Is there always a contradiction between the classical and the humorous in literature?

The first time I read Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, I hooted with laughter. A few weeks later, I needed a pick-me-up and read the book again, but nothing in it raised a smile, even. Seldom does the humour in a book have such a short shelf life. How does any writer tell a funny story? She uses incongruence and anticlimax. Readers usually laugh because we just tripped over something out of place.

That’s quite different from chuckling over dialogue in a classic, as when Dolly Winthrop comforts Silas Marner after he has lost all his savings. Just behind our laugh a sob awaits, at how long it takes an outcaste to struggle out of loneliness, at the gulf between his history and her compassion.

So we have either poignant wit and satire or stories in which things go splat. But is it possible for a splat book to become a classic? I thought about this when I bought the 30th anniversary edition of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, by Sue Townsend. It is a Penguin edition with a foreword and all, so we are clearly meant to treat it as a sort of classic. Adrian’s parents are at loggerheads and during the course of this story they break up and get back together again. Meanwhile, the boy worries about acne, girls, and the size of his equipment. Adrian misunderstands events and spins delusions about his own love life. There is a smelly dog and things go splat, but I won’t be reading this book again. As soon as I find a young teen I’ll pass it on.

Around the same time, I opened a borrowed volume of James Thurber’s essays. I had giggled as a teenager at his writing, so I expected to enjoy his sophisticated humour even more at my age. Alas, though the introduction was some of his best, the essays were disappointing. Marital disputes aren’t amusing after a point.

By now I was grimly hunting for a laugh. Then I found, on the Guardian’s list of 100 books you must read, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). The premise is simple. Three toffs, wanting a break from their imaginary labours, rough it out for a few weeks on a riverboat. They take along a dog. Hilarity must necessarily ensue. But this is not just a linear story. By shamelessly digressing and flashing back, the narrator puts in every funny thing that has ever happened to him. None of it pretends to be poignant or ironic.

In any “road book”, a writer gets to mingle characters of different classes and temperaments, to say nothing of dogs. Jerome writes hilariously Dickensian chapter headings. He describes the countryside and its history in an overblown Sir Walter Scott style, then imperceptibly shifts into rather pretty prose. We almost want to take a boat out. It is that solid writing that keeps this comedy in the company of the classics.

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