My father was a man of feeling who always wanted his family to show their feelings for each other too. That was why he started a sociable little custom we observed every morning without fail. We always shook hands at breakfast. None of your half-hearted shakes neither, but firm grasps to show how glad we were to see one another again after a good night’s sleep… “I don’t hold with reserve. Reserve is for Scandinavians,” my father said. “If we can’t express the emotions God give us then we don’t deserve them. We’re only on loan to one another, so let’s show our feelings while we can.”
-Peter De Vries, Reuben, Reuben (1964), 1.
I’m sad to read of the death of British writer Sue Townsend at 68. I’ve read all the Adrian Mole novels but for the Lost Diaries and love the wry commentary on British society and current affairs from the Falklands War in 1981 in the first novel through to the Iraq War in Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction and beyond. I felt like the series would go on forever.
Comic writing feels more immune to death. It seems to have already faced up to mortality, and got over it. But Adrian Mole was always getting older; she probably would have even killed him off soon, which I would have found unbearable. There was always a sadness reading about him in his mediocrity. It produces the humour, but it also touches a nerve: everyone thinks they’re special, everyone wants their own specialness recognised. We laugh at Adrian because we can see himself more clearly than he can. But can we see ourselves?
The novels Adrian Mole made me think of are Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Updike’s Rabbit novels are not primarily comic, but they are quite funny; more importantly, they explore the shifts in America over decades through the eyes of an everyman. (Updike did kill Rabbit off before dying a little prematurely himself.) The comparison to Holden Caulfield is a little more obvious, but an interesting one, because Holden is the adolescent we know is special, and it lends his plight a particular kind of poignance. What Townsend makes us realise is that there can be a different kind of poignance in the everyman.
I was meaning to pay tribute to Townsend, and there I am writing about Adrian Mole. I hope she understands. It sounds like she had a hard life, and her humour came out of dark places.