Saturday, May 25, 2013

A New Kind of Comedy

 Penelope Lively's Comic Cosmos

Penelope Lively has created a new kind of comic cosmos. Lively, in her novels of
comic realism, has inaugurated a world of contemporary sensibility, one in which
the distancing factor of irony is just as suggestive, the author’s wit as astute,
as in classic comedy; but the pre-judgment of human folly has been mitigated, has been
transformed by the understanding of the author. Judgment, held in abeyance
as explicit dictum, is still part of the scenic detail, character development, and
thematic juxtapositions of this contemporary world.

Laughter abounds in this new comic world. There is all the fun of seeing the fall of the mighty (or at
least the chastening of vanity), and the more intelligent fun of predicting another round of mistakes,
or maybe a gentle learning curve, on the part of a certain character. There is plenty of that kind of fun
and best of all, there is the sheer delight of entering a world fashioned by a genius of comic realism.

A contemporary author of comic novels in English, Penelope Lively writes in the tradition of masters of comedy Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens. Shakespeare’s comedies make brilliant use of the conventions of the comic plot, with its reversals and reconciliations, and, for the most part, Shakespeare’s comic protagonists learn and change. Jane Austen peoples her novels with comic types, to be sure, but it is Austen’s affection and irony towards her characters, comical or not––and her readiness to judge them, that makes her world so delightful and absorbing. Charles Dickens created comedy out of hyperbole, and constructed an often-fantastic world providing comic relief amidst the grim landscape of 19th century social change.

Penelope Lively’s comic novels are, like the comedies of Shakespeare, intricately plotted. Just as Shakespeare culled comic plots from Plautus and improved upon them, so Penelope Lively has devised the action of her comic novels based upon classic patterns of  comedy.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, one finds that there is, in certain ways, more of an affinity between Penelope Lively and Shakespeare than between Lively and her realist forebears. As Shakespeare, in The Comedy of Errors, keeps track of each character’s point of view amidst the many complications[1], so Lively holds the several threads of How It All Began, her comedy of happenstance, while realizing the individual responses to randomness of each character in her cast. This affinity goes beyond skill, however.

As Shakespeare scholar C.L. Barber notes, “Shakespeare’s sense of comedy as a moment in a larger cycle” leads him, in The Comedy of Errors, to use the themes of old age and the threat of death to place in relief the conventional happy ending of the couples’ reunion.[2] That larger cycle is missing in most novels of comic realism. When Jane Austen draws one of her brilliantly plotted novels to a close, it is as though that 18th century world, so complete in itself, has been temporarily put to rest. No other, larger world beyond it beckons. Likewise, the self-sufficiency of the illusion of Dickens’ quirky world convinces us of its reality. The worlds of Austen and Dickens and most others writing in the tradition of comic realism are mimetic worlds understood and explained psychologically and socially. Their authors do not understand these representations of reality in terms of philosophy or cosmology.

Penelope Lively situates the plot of her exquisitely crafted novel How It All Began within a larger cycle: the lifecycle. Like a playwright, she pairs off (or re-pairs) most of the key characters who are in their prime by story’s end, leaving Charlotte and Henry, the two key characters of the older generation, to deal on their own with aging and the end of life. Henry winds down like a failing mechanism. At work on his memoirs, “Henry wrote, and wrote, and time went by until he wrote rather less, and took to reading and rereading, in a desultory way, and eventually ceased to do even that.” The more self-reflective Charlotte marvels at the “new-minted” baby next door, seeing herself, by contrast, as “time visible.” Lively adds that Charlotte’s story will end, “But not for awhile, she thinks, not for awhile.”

Beyond the larger cycle of life and death, Lively situates the events of her comedy within a universe whose laws include the perpetuation of randomness through chaos. Randomness sets this story in motion with Charlotte’s mugging, and soon “Seven lives have been derailed.” Happenstance, like the perpetuation of errors in Shakespeare’s play, will complicate the action of the novel; but where the human error of Renaissance comedy can be resolved, its mischief ended, the ripple effect of  chaos continues to the end of the story and beyond: “These stories do not end but they spin away from one another, each on its own course.”

Although a comic scene in a Penelope Lively novel is more likely to take place in a restaurant than in a drawing room, Lively’s writing has been described as classic comedy of manners, and here one immediately thinks of Jane Austen. A very modern kind of comedy of manners Lively’s would be, however: a sly comedy, in which the author’s ironic commentary is at times merely implicit, located in the lacunae between one scene and the next.

Thus in How It All Began, the transition from a scene in which Jeremy Dalton wakes up to the prospect of financial ruin as the penalty for his infidelity, to a scene in which his lover, Marion, plans a financial coup, proceeds from the close of Jeremy’s scene:

“Divorce would be ruin…He might as well jack in the business, and set up as a house clearance firm with a van and a sleazy flat over a garage.”

To the opening of Marion’s scene:
“Marion’s lunch with George Harrington took place at a restaurant she knew to be pretty swank.”

Where comedy of manners exemplar Jane Austen informs the reader of her opinions–––both aesthetic and moral–––regarding characters’ behavior, Penelope Lively might use, as above, transitions from one scene to the next to state ironic juxtapositions––leaving it up to the reader to draw conclusions.

It is not only the reader who is given more freedom by the new comedy.

Penelope Lively’s characters are considerably more autonomous than those of Austen, writing in the 18th century. If Austen’s Emma deserves a scolding from Mr. Knightley for mocking Miss Bates at Box Hill, that is nothing compared to the disapprobation that Austen’s heroine directs towards herself later in the novel. That disapprobation is formulated explicitly in Austen’s authoritative prose. There is nothing like this iteration of authorial judgment in all of Penelope Lively: 

With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody’s destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken: and she had not quite done nothing, for she had done mischief.

                        Emma, Penguin 1966, p 402

On the whole, Penelope Lively avoids the language of judgment, even though the moral dimensions of many situations she describes––from the neglect of the child Martin in Judgment Day to the socially damaging insider trading unleashed in How It All Began––  surpass the imbroglios of which Jane Austen’s Emma is culpable.

For all that we can readily distinguish, in Austen, between characters capable of
development, like Emma and Knightley, and flat, comic characters like Miss
 Bates, Austen’s comic world is not neatly divided into many-faceted characters
on the one side, and one-dimensional characters on the other. Such a division is
more typical of Dickens’ comic world, peopled as it is by heroes and  heroines,
 by villains, and by grotesques whose tics and manias have their literary antecedents
in comic types suffering from an imbalance in the four Humors.

Where Dickens’ comic characters loom larger than life, Penelope Lively’s both imitate life and understate it. Small fry, leading humdrum, even insignificant lives, Lively’s characters attain a larger stature, and sometimes a quirky grandeur, within the bounds of the worlds they seamlessly inhabit.

Dickens’ comic types frequently dominate the narrative, much like Big Top clowns cavorting and sprawling across a stage. Penelope Lively’s men and women are nothing like circus performers. Rather, they become fodder for the author’s irony in the course of painfully making life’s big and little mistakes. In this they sometimes resemble novice stand-up comedians whose jokes don’t quite come off––at other times merry pranksters who get caught by the local cops.

There are no grotesques in Penelope Lively’s comic universe, no wicked Uriah Heeps of startlingly odd physical appearance; no hypocritical Pumblechooks; no Micawbers whose one-liners (‘something will turn up’) tag them as flat, non-evolving characters; no figures like the Aged Parent, whose comic identity is tied to the exaggeration of a tic. Thus, in Great Expectations, the Aged’s son Wemmick and guest Pip perform exaggerated, almost slapstick capers around the Aged P., nodding vigorously to perpetuate the pretence of a conversation between themselves and the old man, who is completely deaf.

Lively’s wicked characters have no physical traits that give them away. Her hypocrites, like Mark in How It All Began, may be fixed essences, but rendered with psychological realism, they can stay under the radar while partaking of a dynamic with self-reflective characters who can and do evolve.

From our 21st century vantage point, we can perhaps best see Penelope Lively’s new comedy by way of contrast both to the world of Dickens and to the world of Austen. Lively’s comic universe contains a varied cast of characters whose traits are distributed variously for each character: round or flat, eccentric or normal, comically rendered or realistically portrayed.

Lively’s characters are more fortuitously comical––as though seen from the perspective of a laughing cosmic deity who knows all the play of chance–– than the characters of Austen or Dickens, neither of whom contemplated chaos theory. Lively’s characters may not be as fixed as grotesques or snobbish matrons, but they are comically ‘built to last’––with eccentricities buffered by great rolls of metaphorical baby fat: the insulation of inexperience. Thus Henry, for all his insufferable vanity, once embarked on an adventure in television, becomes a babe in the woods. Having watched him fall so precipitously before, we feel a sneaking sympathy for his lordship. Whatever happened to judgment?

Judgment in Penelope Lively’s world, the author’s judgment and the reader’s, has been translated into a new language. We laugh. And laughter purges. But our laughter doesn’t remain a visceral experience. We are not at the carnival. We are not in thrall to a Dickensian view of human nature, needing exorcism.

We read on, observing with amusement. Our amusement doesn’t stay merely cerebral though. We are not in an eighteenth century parlor. We are not limited to the observation of human folly, to the evidence of the five senses.

Nor does this new theater tell only of lovers reshuffled and sorted by comedy, their progression towards happiness as predictable as an infant’s stages of development.

We no longer laugh the laughter of the 20th century: the laughter of the hollow men.

We are in the society and the geography of the 21st century, are in Newton’s universe and in the quantum universe of random perturbations. The quantum universe is strange to us, but we know its entanglements to be real.

Knowing what we know (what we think we know)–––of history, of the singularity, of the remote past and of the far future––we laugh our human laugh, the laughter of the present.

Reading the new comic novel, we laugh with our heads thrown back, we laugh with our shoulders and bellies, and then again silently, with just the hint of a smile. We observe with our eyes wide open, then look inwardly with eyes fast shut. We ponder a thing with our minds and feel it once again with our hearts. All this time, this reading time, we are guided by something better than reason. Better even than sanity. We are guided by the lighthearted––dare I say lively?––wisdom of the author.

[1] C.L.Barber ‘Shakespearian Comedy in The Comedy of Errors’ in College English
Vol. 25, No. 7 (April, 1964), pp. 493-497.
[2]  Ibid.

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