Saturday, July 08, 2006

Seeking Irony

July 8

I want to say something ironical today in case Justin or some of his many followers from The Concept of Irony drop by. I’ve been sharpening my ironical skills by reading his blog and trying to think of a clever post that will appeal to his readers so that they will follow me over here like rats nipping at the heels of a piper.

I once took an acting class with an English actor, Simon Williams, who said, among other things, that Americans lacked a sense of irony. When he explained exactly what he meant, I came to see he was right about that. The Brits think it quite clever to make somewhat insulting statements in jest but with perfectly straight faces – upper lips quite stiff, chins forward ever so slightly. They are so used to putting a good face on that they just keep that face and don’t react. Americans tend to demand an emotional reaction, and just a whiff of an insult can send us into a snit. That will never do if one is being ironical. One must be ironical back.

Simon was appearing in a play with an actor he had grown to like, so he and his wife invited the actor and his current mate to dinner at their home. They turned out to be a congenial foursome, and the next evening backstage Simon remarked on how pleasant it had been, and said they really should all get together again soon. The new friend said disdainfully, “Yes, the evening wasn’t half as boring as I expected it to be.” This was a intended as a charming thing to say, and Simon laughed, totally won over by his new friend. He pointed out that an American might not have had this reaction.

The insight opened up a great deal about English dramaturgy to us in the class. We were studying Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, one of the playwright’s many excursions into comedy of ironical manners. In an early scene the young man is having a bit of a scrap with his father, and the father seems – on the page at least – distraught about his son’s lack of character. Then I saw the scene in the film with C. Aubrey Smith playing the father and it was clearly a love scene between father and son. Only the Brits would have carried that off so naturally – and had I not seen it played I would never have understood that subtext.

I don’t seem to be being ironical so much as telling you that I know what it is. While I’m at it I’ll use another example of the use of the word, also a reference to something I read. This time it’s Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, when Jake Barnes is visited by Bill Gorton, a decidedly New York –type American. Bill is urging Jake to play what he calls the latest game, “Irony and Pity.” First, you say something ironical. Then, you say something pitiful. “Don’t you know about Irony and Pity?” he asks Jake.

“No. Who got it up?”

“Everybody. They’re mad about it in New York. It’s just like the Fratellinis used to be.”

This cracked me up. I was living in Geneva at the time that I read the book, removed from the world of instant fads, trends, and attempts to be clever by batting the same joke or phrase about – the world I’d left behind in New York. And here was Hemingway reminding me that such things had been going on in the 1920’s and long before that, and would be going on after I’d come and gone in New York again. And so, surely, they have.

More from the book:

The girl came in with the coffee and buttered toast. Or rather it was bread toasted and buttered.

“Ask her if she’s got any jam,” Bill said. “Be ironical with her.”

“Have you got any jam?”

“That’s not ironical. I wish I could talk Spanish.”

The coffee was good and we drank it out of big bowls. The girl brought in a glass dish of raspberry jam.

“Thank you.”

“Hey! That’s not the way,” Bill said. “Say something ironical. Make some crack about Primo de Rivera.”

“I could ask her what kind of a jam they think they’ve gotten into in the Riff.”

“Poor,” said Bill. “Very poor. You can’t do it. That’s all. You don’t understand irony. You have no pity. Say something pitiful.”

“Robert Cohn.”

“Not so bad. That’s better. Now why is Cohn pitiful? Be ironic.”

He took a big gulp of coffee.

“Aw, hell!” I said. “It’s too early in the morning.”

“There you go. And you claim you want to be a writer, too. You’re only a newspaper man. An expatriated newspaper man. You ought to be ironical the minute you get out of bed. You ought to wake up with your mouth full of pity.”

“Go on,” I said. “Who did you get this stuff from?”

“Everybody. Don’t you read? Don’t you ever see anybody? You know what you are? You’re an expatriate. Why don’t you live in New York? Then you’d know these things. What do you want me to do? Come over here and tell you every year?”

Ah, the irony of the New York sophisticate of 1926! Can I achieve this in Fairhope in 2006? Follow this blog. Not only will I seek irony, perhaps I'll find fair hope.


Benedict S. said...

Well, not half so boring as I thought it would be. What is "Fratellinis"? It's not in my word book. Ah, maybe it's a family name, Italian, Fratellini. But I still don't understand it. I suppose one must have been a Brit to see the irony in it all, like when you're told that you're "bugger all," it means you're screwed but unless you're British you may still be a virgin, at least in your left ear. Is irony something like humor? Without the pratfalls and cream pies?

Your point is well made. Real American irony is a bit more visceral than the ex-pat brand peddled by Hemingway. We truly meant to destroy the village, but only after the smoke had cleared did we realize we had saved it from a fate worse than death. It's the unintended magic of the thing that gives it its ironic power.

Played on the stages of the continent, where the scent of cordite lingers, the American version of practical jokes of that sort comes across as a trifle too sardonic. The Old World has lost -- if it ever had it -- the love of all things necrophilic so necessary to the appreciation of death and destruction as an art form. "God, but I love the smell of napalm in the morning," perhaps the most characteristic example of American irony ever uttered.

[Ah, what? You say the line was written by an ex-pat Scotsman? How deceitful.]

Finding Fair Hope said...

The line about the Fratellinis went past me too. I think it's a 1920's reference of some ephemeral incident or celebrity family -- the Flying Frantellinis perhaps -- that is long lost to us. But I didn't feel right about editing it out, what the hell, it's Hemingway. I thought it marred the quote a bit, but it was there so I left it.

As for irony, I think "Mendacious Mouse" as a blog title is a pretty good example.

Benedict S. said...

After writing the comment, I googled "Fratellinis" and learned, (1) there's a street in Florence by that name, and (2) that the Fratellinis were a famous family of clowns.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Mystery solved via the Internet! Great work. Now we can assume that the Frantellinis had taken New York by storm a year or so before Hemingway published this. Wish I'd been there -- and I'm not being ironical. Hope I'm not being pitiful either.

Benedict S. said...

Forgive me if this sounds the way I would think it sounds if someone wrote it to me, but Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises while living in Paris. Perhaps Hemingway caught the Fratellinis' act there or elsewhere abroad. He and his first wife had lived in Paris for several years before he wrote the book in question. He apparently based many of the incidents in the book on things that happened during a trip they took to Spain with some of their literary friends.

I don't know what possessed me last year to read a biography of Mr. Hemingway, but I'm sure there was a reason. The title was Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences, by James R. Mellow. Good stuff on the man and a truly humorous tale of a trip H. and Scott Fitzgerald took, supposedly to pick up Fitzgerald's new car. That tale alone is worth the price of the book.

Finding Fair Hope said...

"Forgive me if this sounds the way I would think it sounds if someone wrote it to me." You need forgiveness for what, exactly?

And in the novel, Bill Gorton is the ultimate provincial New Yorker. He can't believe anybody would not want to do and know all the things those in the know in New York do and know. What he says about the Fratellinis is, "They're mad about it in New York. It's just like the Fratellinis used to be." Why this would refer to some clown act in Europe is beyond me. I choose to interpret this anecdote as meaning that the Fratellinis had been a hit in New York in the recent past.

Benedict S. said...

OK. As for forgiveness, I did not want you to think I was being a smartass. As it turns out, you may be right about the Fratellinis, so -- assuming you are right -- please forgive me for making a "fratellini" of myself.