Issue 189 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
What I like about my favourite books is not just their content, it's the way you can feel someone else's mind at work. The sensation of a lively intelligence encountering the real world with clarity and wit gives me an almost physical pleasure. I've realised that this is the sensation that links my enjoyment of thinkers like Marx and Freud with the novels and comedies I have re-read till I know them almost by heart.
There are plenty of writers who have important things to say and say them well, but the energy of a generous mind in action is peculiarly gratifying. It seems to allow room for humour. It has taken me years to define this quality, wondering why Marx's throwaway quips in Capital give me the same buzz as Florence King's gut wrenchingly funny asides in Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, a book I read whenever I feel depressed.
I realise that writing for this journal it may look as if I put Marx up front on purpose, but that's not the case. Reading Capital for the first time 20 years ago, I revelled in its combination of absolute intellectual clarity, the painstaking sense of explanation with the nutty humour:
It was that 'tame llamas' that did it for me as a teenager. I laughed out loud. So clear is this writer, so fully in control of his complicated economic maths, he can afford to joke in the middle of his argument. Marx turns the same wit on our ideological assumptions--this sentence from The German Ideology I know by heart, 'The right to the undisturbed enjoyment, within certain conditions, of fortuity and chance has up till now been called personal freedom.' There is a relaxed irony in this acid exposition of the assumptions of bourgeois liberty--essentially the right to suffer: the right to he homeless, to be poor, to be unemployed.
I find a similar quality in George Eliot's Middlemarch. A lot has been written about the rich social analysis, the implicit feminism, the passionate recognition of 'hidden lives'--all reasons why it is a great book. But less has been said about the humour.
Here is one of my favourite moments. Mr Brooke, a great name dropper, has been challenged in a political matter by a Lady Cadwallader. He pompously starts quoting from the Latin poet Virgil. '"You don't know Virgil. I knew..." Mr Brooke reflected in time that he had not had the personal acquaintance of the great Augustan poet, "I was going to say, poor Stoddart, you know...".'
'Mr Brooke reflected in time that he had not had the personal acquaintance of the great Augustan poet.' To me this is one of the funniest lines in the book. Here is a rather pretentious man spouting Latin to patronise his female opponent. George Eliot elegantly catches him out, as he changes course in mid name drop, realising that he couldn't have known a poet who died nearly 2,000 years ago. There is a sense of humour which is confident enough not to be scathing, merely affectionate but still with an edge.
This is the quality I love in Florence King's Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady. King writes a hysterically funny autobiography of her formative years in the American South during the 1940s and 1950s, but it's not just comic, it is an investigation of a not typically 'feminine' woman struggling among the conventions of her society. Prejudices of race, class and gender are acutely observed, but again, it is the quality of wit and turn of phrase that make you feel the author's mind engaging with the world: critically, but with a sense of fun. What more can you ask?