Books of the dead funnyThere is nothing inherently funny about death. Although there's a verbal echo between the words "humorous" and "posthumous", they have different Latin roots, in the words for liquid and earth. Yet a hot genre in the bookshops this autumn is posthumous humour. Final publications by three of our funniest writers - Simon Gray
Simon James Holliday Gray CBE (born October 21 1936) is an English playwright. , Alan Coren This article is about a recently deceased person.
Some information, such as the circumstances of the person's death and surrounding events, may change rapidly as more facts become known. and Miles Kington Miles Kington (born 1941) is a British journalist, jazz musician and broadcaster. He was born in Northern Ireland (where his father, a soldier, was then posted), went to school at Trinity College, Glenalmond, a boys' independent boarding school in Glenalmond, Scotland. - are coming out within a year or less of their death from cancer.
Because the judgment of literary merit Literary merit is a quality of written work, generally applied to the genre of literary fiction. A work is said to have literary merit (to be a work of art) if it is a work of quality, that is if it has some aesthetic value. is how long a work has survived, readers are used to enjoying books by the dead. Until recently, it was possible to study English literature English literature, literature written in English since c.1450 by the inhabitants of the British Isles; it was during the 15th cent. that the English language acquired much of its modern form. through school and university without ever encountering an author who had breathed in the last few decades.
But the experience of opening a book by a writer who has died recently is very different. The reason is that reading is a conversation. The fantasy raised by the narrator NARRATOR. A pleader who draws narrs serviens narrator, a sergeant at law. Fleta, 1. 2, c. 37. Obsolete. of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye - of phoning up the writer of a book he has enjoyed - catches a truth about the writer-reader relationship. And, even though we realise realistically that our favourite writers are ex-directory to us, we begin a volume that's copyrighted to their estate with the crushing understanding that the line is already dead.
Our unease as readers is increased if the genre is comedy: enjoying the jokes of a just-dead man feels like a literary equivalent of the social solecism of laughing at funerals. And yet gags were their job: this is the way they would have wanted readers to go.
Gray's Coda, the final instalment of the diaries he wrote as a sideline to play writing, is the bleakest of these three books. The energy of the earlier journals - in part a celebration of his survival of a past serious illness - is dampened. Beginning at the moment of terminal diagnosis, he struggles to get the words down. The scene in which he telephones his children is one admirers will see through blurred eyes. But there are also many flashes of the familiar savage comedy. It feels wrong to laugh, yet wrong not to.
Kington, in How Shall I Tell the Dog?, maintains his comic sensibilities until the very end, especially in sequences tussling with his oncologist over which of them will write the book about his illness. Perhaps this eleventh-hour wit should not be surprising, as he disguised his diagnosis to such an extent that colleagues at the Independent were astonished a·ston·ish
tr.v. as·ton·ished, as·ton·ish·ing, as·ton·ish·es
To fill with sudden wonder or amazement. See Synonyms at surprise. by the sudden announcement of his death soon after filing a last article.
The final columns of Coren - in a collection, 69 for 1, and an anthology, Chocolate and Cuckoo Clocks - do not directly address the impending im·pend
intr.v. im·pend·ed, im·pend·ing, im·pends
1. To be about to occur: Her retirement is impending.
2. deadline, although, in references to grandparents grandparents npl → abuelos mpl
grandparents grand npl → grands-parents mpl
grandparents grand npl and graves in end-career pieces, there may be subconscious hints of where his mind was turning. But, as with the Gray and Kington, the writer's absence blackens the mood: laughter should be something shared.
But, apart from the experience of reading the final work by someone whose books we've known, there is another, eerier, sort of postmortem postmortem /post·mor·tem/ (post-mort´im) performed or occurring after death.
Relating to or occurring during the period after death.
See autopsy. authorship: the introduction to a new writer who is already dead. John Kennedy Toole's novel A Confederacy Confederacy, name commonly given to the Confederate States of America (1861–65), the government established by the Southern states of the United States after their secession from the Union. of Dunces, published amid publicity that the novelist had killed himself in despair at his literary failures, is the most extreme example.
A similar case is a current international bestseller in crime fiction: Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The writer died in 2004, soon after completing a trilogy of thrillers. Their successive publication means Larsson will have a long career but that the usual trappings of literary success are impossible.
At least, as the main subject of mystery fiction is death, there's a poignancy here. But, with the comic authors, the morbidity complicates the exchange between writer and reader. We're very glad to have these books, but would prefer to have their authors as well.