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In a 2013 commentary in The Guardian, “What’s So Funny About Comic Novels,” Jonathan Coe paid generous tribute to the tradition of comic fiction in which he clearly places himself. He declared that “no amount of rationalism or essay-writing can undermine my allegiance to comedy,” which reminds us that he has previously denied any interest in writing books devoid of comedy. And, though he ends with a tribute to the almost pure comedy of P.G. Wodehouse, a more important note is struck when he quotes Flann O’Brien on “humour, the handmaid of sorrow and fear.” A hundred and eighty years ago Charles Dickens, commenting on melodrama, referred to the practice of presenting “the tragic and comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon.” American novelist Richard Russo told an interviewer, “in my books . . . I want that which is hilarious and that which is heartbreaking to occupy the same territory . . . because I think they very often occupy the same territory in life, much as we try to separate them.” So the interplay of comedy and tragedy, of humour and melancholy, so far from being a novelty, may be at the heart of British comedy. In this presentation I plan to demonstrate how crucial to Jonathan Coe’s work is the counterpointing of the hilarious and the sad, with particular emphasis on his early novels.

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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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Mise à jour le 2 juillet 2015
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