On Poetry and Culture Shock

A definition of commedy of manners

Arvind said that this blog is anti-American and I already explained it's not. Then he said, in his teasing, Arvindish way, that I stereotype people. I don’t, I just like to write comedy of manners, which is a genre that I love to read. Picky professors would say that I should be more specific: it’s either novels of manners, or comedy of manners when it’s in a play. Since there are “blogs of manners” and “films of manners”, better stick to a single label.

Whatever its name, it is the lovechild of poetry and culture shock (I didn’t realise initially, when I named the blog). It is the place where fiction meets Sociology. In a novel of manners, customs and habits are important because they are used for characterisation. It is often associated with 19th century novels about the upper-middle class, but it is practised still: if you read a book in which you can infer a character’s social background and personality by the brand of his car and the make of his clothes, that’s comedy of manners. The first example (as of so many things) is Don Quixote: the very first paragraph describes Alonso Quijano’s lifestyle, what he ate, what he enjoyed, his possessions, so nowadays we need an edition with footnotes to explain that when it says “his table had rather more beef than mutton” it meant he wasn’t poor but he was definitely not rich. The best writer ever in this genre, with Cervantes’s permission, was Jane Austen, who started a novel saying:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.

Is this true? Is it a universal truth? Well, my friend Jane goes to describe through three pages of dialogue a mother who thinks that her new single neighbour should be introduced to her daughters, now. Is that stereotyping? Maybe. Is that true? Probably. Is it fun? Absolutely. The success of comedy of manners is that it can satirise without pain. Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, Arturo Pérez Reverte or Michael Moore (did I just name the Four Horsemen of Doomsday?) prefer satire: to take a flamethrower and setting the monster on fire. Comedy of manners is more gentle, more delicate, and tickles the monster so that you laugh at him. Beats a flamethrower any day.

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