‘Laughing, we feel the grip of the powerful on our lives relax’

Laughter is a short, very short, sigh of relief.

Elena Ferrante: ‘Laughter is a short, very short, sigh of relief.’ Illustration: Andrea Ucini

laugh willingly, without restraint, and so hard that the muscles around my mouth ache. I also like to make people laugh, but I’m not too successful at it; in general what seems comic to me doesn’t make anyone else laugh.

I remember a design that was very amusing to me as a girl. You have to imagine the sign that prohibits honking: a trumpet in a circle, crossed out by a diagonal strip. Next to it is a convertible, and a slow-moving pedestrian who keeps the car from proceeding. The driver is leaning out over the windshield and playing the violin in the pedestrian’s ear. I laughed, and my girlfriends said: “Why do you find it so funny?”

Yes, why? It’s still not clear to me. I like the humour that derives from situations like this, and I get on well with anyone who can come up with this type of idea.

Maybe I laugh because the symbol of the trumpet is taken literally: honking the horn is prohibited, playing the violin evidently is not, and so it becomes the bow’s job to signal to the pedestrian that he’d better move. Maybe I laugh because it seems to me that resorting to the violin doesn’t simply get around the prohibition, but suggests replacing the extremely annoying horn with something more delicate. Maybe I laugh because bans have always made me anxious, and a polite violation, almost a non-violation, relaxes the tension.

Laughter for me can do only this: stretch what is tense to the point where it is unendurable. Otherwise it seems to me overrated. I’ve never believed that laughter is able to put an end to the injustices of the world. No power has ever yielded an inch thanks to a laugh. Ridicule, yes, annoys the powerful, but it doesn’t bury them. Yet for the moment we’re laughing, we feel their grip on our life relax a little. Laughter is a short, very short, sigh of relief.

That must be why the laughter that interests me most, in the context of a story, is incongruous laughter, the laughter that explodes in situations where laughing is inconceivable, in fact seems an enormity. There is a moment like this in Stanisław Lem’s His Master’s Voice: a nine-year-old child, confronted by the unendurable death agony of his mother, goes off into his room, makes faces in the mirror, and laughs. That laughter in the face of the unendurable is risky for literature, and it’s the laughter that interests me most.

 Translated by Ann Goldstein.


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