I have long been an advocate of creative writers becoming more involved in the fusty old world of academic writing, so it was with great pleasure that I saw that Jonathan Taylor had written Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840–1930, published by Palgrave Macmillan, knowing from experience that this would be an extremely well written book that flowed and was attractive to the reader.
I was not disappointed. Taking three of the subjects closest to my heart, Taylor writes with well-researched prowess about Laughter, Literature and Violence through the gaze of philosophers, academics, writers, Ancient Greeks, Romans, poets, politicians, soldiers, churchmen, the list is almost endless.
In Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840-1930 we see the convoluted relationship between laughter, violence, war, horror and death. This through an inventive line of enquiry via philosophy and politics, and then in a study of four texts, by Edgar Allan Poe, Edmund Gosse, Wyndham Lewis and Katherine Mansfield - four amazingly diverse and complicated characters who are brought to life by Taylor. We learn that laughter and violence are forever interlinked, from the pratfall to the explosion of guffaws at a friend’s demise. We can’t help ourselves and Taylor carefully explains why.
We investigate a founding comic text, The Pickwick Papers, and how Schadenfreude intrudes into the English language and changes comic writing for ever. Schadenfreude is such an intense feeling that we had to invent (or import) a word for it.
Taylor does not write above his audience. He looks them straight in the eye and invites them to take part in the conversation. He engages the reader and doesn’t try to point score or write to an intellectual elite. Not for him pretentious authority but an engaging narrative wordcraft that wants us, the reader, to be part of his discussion and discovery. This is the beauty of having a gifted creative writer producing an academic text. It is readable and accessible.
The book is painstakingly researched over five years with a plethora of footnotes asking us to read further into his enquiries. The depth and richness of his research reflects his love for the subject. This is a text for the academic to help him or her to interrogate and to investigate and a book for the interested party, who enjoys the subject. Both are well served. It is not too academic to put off the casual reader, yet it has enough gravitas to educate and intrigue.
The book ended and I wanted to know more. I wanted to plunge into this strange world where we laugh in the face of violence. Where sadness is disabused by jokes. Where all are equal, and equally absurd, especially the man who slips on the floor.
About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-three. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons, and loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstone's bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years. He has always loved books and reading.