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Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans, was published in November 2014 by Doubleday. Like her previous novel (Their Finest Hour and a Half, long-listed for the Orange Prize) it’s set during World War Two. Before becoming a writer, Lissa was a producer/director in radio and television comedy.
One of the first stories I ever wrote had a joke in it. It was about a hippo called Fred, and I drew a picture of him at the end, with an arrow pointing at his head. The arrow was labelled ‘FRED’S HEAD.’ Not a classic gag, but I was only seven, and I was already pretty sure that the best writing should include funny bits.
It was about then that I discovered a book that made me cry with laughter. How to be Topp is by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, but it’s supposedly written by Nigel Molesworth, a pupil at St. Custard’s, a fifth-rate boarding school somewhere in England. Nigel can’t spell, loathes most of the teachers and finds school (or ‘skool’, as he puts it) a glum and dispiriting place where he is forced to eat prunes and study gerunds. I wasn’t familiar with Nigel’s world – I went to an ordinary village school – but his fabulously scathing, grammatically dodgy viewpoint left me doubled up.
From then on, I was always on the look-out for other books that would have the same, wonderful effect on me. I discovered My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith – each one a master-class in comedic precision. Whole phrases lodged forever in my memory, a permanent library of beautifully-crafted prose. These authors were my heroes.
As I grew older, my field of reading widened, but I never lost my admiration for writers who could make me laugh. I discovered though, (to my amazement) that there are people who seem to think that good writing means humourless writing – the implication being that if someone is a really good writer, then they won’t feel the need to include funny lines. This doesn’t seem to apply to long-dead authors: Dickens and Austen are allowed to be both humorous and literary; Barbara Pym, however, who in the 1950s wrote books of exquisite sensitivity that were nonetheless often very funny, was regarded very much as a lightweight by comparison with her more serious contemporaries. It was as if she’d somehow taken the easy option.
And yet, for me, the ability to leaven serious subjects with wit, to tackle the human condition while still leaving room for laughter is still the skill that I admire most in other writers, and the one that I aspire to myself.
And if that sounds a bit pompous, then perhaps I’d better give (almost) the last line to Charles Pooter, the hero of Diary of a Nobody whose account of an argument with his son, ends with the words: ‘I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.’
Because if I ever write a line that good, I shall be seriously happy.
Humour can help us to make sense of the world, but are some things off-limits? Romesh Gunesekera, Kei Miller, Leila Aboulela and Jennifer Makumbi discuss in this podcast.