiction on 23/12/2016 at 12:00 pm

complete-prose-by-woody-allenWoody Allen is arguably one of the greatest wits of our time, and his Complete Prose is the perfect book to make giggle over the festive season. Between its pages, a rich tapestry of odd-ball philosophy, jokes that make fun of life’s most serious subjects — e.g. religion and death — and a myriad of ingeniously incongruous ideas await. Pick up this book almost anywhere in the world, at almost any point in time, to find yourself near prostrate with laughter.

Merry Christmas everyone and thanks for reading — four years and counting!

43: The Paper Men by William Golding

In Books, Comedy, Fiction on 21/10/2016 at 12:00 pm

the-paper-men-by-william-goldingWilfred Barclay is an alcoholic writer whose first novel Coldharbour is famous around the world. Much to his disgust, Barclay is being pursued by a pushy and unpleasant American academic called Rick Tucker. In his desperate attempts to be Wilf’s official biographer — rifling through his bins, stalking him around the world — Rick is a ‘paper man’ without any solid substance to define him outside of the written word. However, the same can be said for Barclay himself, whose manic attempts to write about — and physically avoid — his would-be biographer are equally ludicrous and farcical. For lovers of fiction, the result is a very funny novel from Sir Golding; a writer who is not famed for his comic prose.

Critics have often complemented Golding for his ability to adopt new linguistic techniques in each and every novel he composes, never producing the same book twice. And yet, there are certain themes and motifs that hold the body of his work together in one coherent stream. Later in this book, for example, we see the protagonist go through a spiritual epiphany in the form of a life-changing dream. This kind of symbolic moment, where the absence of an explanation might be filled by an omniscient presence, is seen also in Golding’s other books. It is the kind of moment that is more akin with poetry than prose. This would make sense, as Golding has been quoted — I very much paraphrase — as saying he started out wanting to be a poet.

Seeing as one can only read a book once for the first time, and I am closer now to completing all of Golding’s books, I have treasured this week’s review with great pleasure. It was very refreshing to be taken through a series of comical situations by a writer who is usually rather seriously minded in his work. From all evidence, Golding appears to have been a pleasant and funny man with a teacher’s enthusiasm for learning. I recently read a series of essays edited by John Carey, written a while ago to celebrate the writer’s seventy-fifth birthday. It was a fantastic opportunity to read about the man and his works, especially because Sir Golding liked to keep his private life private, like the fictional Wilfred Barclay in this enjoyably comic novel.

I would like to thank John Keats Community Library for loaning out this lovely first edition.

34: Forty Years On by Alan Bennett

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Plays on 19/08/2016 at 12:00 pm

Forty Years On by Alan BennettYou probably won’t have come across Alan Bennett’s 1969 play Forty Years On. It was his first West End show and follows similar themes to The History Boys, dealing comically with our anxieties about the British education system. In this early work for the stage, the target for Bennett’s satirical pen is the old British public school system, as characterized by the old-fashioned school Headmaster (originally played by John Gielgud). The comedy builds around the staging of a play within a play, of which the somewhat clownish headmaster keeps interrupting to criticize its lavatory humour. As becomes apparent, large parts of the play appear to be based around the headmaster’s life-story, revealing a darker side to the private schooling of young boys.

Upon first reading, what stands out is Bennett’s knack for writing funny lines. His approach to laughter is erudite, often drawing on his wide reading of literature and sound knowledge of wartime history for the basis of his comedy. The best lines are well put together in terms of syntax, with each word having a precise function. These jokes are intelligently placed to draw us to the playwright’s themes, which reveal an intellectual concern for Britain’s flawed education system; an arguably unfair set of divided organizations, dubiously created to reproduce the British class system.

Mr. Bennett has said that not in favour of independent schools. Like myself, he would like to see them abolished, something which our politicians are unlikely to push forward. Unfortunately, the British people continue to live in an unfairly stratified country reinforced by our schooling. But I am an optimist, and suggest that nothing is stopping us from working hard to build bridges between people from all walks of life.

Along wiser paths.

33: A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

In Books, Comedy, Fiction on 12/08/2016 at 12:00 pm

A Passage to India by E. M. ForsterBy 1924, E. M. Forster had made his name as a successful writer of social comedies which wittily poked fun at the British class system. This was the year that he published A Passage to India, Forster’s much celebrated book about British colonial rule. Like his previous works, it reads well as a comedy of manners. Forster is brilliant at exposing the misunderstandings between differing social groups, here aiming his pen at colonial India.

Forster is very good at structuring his novels. He usually begins a chapter with a paragraph which either describes a place or presents us with a philosophical viewpoint on which to judge the following scene. Such scenes often centre around social gatherings, for example the ‘bridge party’ held near the beginning of the novel. Forster is then able to present his characters with awkward situations that challenge their social positions within an inflexible class system.

I am looking forward to reading more of this novel. So far, I have become very interested in the character Aziz and his mixed feelings towards the British. The blurb on my paperback states that this comedy will expose ‘the racism inherent in colonialism’. It appears that a book can now be marketed as an exposé of colonial racism, perhaps a sign that being critical of British rule has become popular.

What do you think?

32: A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

In Books, Comedy, Fiction on 05/08/2016 at 12:00 pm

A Room with a View by E. M. ForsterPolite society must have been difficult to navigate in repressed Victorian England. Whom should marry for love and whom for social standing? How should one deal with one’s servants? What does your appreciation of Ruskin say about your views on socialism? Oh dear, life for social climbers can be such a slippery slope!

But fortunately, English literature has produced E. M. Forster to help us dissect the manners and foibles of those puzzling times gone by. With great wit and a good ear for conversation, Forster creates entertaining social comedies which take us into the drawing rooms of the Victorian middling classes. Tea is served, gossip is shared and the wrong end of the stick is oftentimes produced. Written six years before the Great War, A Room with a View is a devilishly amusing novel which sharply exposes the mechanisms of a particular group of people, as Jane Austen had done a century earlier. And as in Austen’s famous novels, the narrowness of the middle classes is reflected by the novelist’s inability to discuss the working classes in any meaningful way whatsoever. The silent majority are simply there to pour the tea, being treated as if they weren’t complex human being themselves.

I have enjoyed reading this relatively short novel, and I think it works well as a casual summer book with a fairly good plot that moves along at a decent pace. Readers will be encouraged to laugh at many of the characters, of which Forster is a skilled creator. In terms of genre, it might be worth thinking of this book as a romantic comedy, which is further evident when we look at the film version starring Helena Bonham Carter.

It will certainly pass the time rather nicely.

19: The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Spy on 08/05/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Man Who Was ThursdayI came across this by chance in a charity shop in Belsize Park, near where I live in London. The first page was enticing, so I finished a chapter on the walk home. And I must say, that reading whilst you’re walking really is an incredible pastime – at least when the weather is nice. But I digress, back to the serious literary review.

The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) is somewhat of a mix, partly being a novel about spies and partly being a novel about anarchists. One thing however remains consistent, it is brilliantly written and makes fun out of some pretty serious topics. You see, as Joseph Conrad made clear in his spy / anarchist novel The Secret Agent (1907), anarchistic dynamiters were a serious threat to stability just before the First World War. Knowing this puts a brave satiric slant on the work, a bit like writers who take the piss out of Islamic terrorism in today’s terms, sometimes at their peril. Even without the relevant historic context, the book is still an hilarious fantasy constructed by a magical storyteller.

And the style is accessible in a way that contemporary novelists never quite seem to master, perhaps barring the excellent Alexander McCall Smith. It seems that, in the days before television, writers could actually grab your imagination and bring it closer to their own way of seeing things. I guess Conrad in a way, was the one who broke that mould and successfully got inside our heads, which led to less accessible literature for English academics to dissect. This book would have been exciting in its day for the way it uses the precision of an H. G. Welles to tell a fantastic story; today it is refreshing because it feels completely original and can be easily read several times.

Read this book.

14: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Romance on 03/04/2015 at 12:00 pm

Lucky Jim by Kingsly AmisJames Dixon works at an unnamed English university in the history department under Professor Welch. When Dixon is invited to an arty weekend at the Welch’s place, a series of comic incidents begin to occur that will mean Dixon must ride his luck – something that ‘Lucky Jim’ is actually quite good at. As Dixon gets tangled up by his own foolish behaviour, the comedy builds up to a crescendo.

Lucky Jim (1954) is a funny and skeptical book that sets Dixon’s questionable actions alongside the ironic tone of the narrator. A perfect example is the way in which a hangover is described at the start of chapter 6, following a night spent getting extremely drunk and setting fire to Mrs. Welch’s bedclothes.

‘He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning.’ (pg. 61)

This sentence not only sums up Dixon’s feelings of wickedness as he lays static with a terrible hangover, but it craftily combines a simile (‘like a broken spider-crab’) with a metaphor (‘the tarry shingle of the morning’). It is the humorous combination of the sprawled human body, juxtaposed to imagery taken from the natural world, that turns Dixon’s self-imposed misfortune into comedy. When such literary techniques – which commonly occur in poetry – are expertly used to bring humour and lushness to the prose, the result can be seriously funny and aesthetically pleasing.

I think that Amis was ahead of his time in many ways, and yet part of a funny-novel history reaching back to such eighteenth century delights as Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy). My reasoning is that this sort of humour (part naturalistic / part situational) has often been seen in contemporary British and American television series (e.g. The Office / Curb Your Enthusiasm). On the one hand, we are encouraged to empathise with Dixon as he struggles with the pretensions and snobbery of university life; and on the other hand, the narrator turns Dixon into a selfish and dishonest fool. A good way to argue for and against Dixon as a human being would be to look at his relationship with Christine. Although Christine is clearly more suited to Dixon then she is to Bertrand, the way in which Dixon woos Christine involves selfishness and dishonesty. However, Christine doesn’t seem to mind his silly actions and actually finds them quite amusing. And it is only because she sees him for the flawed and pathetic creature he truly is, that Dixon allows himself to fall in love with her.

And love soon turns this comedy into a romance.