Wednesday, March 16, 2011

David Lodge on Literature, Sex, Children, and Life

"Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life's the other way round."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Recognition of Irritation

I have been a New Yorker subscriber for several years, and although I am a little embarrassed to admit it, it is the cartoons that keep me paying the subscription price (which has increased substantially in recent years). The articles represent the highest level of writing on many fascinating and important topics, and each issue also includes a short story, poems, and reviews—all of excellent quality and all worthy of attention. Unfortunately, much of the year I am too busy to find time for much reading of this type. But no matter how busy I am, I can always find time for the cartoons, which I tend to read from back to front, starting with the cartoon contest on the back page.

Most New Yorker cartoons are of the single panel variety, and the panels often depict standard cartoon settings that have become reliable backdrops for comedy: the bar scene, the psychiatrist and patient, the boss and employee arranged facing each other across a desk, and the couple reading in bed.

Perhaps it is just me, but lately I have found great enjoyment in the man-and-woman-in-bed format cartoons. It is a wonderful setting because the marital bed is where a couple typically engages in their most intimate acts: love-making, of course, but also sleeping in the same space as another. In an odd way, this, too, is a remarkably intimate act. The loss of consciousness in the presence of someone else—often while in physical contact that someone else. Intimate conversations take place here, too.

A few recent examples: (I am recalling these from memory, so they may not be perfectly accurate.)

The man turns to the woman and asks: “What is your position on some-sex marriage?” (some-sex)

The woman turns to the man: “I never realized that marriage would involve so much reading.”

The cartoon shown above is a particular favorite. (Because I am reproducing this copyrighted cartoon without permission, I feel bound to at least give full credit: It is by Harry Bliss and appeared in the New Yorker on March 5, 2007.) On the one hand, the cartoon is deliciously nasty. There are only two ways I can think of to eliminate the breathing sound—leave or die—and the cartoon suggests that the wife would be happy with either of these solutions.

As cutting as this cartoon is, for anyone who has been married or had a long-term relationship, there is a real sense of recognition. Familiarity does, on occasion, breed contempt. There are times in any relationship when the mere presence of the other, a simple reminder of the other, can evoke irritation. Couples get on each other’s nerves. In the lucky cases, these moments of discomfort are fleeting, but sometimes they are not. Sometimes they become either the enduring burdens of a lasting relationship or the beginning of the end of a doomed one.