Wunderkind novelist Zadie Smith has a personal essay in this week's New Yorker that's ostensibly about British comedy of the Basil Fawlty "laugh-or-you'll-cry-genre," but is actually about her father and about class.
Smith's father was the kind of man who "took a perversely British satisfaction in the diagnosis of cancer: absolutely nothing good could come of this, and the certainty of it seemed almost to calm him." The comedy he liked was similarly dark, and after Smith went to college, the comedy they both enjoyed was the only thing they could still bond over.
Hancock and his descendants served as a constant source of conversation between my father and me, a vital link between us when, class-wise, and in every other wise, each year placed us farther apart. As in many British families, it was university wot dunnit. When I returned from my first term at Cambridge, we couldn't discuss the things I'd learned, about Anna Karenina, or G.E. Moore, or Gawain and his staggeringly boring Green knight, because Harvey had never learned them — but we could always speak of Basil.
This seems to be a common experience of children who are the first in their families to go to college, and one that's seldom discussed. Though Smith's essay uses comedy as a lens to discuss her father's death, the story is bittersweet and only occasionally funny. The one funny thing (not funny haha) she does talk about is keeping her father's ashes in a Tupperware sandwich container, and taking a taste of the ashes.
I put my finger in the dust of my father and put the dust in my mouth and swallowed it, and there was something very funny about that — I laughed as I did it.
But alas, Zadie never tells us what her father tastes like. We wonder if it's chicken.
[Image via Britannica]
Dead Man Laughing [New Yorker — not online yet]