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In “Comic’ Novels” Coe evokes the possibility or necessity for contemporary novelists to reconsider their use of humour and comedy in the bleak times we are living in, thereby implying some generic opposition between humour and realism. We know how his own novels are often seen as satirical accounts of contemporary Britain, based on many examples of what foreign audiences like to call “the English sense of humour”. The two most obvious instances of humour in his writing are to be found in his renewal of the satirical genre and in the many jokes made by or at the expense of his characters. Yet humour in these novels is almost systematically associated to either the errors and mistakes at the heart of characterisation, or Coe’s wish to “reconcil[e] humour and melancholy” (“Interview [by Roberto Bertinetti]”). While laughter may still “draw people together” (as in The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim) and create intimacy and connections of sorts, narrative irony, for instance, is a first tool for Coe to isolate the character and break not only the novelistic illusion, but also the laughing community itself (and this from his first novel onwards, The Accidental Woman). Besides, what happens when the joke falls flat and the laughing bond never gets to be actualised (as in The Closed Circle)? Or when we laugh when we are not supposed to? Humour is so frequently metatextual with Coe (for instance in What a Carve up!, The House of Sleep, The Closed Circle and Expo 58), interrogating as it does the limitations of language, that we must question the parts it plays in the narrative tricks Coe is such a master of. My contention will be that it is precisely in these moments when one “mislaughs” that Coe’s protagonists come out and assert themselves, show their own limitations and reveal their humaneness. That the reader should similarly mislaugh may not signal any misinterpretation or mean that the comedy fails. Rather, this is when the (post)humanist drive in Coe’s writing comes to the fore, when the emphasis is first on the individual’s vulnerable intimate hurdles. I will eventually suggest that this must be read as a response to Coe’s own doubts and disillusions regarding satire today. Mislaughing might thus be a guarantee to remain critical and at a distance, endowing the reader with the newly political role that Coe thinks is at the heart of the ethical responsibility of contemporary fiction.

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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