This article interrogates the interrelationship between cruelty, suffering, and laughter in novels by Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, positing an affective reading of how bodies that suffer come to produce laughter as a confounding, unexpected, and at times inappropriate readerly affect. Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark and Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King both explore suffering as a form of excessive somatic cruelty inflicted on protagonists who, in experiencing such punishment, engender a strange, troubling, and potentially transformative form of laughter. In order to bring together a discussion of the body, suffering, cruelty, and laughter in Nabokov and Bellow, the essay uses Henri Bergson's idea of the "elasticity" of laughter in connection to cruelty and suffering, and various “affective” formulations of the body. In both writers, such Bergsonian elasticity of laughter is what allows for laughing at suffering, but there are crucial differences in their depictions of somatic suffering, particularly the responses they elicit from the reader. In Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, it is the protagonist himself who jokes about his suffering body. In Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark, it is the ironic narrator who simultaneously invites the reader to “laugh in the dark” and to check such laughter. What emerges in both novels is laughter as an unsettling readerly affect. Laughing about suffering thus may well become suffering after laughing, as the reader is forced to explore the emotional and ethical implications of such cruel laughter.
Naughton, Gerald David;
and Pushkarevskaya Naughton, Yulia.
"The Suffering Joker and the Cruel Joke: Nabokov's and Bellow's Dark Laughter."
CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture
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