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Part 1: Jonathan Coe, ‘a bringer of laughter’

Exposures: Humour and Vulnerability in some Contemporary British Novels

Logiques de l’exposition: humour et vulnérabilité dans quelques romans britanniques contemporains
Jean-Michel Ganteau


Certains des romans les plus hilarants publiés au cours des dernières décennies commencent dans la gravité ou accueillent des moments de punctum particulièrement efficaces. Cet article s’intéresse à la capacité que possède l’humour d’inverser la logique du soulagement comique pour générer une intensification pathétique. En prenant des exemples tirés des œuvres d’Amis, de Barnes, de Winterson, de Coe et de Lodge, il analyse la paradoxale oblitération de la distance généralement associée à l’humour, lorsque le rire devient l’instrument du pathétique, dans des moments d’exposition textuelle. L’article démontre par ailleurs comment l’humour, lorsqu’il est utilisé comme stratégie protectrice, est par définition un indice de la vulnérabilité du personnage, du narrateur, mais aussi de l’auteur, dans la mesure où il a pour vocation de mettre au jour, indirectement, selon la logique de la métalepse, une faille précédemment cachée. Un cran plus loin, cet article montre combien l’humour favorise l’émergence de l’altérité dans la mesure où, en ménageant une distance entre le sujet et l’autre, il fait apparaître ce dernier dans toute sa singularité, loin de toute identification ou totalisation. Dans tous ces cas, et par opposition à la satire, l’humour collabore avec les affects positifs et devient un opérateur de vulnérabilité qui ne parvient jamais à cacher la blessure d’où il émerge.

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1The main idea behind this article may sound paradoxical, or unpalatable. It toys with an approach to humour, laughter and comedy that does not conform to the corrective hypothesis. For in fact, what appears as a specific component—and possibly a tendency—of contemporary British fiction is a type of comedy whose function would not be so much to castigate and correct as to reveal a permanent layer of human weakness, some ‘anthropological’ vulnerability (Maillard 336). Such a view is germane to the one expounded by Lisa Coletta in her work on dark humour and social satire, in which she suggests that the modern British novel reflects the evolution of the twentieth century when all ‘assumption of stability was overturned’ so much so that the brand of humour that she addresses in relation to satire ‘becomes increasingly difficult to use as a corrective.’ (Coletta 4) Admittedly, I make a distinction between humour, laughter, and comedy (as an inflection and a genre) as opposed to satire, the former trio being in many ways instrumentalised by the latter category, but I do not intend to deal with the cousin notion of irony. In other terms, in this article I pay attention to a comic vein that turns its back on the Bergsonian vision of laughter’s exclusionary powers (Bergson 64).

2We may remember that, for Bergson, laughter cannot be isolated and needs the presence of a witness or of a group of observers to emerge, but that the group is a ‘closed circle’ (Bergson 64, translation mine). We may equally recall that, for Bergson, laughter addresses reason and intellectual powers and brings in ‘a momentary anaesthesia of the heart’ (Bergson 64, translation mine). In the following pages, I adopt a different view on humour generally (and laughter or smiling more particularly) and consider it in relation to affects (a far cry from Bergson’s ‘insensibility’ [Bergson 63, 145, 149]), and more especially positive affects. From this point of view, the type of comedy that I want to consider is, to take up Frye’s definition, a model of the more integrative type, in which positive elements contribute to the triumph of the romantic comedy (Frye 43, 166).

3What I find to be at work in many contemporary British novels is not so much satire instrumentalising humour so as to correct, but comedy that harnesses it the better to connect. And I find the origin of such a vision in Freud’s view of humour as protection of the self against negative affects and experiences, the idea of protection implicitly calling forth the need to be protected, hence vulnerability (Freud). Of course, the relation between humour and weakness has always been stressed, from the canonical definition of the genre in Henry Fielding’s preface to Joseph Andrews (Fielding 28–30) to Glen Cavaliero’s more recent observations on contemporary British comedy that pinpoint pretensions and other forms of foibles (Cavaliero 241). Still, I shall argue that in the type of novels I have in mind, weaknesses and other aspects of human vulnerability are present and revealed not as social sins to be corrected. Rather, comedy exposes human limitations not to exclude from a community but to create the sense of a common humanity predicated on a radical vulnerability. Seen in this light, comedy reveals the fundamental truth that the human is based on the common experience of dependency.

4This I strive to demonstrate by first considering the way in which the stuff of comedy lies in the benevolent exposure of frailty. In the second part, I aim to address the issue of affects and envisage humour as the obliteration of distance. My last part will be devoted to what James Wood has called the ‘comedy of forgiveness’ (Wood 4). Throughout, my take will be ethical, as I shall consider comedy’s potential to take the other’s singularity into account, even while building up a vision of solidarity whose purpose is ‘to make the world more common,’ in Guillaume Le Blanc’s terms (Le Blanc 2014, 27, translation mine) and I shall pay particular attention to the political edge of the ethical.

5My first example is taken from Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy when You Could Be Normal? Winterson’s work is not systematically associated with comedy. Rather, she is known for exploring the darker regions of the human heart and psyche, and more often than not she trades in the paroxysmal themes and effects of romance. Still, she rarely shies in front of the polytonal, as made clear in her autobiographical narrative where she gives an account of herself dominated by the figure of the other, under the guise of Mrs W, her foster mother. This is the case towards the end of a text interspersed with humorous, lighter passages, as when she describes her mother’s attitude as to pictorial representation:

Back in the days of Winterson-world we had a set of Victorian watercolours hung on the walls. Mrs W had inherited them from her mother and she wanted to display them in a family way. But she was dead against ‘graven images’ (See Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, etc.), so she squared this circle by hanging them back to front. All we could see was brown paper, tape, steel tacks, water-staining and string. That was a Mrs Winterson version of life. (Winterson 224)

  • 1 I am referring to a citation from the Sunday Times reproduced on the cover of the 2012 paperback ed (...)

6The incongruous scene of the watercolours facing the wall, one in a series of such vignettes, underlines the character’s extreme rectitude and ties in with the Bergsonian vision of laughter as triggered off by the mechanical and the automatic (Bergson 66, et passim), developing here into a fixed idea, one other way to envisage the mechanical as existential stiffness (Bergson 69). In Bergson’s analysis, such a description is supposed to solicit the viewer’s insensibility to the character’s flatness and exclude her from the complicity shared between narrator and reader. Still, I would argue that such an analysis fails to do justice to the passage—and to many similar pages in a narrative known for its mixture of the ‘funny’ and the ‘heartbreaking’.1

7The scene hovers on the boundary between the humorous and the poignant on account of the unveiling of the character’s own limitations brought in by an education imposed on her, values that she has imbibed enthusiastically but to which she submits at least as much as she imposes them on others. What is dramatised here, at the end of the narrative that turns out to be not so much an account of rebellion as a homage to the foster mother (Brisac), is a double exposure—the narrator’s and her mother’s—that makes limitations and vulnerabilities meet and throws into visibility the shared restrictions of a conditioning. I would argue that the commonality of suffering is what triggers off the benign humour of such occurrences not only as a protective resource, but also as a means of refusing to isolate, of warding off one’s insulation, hence as a way to involve and get involved. In such a passage, what is unveiled is a vision of the human as ‘event of its multiple [and reciprocal, I would be tempted to say] exposures’ (Butler and Athanasiou 32).

8Such a conception becomes even more glaring in other passages, equally evoking the mother’s—and the family’s—limitations through cumulative allusions to the lower body. That the device known as debunking has been repeatedly used to ward off the menace of the religious is certainly no news, and the following passage illustrates this law:

But in the outside loo, directly in front of you as you went through the door, was a placard. Those who stood up read LINGER NOT AT THE LORD’S BUSINESS.

Those who sat down read HE SHALL MELT THY BOWELS LIKE WAX. (Winterson 100–101).

9The capitals, typecasting the quotations as rules of conduct, and the systematic presentation (‘Those who stood’/‘Those who sat down’), underline the euphemistic vein that paradoxically acts as hyperbole and again brings in the Bergsonian image of mechanical stiffness. Yet, the fair measure of Rabelaisian glee carried by the allusions to the lower body partakes of a series of references to the stock in trade of anthropomorphic vulnerability. In a female autobiography cum Künstlerroman that sets such store by the evocation of the motions of the heart and passions of the body, within the context of an oeuvre that relentlessly addresses the very same concerns, the image of the body cannot but be reminiscent of common limitations. In Le Blanc’s terms, ‘vulnerability is the middle of all life’ (Le Blanc 2007, 168), metonymically meaning that no human life can escape the conditions of vulnerability and dispossession, if only in extremities of age and illness. By introducing the image of the body as the seat of appetites and affects, hence of dependency on others (Nussbaum 7, et passim)—which constitutes, incidentally, the stuff of romance and is invited here to fuel comedy—, Winterson does not aspire to separate but, on the contrary, to unveil precariousness as common inheritance. Seen in this light, the benign form of humour that distinguishes the narrative is instrumental in suggesting a definition of the human predicated on a common—our common—‘anthropology of incompleteness and vulnerability’ inherent in incarnation, hence exposure to ‘temporal vulnerability’ (Maillard 338, 160, translation mine).

10Through humour, Winterson’s account of herself operates a shift in visibilities, by referring to the skin-deep yet forgotten truth of the commonality of exposure. In Judith Butler’s terms, ‘This exposure that I am constitutes my singularity [as] no one can be exposed for me, and I am, in this way, nonsubstitutable.’ (Butler 33) More interestingly, the singularity of exposure cannot be disentangled from some fundamental dependency on the other. This is what Butler insists on when she comments on the basic structure of address at the heart of any account of oneself: ‘the fact that we cannot exist without addressing the other and without being addressed by the other, and that there is no wishing away our fundamental sociality.’ (Butler 33). Humour reveals human limitations and in so doing reminds us that the subject cannot be envisaged independently of his/her relations to others. This leads to consider failure and frailty as conditions for dependence and relationality, humour and comedy fulfilling the aesthetic and ethical function of drawing attention to this fundamental aspect of human experience. Humour and comedy do thrive in the exploration of limitations, but belie the imperative of correction to promote relationality.

11Butler’s relational logic as expressed in Giving an Account of Oneself is equally at work in Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, and more especially in the eponymous half chapter. The problematical nature of this section has been stressed, and the origin of the narrative voice has been commented on at length: we may remember that it seems to correspond to the author’s direct, non-fictional address to the reader (Guignery 2006, 63–64)—if such a thing is possible. The half-chapter is situated within a narrative whose fictional status is never doubted, even if it engages with well-documented episodes of modern and contemporary history in the historiographic-metafictional mode that was prominent at the time of its publication. We all remember, I am sure, the general tone of a novel that is also a trauma narrative, saturated with the motif of selection, and saying as much about the Twentieth Century’s use and abuse of biopolitics (Ganteau 2014) as about the difficulty to access any archive. Yet, beyond or alongside the gravitas inherent in the evocation of such experiences, laughter keeps being generated. Admittedly, some chapters like ‘The Survivor’ bear but few traces of humour; still, even the darkest scenes and episodes are often envisaged in a tongue-in-cheek tone that at times whets the biting edge of satire, but almost as often extends the powers of gravity and, I would claim, far from cancelling emotion, exacerbates it. This is particularly the case with the half-chapter, which begins with a thematic break as the narrator provisionally deflects from things historical to veer towards the evocation of connubial intimacy:

Our nights are different. She falls asleep like someone yielding to the gentle tug of a warm tide, and floats with confidence till morning. I fall asleep more grudgingly, thrashing at the waves, either reluctant to let a good day depart or still bitching about a bad one. Different currents run through our spells of consciousness. Every so often I find myself catapulted out of bed with fear of time and death, panic at the approaching void; feet on the floor, head in hands, I shout a useless (and disappointedly uneloquent) ‘No, no, no’ as I wake. (Barnes 225)

12Unlike the lines extracted from Winterson’s autobiography, these are obviously not funny. What is striking here is not so much the intrinsic qualities of the excerpt as its relation to the rest of the narrative: it cannot be fortuitous that, in a book well-known for its comic appeal, the eponymous, remarkable half-chapter should begin in such unalloyed gravitas. In other terms, it seems as though the economy of the narrative as a whole aims to use the comical to set off what reads as unmitigated pathos.

13This hypothesis may be confirmed by another similar occurrence, to be found at the beginning of Martin Amis’s The Information, one of the darkest yet most uproariously funny novels of the 1990s. Here are the first words of the incipit:

Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that […] Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them. Women—and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses—will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, ‘What is it?’ and the men say, ‘Nothing. No it isn’t anything really. Just sad dreams’. (Amis 9)

14Of course, I am aware that there are such categories as black humour, black comedy, or dark comedy, but I am equally conscious of the fact that they are generally geared on to the expression of disillusionment or cynicism. This is why I find what is at work in the previous examples to be quite different, as the stark tonal contrast on which the narratives are built makes pathos emerge in privileged textual sites, as if the general humorous distance were but a means to enhance a sense of proximity.

15In Barnes’s and Amis’s novels, what seems to be at work is certainly not the type of Bergsonian laughter exclusively addressing intellectual faculties according to a logic of exclusion and correction. Rather, I see in them a specificity consisting in setting off such moments of punctum that engage with the presentation of male frailty. Once again, what is at stake in the comic economy of the narratives is the unveiling of a common, anthropological stock of limitations and weaknesses. One step further, the two passages choose to concentrate on the evocation of pure relationality, by staging the intense emotional unit of the couple and situating a powerful sense of loss at the origin of the address to the other and of the need—even if asserted through denial—to relate. The ethics of humour and comedy are revelatory once again. By promoting a strong sense of punctum at the heart of a lighter context, they reveal that both accounts of oneself, non-fictional (Barnes’s) or fictional (Amis’s), aver a ‘fundamental dependency on the other’ (Butler 34). This is tantamount to privileging emotion and jettisoning the pure primacy of the intellect, by precisely banking on the sociality of affects (Ahmed 8). This is no negligible stance, as it implies in turn a wish to throw into light the adhesive power of emotion with a view to contesting distance and, above all, abstraction (Maillard 19). The point that I am trying to make is that by instrumentalising humour the better to set off pathos, such texts problematise the generic and modal economies of the narrative, reveal a common core of vulnerability, and thereby assert the proximity of the subject with the other instead of being content with the programmatic inscription of distance. What such genre troubling allows for is the fostering of dispossession in the positive meaning of the term as the narratives point at the subject’s ‘limits of self-sufficiency’, reminding the reader that to be moved is ‘the condition of dispossession’ (Butler and Athanasiou 3). Ultimately, humour and comedy are put to a paradoxical use as their relational function is made obvious, and as they help get it across to the reader that vulnerability is the expression of relationality and the condition for the emergence of responsibility (Pelluchon 41).

  • 2 For a thorough account of the uses and functions of errors in Coe’s work, see Mellet 52–60, 105–111 (...)
  • 3 It should be noted that humour and melancholy are two fundamental tonalities that Vanessa Guignery (...)

16I want now to turn towards a novelist whose works have inspired many contributions to this volume. I have argued elsewhere that what characterises Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 is its status as a comedy of forgiveness (Ganteau 2015), taking my lead from James Wood’s reflections on the sub-genre. Indeed, I find that the category applies fairly well to Coe’s oeuvre generally. Lack of space does not allow me to delve too deeply into this aspect of Coe’s production, but I would say that what links up such apparently different passages as the joke about Michael’s mistake with the word ‘brio’ unfortunately printed as ‘biro’ in What A Carve Up! (Coe 1994, 299–300), the main protagonist’s surprise as he discovers in mid-monologue that his interlocutor on the plane has not been attending to him for quite some time as he has suffered a heart attack in The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (Coe 2010, 26–27)—admittedly not the most irresistibly funny of Coe’s novels—, or Thomas Foley’s mistake about what he interprets to be the illegitimate presence of a used corn plaster in his marital bed in Expo 58 (Coe 2013, 180) is a persistent interest in failure and the sense of personal limitations.2 As with the various extracts from other authors that this article briefly engages with, we are once more confronted with a form of humour, and even laughter, whose function is to expose (male) frailty, in social or intimate contexts that take into account the presence of the other’s gaze. As in many other instances when the protagonist of Expo 58 finds himself ridiculed by circumstances and by a general sense of dramatic irony inherent in the narrative situation that presents him as the figure of the innocent abroad, the humour here might well be used with a corrective, exclusionary purpose in other types of works, but this is scarcely the case in novels that cast a benign, benevolent glance on the protagonist’s frailties and choose to elicit empathy. In Coe’s fiction generally (except for the famous satirical passages in What A Carve Up! or in Number Eleven, for instance), what prevails is rather an obliteration of distance that often instrumentalises laughter for emotional purpose and resorts to error and humiliation the better to underscore the protagonist’s ceaseless attempts at relating with others.3 Once again, I tend to see such a practice of humour as inherently relational and certainly not exclusionary, in its final orientations.

17This is what Wood may associate with irresponsibility, as signposted in the title of his study (The Irresponsible Self), in which he holds that the traditional forms of what he calls ‘the comedy of correction’ or ‘religious comedy’ (Wood 5) were aimed at ‘laughing at’, as opposed to the newer form of the comedy of forgiveness whose function, he claims, consists in ‘laughing with’ (Wood 4). In other terms, his point is that while compassion is the traditional enemy of ‘laughter’ (this is the term that he uses), the comedy of forgiveness problematises and even reverses the relationship so much so that what is promoted in such texts is empathy with the failings and frailties of the comic character. One step further, I would like to suggest that what is at stake in Coe’s texts (and in many respects the same could be said of most of David Lodge’s production, for instance) is a shift from the comedy of correction to the comedy of connection.

18The brand of humour favoured by the comedies of forgiveness that I am referring to here is one that chooses to show the characters as orectic, i.e. driven by an appetite towards the other, as literally exemplified by the eponymous protagonist of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. By revealing an ontological vulnerability expressed in terms of an insatiable dependency on the other, such novels might even be said to connect back to the classical notion of philia as the expression of the ‘needy and non-self-sufficient’ nature of the human (Nussbaum 357), which is also the condition for the development of the ethical faculty. This is pithily encapsulated in one of Martha Nussbaum’s commentaries on the matter:

To be non-godlike, needy, orectic, is seen as a necessary part of what it is to be oneself and a philos. Philia, loving the whole of another person for that person’s own sake, loves humanity and mutability as well as excellence. Platonic eros seeks wholeness; philia embraces the half. (Nussbaum 357)

19From this point of view, the comedy of forgiveness could be said to throw relationality and dependence into visibility the better to foster attentiveness to the more humbling situations, both intimate and collective, in which the subject exposes his/her own limitations. A far cry from irresponsibility, I would claim that it is precisely the reader’s responsibility that is courted and solicited by such comedies of forgiveness in which we are forcibly reminded that in exposure and vulnerability begin responsibilities. The comedy of forgiveness invites us to practice the ‘consideration’ of the other (Pelluchon 302), not in an abstract way, but by considering him/her in his/her singularity as an orectic, emotional subject, which implies the ethical practice of attentiveness together with the realisation of a shared experience and condition. In other words, such texts bring in humour to get the readers to sharpen their perception and consider it an ethical and social response (Le Blanc 2009, 13). Humour, from this point of view, may well be considered an ethical force that promotes attention to forms of vulnerability (Le Blanc 2009, 76) that, far from excluding, partake of the creation of an experience of the common.

20I find the type of humour and comedy that I have engaged with here to be particularly apt to contribute to the contemporary practice of an ethics of alterity that lays the stress not only on the non-violent, non-dominating encounter with the other, but also on the need for an attentiveness to the other’s vulnerability. By benignly revealing a common denominator of humanity and soliciting positive affect, it lays the stress on similarities and solidarities, and, far from excluding from the closed circle of the scoffers—as would be the case with a corrective type of laughter—, refuses to create an exclusive community to promote, on the contrary, an open sense of the common. Or, possibly, the idea of a community in Roberto Esposito’s acceptation of the term could be used here, i.e. one based on the reality of the gift and of responsibility (Esposito 4), and more precisely on ‘reciprocity or “mutuality” (munus-mutuus) of giving that assigns the one to the other in an obligation [impegno]’ (Esposito 5). Seen in this light, community would be considered as an activation of a sense of the common through the exposition of a common lack or privation, precisely formulated in a sense of exposure: ‘The community is not a mode of being,’ Esposito reminds us, ‘much less a “making” of the individual subject. It isn’t the subject’s expansion or multiplication but its exposure to what interrupts the closing and turns it inside out’ (Esposito 7, emphasis added). The pronominal economy of such a situation would correspond to the creation of a common ‘we’ (Le Blanc 2014, 133) as opposed to the ‘they’ that prevails over the creation of separate circles. Said differently, comedy and humour contribute to reactivate the imperative of reconnaissance that Ricoeur sees at work in an ethics of the pragmatic, concrete type, a reconnaissance relying on the call for relationality at the heart of the various texts examined here and whose function is to reconcile the individual and the collective, even the social (Le Blanc 2009, 115), and to favour a greater sense of the common. Following Le Blanc, once again, and ultimately, I am tempted to add that what is at work in the comedy of forgiveness and in the practice of benign, cohesive humour, is the expression of a ‘narrative democracy’ that is based on consideration for the commonality of weakness and frail lives that literature contributes to expose and promote. In so doing, humour and comedy contribute their mite to the ethical and political function of bearing witness, thereby renewing the poetics and pragmatics of literary testimony.

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1 I am referring to a citation from the Sunday Times reproduced on the cover of the 2012 paperback edition.

2 For a thorough account of the uses and functions of errors in Coe’s work, see Mellet 52–60, 105–111.

3 It should be noted that humour and melancholy are two fundamental tonalities that Vanessa Guignery sees as coexisting in Coe’s œuvre (Guignery 2015, 15).

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Jean-Michel Ganteau, « Exposures: Humour and Vulnerability in some Contemporary British Novels »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jean-Michel Ganteau

Jean-Michel Ganteau is Professor of British Literature at the Université Paul Valéry Montpellier, EA741 EMMA. He is the editor of the journal Études britanniques. He is the author of two monographs: David Lodge: le choix de l’éloquence (Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2001) and Peter Ackroyd et la musique du passé (Michel Houdiard, 2008) and of a book-length study entitled The Aesthetics and Ethics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Literature (Routledge 2015). He is also the editor, with Christine Reynier, of six volumes of essays Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Literature (Publications Montpellier 3, 2005), Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Arts (Presses Universitaires de la Méditerrannée, 2007), Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Literature (PULM, 2010), Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Arts (PULM, 2011), The Ethics of Alterity in 19th- to 21st-Century British Literature (PULM 2013) and The Ethics of Alterity in 19th- to 21st-Century British Arts (PULM 2015). He has also edited four volumes of essays in collaboration with Susana Onega, The Ethical Component in Experimental British Fiction since the 1960s (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), Trauma and Ethics in Contemporary British Literature (Rodopi, 2010), Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Fiction (Routledge, 2013), and Contemporary Trauma Narratives: Liminality and the Ethics of form (Routledge, 2014). He has published extensively on contemporary British fiction, with a special interest in the ethics of affects (as manifest in such aesthetic resurgences and concretions as the baroque, kitsch, camp, melodrama, romance), trauma criticism and theory and the ethics of vulnerabilty in France and abroad.

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