December 3, 2005

Without saying why it's time to read a tragicomic book...

John Simon picks five:
1. "In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust (1913-22)....

2. "The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford (1915)....

3. The Plays of Anton Chekhov (1896-1904)....

4. "The Journals of Malte Lourids Brigge" by Rainer Maria Rilke (1910)....

5. "Vile Bodies" by Evelyn Waugh (1930)...

Read them and weep. And laugh. I guess. These seem to be the choices of a very old man. I'll bet you younger folks can come up with some nice post-1930 tragicomic things to read.


Anonymous said...

A tragicomic book for the younger set, of which I might qualify...

"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" by Dave Eggers

ziemer said...

i wouldn't get your hopes up, ann.

unless some younger person is familiar with lit from the soviet era, you're not going to find anything worthy of chekhov or waugh.

modern literature just isn't any good.

Balfegor said...

I'm young, but I can't really supply a modern example. I will say, though, I wept like a baby towards the end of Remembrance of Things Past. None of the others (well, I haven't read the Ford) had anything like that effect on me.

ziemer said...

you aren't supposed to weep when you read waugh or chekhov. you're supposed to laugh your ass off.

if you get so emotionally involved that you cry, you're missing all the fun.

Balfegor said...

"you aren't supposed to weep when you read waugh or chekhov. you're supposed to laugh your ass off."

Ah, what a relief! :P

tefta said...

When I saw the title of the article, "Portnoy's Complaint' jumped into my head.

reader_iam said...

I love all of these (including the Eggers) and own all but the Proust (the "compleat" Proust has been on my Christmas list for years, but I think all of my loved ones are timid about heading into that section of the bookstore). (Hey, maybe I should buy myself Christmas presents!)

I don't know why tragicomedy doesn't seem to be done as well in modern times. Are more contemporary writers less comfortable with ambiguity? Less able to simultaneously handle contradictions that run deeper than the obvious? Less insightful about the human condition, in all its knotted, inconsistent glory?

Or maybe modern writers have just lost the ability to capture the Universal--and therefore broader--rather than the narrowly specific, and therefore less multi-dimensional?

I'm not putting this, or getting at the subtleties, at all well here, so I'll stop.

(Which would make me an example of whereof I speak?)

ziemer said...

one thing that the books have in common (and this is also true of other great tragicomedy like faulkner) is they were written in times of transition between an old order and a new one.

western civilization has pretty much already collapsed; the transition is over.

this could have something to do with the dearth of great tragicomedy.

miklos rosza said...

"modern literature just isn't any good"

You don't know what you're talking about. Virtually every single book on the following list has won some award, is entertaining and sure, "tragicomic" and everything else you've ever wanted literature to be. None are much more than twenty years old. I don't know that it provides any extra credibility when I add that I reviewed regularly for the L.A. Times in the late 80s and 90s, also for the Washington Post, and so on.

In no particular order:

Ian McEwan "Atonement"
Alan Warner "Morvern Callar"
Haruki Murakami "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle"
David Markson "Reader's Block"
Pat Barker "Regeneration" (trilogy)
Denis Johnson "Angels"
Don Delillo "Running Dog"
James Salter "Light Years"
Michel Houellebecq "The Elementary Particles"
W.G. Sebald "The Emigrants"
Dennis Cooper "Try" or "Guide"
Philip Roth "American Pastoral"
A.M. Homes "The End of Alice"
Mohsin Hamid "Moth Smoke"
Todd Grimson "Stainless"
Mary Gaitskill "Bad Behavior"
Robert Bingham "Pure Slaughter Value"
Jamaica Kincaid "At the Bottom of the River"
James Kelman "How Late It Was, How Late"
Per Olov Enquist "The Royal Physician's Visit"

ziemer said...


i'll try to keep the titles in mind next time i'm at the bookstore.

but the fact is i simply do not consider the period from the end of wwii to the present to be relevant to my experience.

Balfegor said...

Re: Haruki Murakami --

Is Wind-up Bird Chronicle really "tragicomic?" I suppose it is. It struck me mostly as rather droll throughout, though, rather than comic in the sense that, say, Waugh is. Or . . well, Waugh is less comic in Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust and even Decline and Fall than he is in, say, The Loved One, Scott-King's Modern Europe, or Scoop. But I suppose those last three are considered lighter fare; at least, I do not usually see them cited as his great accomplishments. Still Waugh (and Chekov) seem a good deal more comic than Murakami. He writes funny stuff, from time to time, but it's never made me laugh out loud. The darker bits of his work have also tended to leave me a bit cold -- less so in Japanese than in English, but there, I suspect I've conditioned myself to respond more emotionally to Japanese than to English, and I have no idea what a native-reader response would be like.

That does remind, me, though, that I never got around to purchasing the third volume of the Japanese version of Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

Never read anything else on that list, although I have thought I ought to try some Houellebecq at some point.

Wade Garrett said...

Miklos - great list; I would have included "The Remains of the Day" and "A River Runs Through It."

Balfegor said...

Re: Murakami (again)

Now that I think about it some more (and procrastinate from doing my work), I think my feeling that Murakami doesn't really write tragicomedy probably stems from my sense that he tends to write stuff that is more like "magical realism" than ordinary fiction. He's done some more true-to-life stuff, of course. His Kangaroo Days collection has no terrible sheep-men or fish falling from heaven that I recall, and he has, I think, written a more journalistic collection of the recollections by the people affected by the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks. But in his novels, Wind-up Bird Chronicles like the others, there's a kind of quasi-magical sensibility that makes it all more droll than anything conveying the "tragicomic sense of life." The ridiculous just doesn't seem ridiculous enough, and the depressing is insufficiently depressing (although the anecdotes about Manshukuo do make something of an impression) to compare with Waugh, Chekov, Rilke, and Proust.

miklos rosza said...


The melancholy of Murakami's "Wind-up Bird" has stuck with me, and I don't feel like I've exhausted the book... by which I mean that I can readily imagine rereading it in a few years (which is one true test).

Anthony Powell is a writer I didn't mention, as i think people tend to get scared off by the number "12" when they hear about his 12-volume "A Dance to the Music of Time," but he truly fits the "tragicomic" definition and in many ways does furnish light counterpoint to Proust.

Balfegor said...

Perhaps when I am older, Murakami's melancholy will come through to me. Or perhaps if I tried re-reading the work now (I read it in English when I was maybe 16 or so, and got partway through in Japanese at 20) it would.

On the other hand, Proust had an extraordinary emotional impact on me when I was perhaps 14 or 15 or so (I know I read it during a high school summer), and I felt little heart-pangs at the Tale of Genji that same summer, so perhaps I just impervious to the feeling in Murakami's work.

Certainly, though, I think Wind Up Bird Chronicle was an excellent book, and well worth re-reading -- otherwise I should hardly have gone to the trouble of purchasing a copy in the original.

Powell's series is one I've known I ought to look into for a while . . . it's back behind Radetsky March and The Man without Qualities in my classic literature queue though.

vbspurs said...

unless some younger person is familiar with lit from the soviet era, you're not going to find anything worthy of chekhov or waugh.

Here's one vote for my favourite novel of the Soviet era:

And Quiet Flows the Don

I laughed. I cried. I suppose that counts as tragicomedy or a bad day at Cocoanuts Standup club.


mr. weg said...


chuck b. said...

David Foster Wallace?