Seriously Funny

Hanika - photo
By Iris Hanika

Humour in serious literature – really? What a thought! I’m almost inclined to comment in the manner of the new president of the United States: so sad, I’d like to say, so sad that anyone can think serious literature and humour are two separate things! Hasn’t serious literature given us the funniest moments of our reading life? I’m not talking here about Don Quixote tilting against windmills, because that’s not funny at all; it’s so sad it makes you understand what ‘serious literature’ really is. But Madame Bovary killing herself because the money’s run out? A bird getting stuck between a mast and a hammer in Moby Dick and drowning as a result? Chichikov buying dead souls? Josef K. attending court voluntarily, week after week, to be convicted? You’re telling me that’s not funny?

You won’t find anything like this in my work because I’m very far from attaining the pinnacle of humour. I’m all the more delighted that my constant striving to reach it has been noticed, and that I was invited to the Festival Neue Literatur. Yes, my books are deathly serious while simultaneously fighting against it. Like me – so funny it’ll make you cry. But I’m like the sundial, I only mark the sunny hours. Which is why I never have enough time.

The festival took me to many places in the wonderful city of New York. I went there by foot, on the subway and in an express elevator. That way I met a lot of people, and this was the best thing about the festival.

There were four of us at my event. One had come from Zurich, one from Vienna, one from New York, and I from Berlin. We all came from the biggest cities in our respective countries, and I’d like to propose ‘Small Tales from Big Cities’ as a possible theme for a future festival, because then I could be invited again [insert smiley here].

We were all allowed to read for one minute from our humour-filled serious books, because that’s how they do it in America: you read from your book for one minute, then you talk about it for three quarters of an hour. But I wouldn’t like to decide whether the way we do it at home (read for three quarters of an hour even if you’re no good at it, then answer questions even if no one has one) is actually any more fun.

So what is it about humour in a serious book? None of us had studied theory of humour, apart from the moderator. She’d read Schopenhauer, we hadn’t. We hadn’t even read him in the original, and our English was just good enough to say so. But hey! We were in Brooklyn, in a beautiful big bookstore packed with people; a woman had even come from Rego Park in Queens to hear us not being able to talk about humour and not knowing anything about Schopenhauer. Afterwards, though, the young man pouring the wine said it had been awesome because there was nothing more beautiful than listening to intelligent women talking about philosophy. So it’s enough just to mention Schopenhauer and everyone’s happy! What would Nietzsche have said about that?

Finally, back on a serious note: the festival will never again be celebrated at Book Court because it closed its doors forever at the end of last year. The owners want to retire, their children don’t want to run a bookstore – so sad.

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Translated by Charlotte Collins

Photos: © Sarah Girner