On Happiness and Unhappiness by Richard Smyth

This week, Richard Smyth examines the interplay of happiness and unhappiness in literary work, and what draws people to read melancholic writing.

I’m writing this on the International Day of Happiness. Happiness has a complicated relationship with literature, and with the writing life.

Unhappiness, it’s often thought, goes hand-in-hand with the kind of heightened sensibility a proper writer needs – we can all picture the sort of pretentious litterateur who, as the songwriter Stephin Merritt has put it, tries to “make a career of being blue,/Dress in black and read Camus”.

Happiness is flippant, shallow and uninteresting; melancholy is dark, romantic and fascinating.

Nonsense, of course. But pervasive and attractive nonsense, nonsense that has underpinned literary fashions from Goethe’s Sorrows Of Young Werther, which created a fad for gloom and suicide among the young men of Europe in 1774, to the ‘Painful Lives’ section in Waterstones and the modern teen outsiderism cults of Twilight and its imitators. Then there are those who take the business a step further, trading knowingly (and winningly) on their knack for blackness: the writer and illustrator Edward Gorey and Daniel Handler – aka Lemony Snicket – fall into this category.

But of course, unhappiness isn’t always a pose or a gimmick. Unhappiness is sometimes just unhappiness.

Philip Larkin

Mundane misery: the poet, Philip Larkin

The poet Philip Larkin is often identified as our finest interpreter of this sort of desperately mundane, miserably everyday, unbearably normal sort of sadness. Worries about money, love and sex; the fear of ageing and death; the pain of loneliness – this is stuff we’re all familiar with, to a greater or lesser extent, and it’s the stuff that informs Larkin’s best-known work, from the measured sorrow of The Whitsun Weddings to the cynicism of This Be The Verse. This is not only Larkin’s best-known but also his best-loved poetry – which tells us something interesting about how we respond to unhappiness in literature.

Why do we read Larkin? To wallow in his misery? No. We read him – and others like him – because, in his verse, we find something that makes us, for want of a better word, happy.

“Let it be emphasised that Larkin is never ‘depressing’,” Martin Amis has written. “Achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits. If this were not so, each performance of King Lear would end in a Jonestown.”

Good writing – Amis’s ‘achieved art’ – always expresses more than mere misery; more, too, than mere happiness. It expresses humanity. In reading, we engage with that humanity, sadness, happiness and all. It’s the greatest pick-me-up there is.

I was interested recently to hear my publisher describe my first novel, Wild Ink, as a ‘comic novel’, because in some ways it’s very sad indeed: its fearful hero, bed-bound Albert Chaliapin, is beset by miseries, and the book is filled with death, illness, fear and heartbreak. But it’s still – I hope – funny. It’s still – I think – joyous. We can do this, we humans; it’s one of our gifts, to be happy and sad, stupid and wise, full of hate, full of love. We are large, as Walt Whitman wrote – we contain multitudes.

The writers I admire most are those who can take us “from sunlit levity to mellifluous gloom” (Amis again) and back again, over and over. Nothing repels me more in a writer than unleavened – inhuman – seriousness (though I am more tolerant of those who write with unfettered happiness: I adore Wodehouse).

Richard Smyth, author of 'Wild Ink'

Richard Smyth, author of Wild Ink

Happiness is never the whole story. Neither, thank god, is unhappiness. These things are dissolved in us like sugar in tea; they can’t be sieved out and separated, and we undersell ourselves if we seek to do so.

As well as being the International Day of Happiness, March 20th is World Sparrow Day. Now that’s a day I can get behind. Pay more attention to the sparrows, I say, and let happiness look after itself.

You may also like...