Home Forums General Discussion The sense of humour and the theory of incongruity

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    Dear Mr. Coe,
    I’m Serena Salerno and I come from a little town in the south of Italy. Few days ago I read your article published on the Guardian on October 30,2015 with the title Is Martin Amis right? Or will Jeremy Corbyn have the last laugh?. I have really appreciated the definition you give of the sense of humour drawing upon the theory of incongruity that is the ability to juxtapose disparate concepts and to draw meaning from this juxtaposition, which seems dates back to 35,000 years ago but now the impression is we are loosing this ability. Although we live in the social media age, internet is getting used ourselves to think in a binary and symplified way, avoiding all possible nuances for the intepretation of reality
    First of all I’d like to let you know I totally agree with this analysis you did and in the second place when I read your very interesting article I couldn’t avoid to think about one of the greatest Italian writers of 20th century, Natalia Ginzburg who in the novel Family sayings tells the sorrow taking care to preserve the reader’s feelings, who can only be amused reading this novel even if there are a lot of tragedies as the second world war, the persecution, the death of her first husband and so on and so forth. Natalia doesn’t want to tell the great and negative events explicitly, instead she draws upon other means bringing to the explosion of comedy: the misdirection and the juxtaposition of images. Her father, one of the novel’s protagonists, is the the character who mainly represents the theory of incongruity, as consequence the most comical. He’s an important scientist,he has hosted and helped important Italian personalities during the Fascist regime, as Filippo Turati, but Natalia reveals a totally different and contradictory image of the man in the everyday life, at home, in his relationship with his relatives. An authoritarian and grumbling person, whose first intentions are punctually contradicted by actions that express the opposite of his words. The author proceeds in the same way with the other characters too, who are necessarily tied to the events of that time.
    I’d like to go on with this discussion but I don’t want to bother you, what I need to stress is that Natalia Ginzburg based a whole novel on the sense of humour and the theory of incongruity, for the same reason of Tim Hunt and Charlie Hebdo’s Hank : it seemed to be the only possible response to tragic situations.
    I have never read no one your novels but I’m absolutely inclined to catch up.
    Thank you for your attention.
    Serena Salerno


    Hi Serena

    Thanks for your post and thank you for your reading suggestion. You make the Ginzburg novel sound really interesting and I’ve now ordered myself a copy.



    Speaking of incongruity, I would like to ask you a what if question concerning a character from The Rotter’s Club…

    What if Culpepper’s vanity had led him to Japan in pursuit of enlightenment through Zen and the martial arts? What if Culpepper had pursued Zen enlightenment like he played rugby, with eyes set determinedly on the prize, but without showing much compassion for anybody he perceived to be opposing his will?

    If you could make a story of it — a tragedy or a comedy? — it might potentially be a very interesting study in “forward where the knocks are hardest” (the principle of direct striving which guided Culpepper’s efforts on the rugby pitch) vs the Buddha’s timeless truth of non-doing.


    I’m not entirely sure how to answer that except to say that, while some of the characters in The Rotters’ Club were drawn from life, Culpepper was drawn from literature. Re-reading David Nobbs’s wonderful coming-of-age novel Second From Last in the Sack Race, I realised recently that my character was actually closely based on one of David’s – the school sports star in that novel, the brilliantly-named Tosser Pilkington-Brick. I suppose this explains why he’s more of a caricature than some of the others …


    That is very kind of you Jonathan (or typically wimpish, Culpepper might think), but I remember that back in the 1970s the name Cross was primarily associated with Crosse & Blackwell, producers of spicey condiments. Besides that, like Culpepper, I was captain of junior rugger, i.e captain of the U16XV when you would have been in the under 15s. Plus, though I do accept that Culpepper was a largely fictional caricature, in many respects I in my teens was an even bigger tosser than Culpepper was – a fact that such a keen observer of human behaviour as yourself could not have failed to notice. So I would like to claim at least partial ownership of the character of the prize dickhead.

    To me Culpepper, the villain of The Rotters’ Club, epitomizes the striver, the doer, the competitor, whereas the hero Ben Trotter is the observer, the non-doer, the artist.

    Can the Culpeppers of this world, maybe with the dawning realism of old age, turn into Trotters? What if one of them actively tried? I think the consequences of such an incongruous pursuit might, for a Culpepper, be tragic indeed. But if the story were well told …


    … if the story were well told, the telling might bring into focus, both in an entertaining way and maybe also in an edifying way,

    "the ludicrous disparity between… intellectual arrogance and basic ignorance."

    What a brilliant turn of phrase.

    Again, my what if question, is what if the body-conscious Culpepper through repeatedly running up against the hard rocks of reality became aware of just that disparity, and then started trying his damnedest — in his habitual boorish way — to close the gap.

    But the question might also arise: what if if the more ‘mindful’ Ben Trotter also aspired to close the gap — in his own habitually wimpish manner — through the intellectual self-awareness of a novelist? How would that work? As a means of really combatting ignorance, how effective might that be?

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