Gogol’s heir in British comedy: Or, Why Tim Key’s poetry is best analysed using a Russian perspective

Daniel R. Smith

Introduction

Never try to understand the meaning of a poem by Tim Key. Case in point,

Bob.

Threw a pipe.

Poem 260. (Key, 2011a:33)

Poems such as this are meaningless to analyse for their meaning. It seems almost ludicrous to suggest that his poems have any meaning. Of course they don’t and anyone acquainted with his ‘Late Night Poetry Programme’, which recently finished its second series on BBC Radio 4, will know the common back-and-forth between him and comic collaborator, Tom Basden, is predicated upon Key not being a poet. The case in point is that the second episode of the programme did not contain any poems; Key instead donned the persona of a magician and performed various acts of presitigitidation (to little success …while on radio, because ‘there’s too much magic on telly’).

So why begin with suggesting that meaning is not the matter when it comes to Key’s ‘so-called poems’. The point is that it brings us to a topic little explored today and of seemingly little value to sociology. This is the essays by the Russian Formalists, especially Boris Eikhenbaum and Roman Jackobson as well as those who came after them, notably, Mikhail Bakhtin. The Formalists are rarely read today, and if they are, they are largely used as the foil behind the important arguments put forward by the post-structuralists and new literary critics, Bakhtin among them. This may be the usual, academic, starting point. But it is not the case here. We begin with the Formalists, instead, because Tim Key does.  And the sociological value of this short post on Key’s comedy is that it brings us some insights into how his poetry illustrates the value of ‘not meaning anything’ in modern life. And instead of this ‘not meaning’ being of little poetic value it in fact has have high social value and truth value: it gives us autonomy; by not meaning anything, Key’s poems hold more truth than other forms of meaningful acts in society (professional obligations, recycling, voting, doctor’s orders etc.).

Key’s Russian-ness

Aware of it or not, Key’s comedy does stand in relation to the Formalists in quite a stark regard. Key loves Russia and Russian culture. Anyone who has sat with Key’s Wikipedia page will note that he studied Russian at Sheffield University; he writes of living in Russian in one of his book of collected poems (Key, 2011b) and he has incorporated Russian culture into his work, notably using obscure 20th century Russian composer, Vyacheslav Mescherin’s orchestral music in his live shows as well as with his sketch group ‘Cowards’. Mescherin was also the subject of a Radio4 documentary presented by Key late last year. Furthermore Key has also presented a documentary on Radio4 on Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’, the classic of Russian literature and the oft cited origin text for the whole of Russian literature in the twentieth century. And it is with Key’s documentary on Gogol that we begin with as a link with the Russian Formalists.

Boris Eikhenbaum’s classic essay ‘How Gogol’s Overcoat was made’ (in Maguire, 1974:267ff) took Gogol’s text as the central starting point to apply the doctrines of the Formalists, later becoming a key statement of the school’s thought and its application. The central point of the Formalists is this: they are not concerned with the meaning of a text, whether it be Pride & Prejudice or The Communist Manifesto; they are instead concerned with ‘how a text is made’. Their suggestion is that literary texts, especially poetry and novels, are engaged in a form of language use that they call ‘literariness’ or ‘poetic language’ which, by its very nature, takes people away from meaning – poetic speech, heightened as it is from everyday speech or the communication of information, content and meaning, is such that its style, use of devices such as symbolism, rhyme, metre and so forth makes ‘meaning something’ difficult to do. Furthermore they stated that any study of poetic language, taken from the point of view of content and meaning, would lead the study of literature into related fields of philosophy, anthropology, psychology, history, etc. and leave the texts under consideration mere footnotes to a larger humanistic, moral or ideological critique. Instead of studying literature, these studies studied humanism through the lens of literature.

So when it came to analysing literary texts, the intention was to study the form, the framework which is experienced through artistic perception and in the case of poetry this was language. But this leaves them with a problem: how do you study form? The solution they suggested was that form is a type of literary technique, that practical language (such as ‘please pass the salt’) which communicated information would be distinguished from poetic language by means of techniques of authors so as to slow down meaning. One key innovation was that of a distinction of plot and story. Once considered synonymous, the Formalists suggested that plot is that which disrupts story; what a plot does is ‘slow story down’. Plot devices, for example, introducing a sphinx’s riddle in the face of the hero and having him/her answer it before moving forward, is not so much a meaningful event but a device used for plot formation. Story becomes a series of events and their description; as such story become devices used to formulate the plot.

Key’s plot versus story in his Late Night Poetry Programme

To use the example of Key’s Late Night Poetry Programme, the listener will, if asked to tell someone what the show is about, say that it is show where Tim Key reads a long poem but is periodically interrupted or stopped by Tom Basden, wherein they will bicker, argue and fall out by the end of the show. This is the basic structure of the show. But what is also the case is that the story of the poem and the story of the argument between Basden and Key is itself a plot device; the interruptions to the poem by the argument, and the interruption of the argument by the poem, become the basis for the story to be formulated and told.

Take the episode ‘Science’ which aired on the 8th Jan 2014. The story of the poem entitled ‘Keith Lewis’ Monster’ tells the tale of how a man, Keith Lewis, makes a monster ‘like in the novel Frankenstein’ who later becomes interested in snooker, only to become cognisant of the fact that he is a monster who cannot love, so makes his own monster, who then makes him world snooker champion, and whose own monster then becomes cognisant of the fact he is a monster, too, who cannot love and then punishes Keith Lewis by making him take part a snooker final at The Crucible. The absurdity of the poem is itself a mirror of the absurdity of the parallel story of Basden and Key’s argument. Bringing a chameleon in a (Roland Rat) (packed) lunch box into the studio while performing the poem, Key eventually makes it known after a series of interruptions by Basden that the intention of the show is to kill and dissect the chameleon so as to ‘check for wires’ to see how the chameleon ‘pulls his stunts’ of changing colours to suit surroundings. Much to Basden’s displeasure, owning to his fiancé being a vegetarian, the episode sees the two argue about the fate of the chameleon only to have Key try to goad Basden into slaying a goat, to which Basden protests and who eventually takes the goat back to his fiancé, Megan, to raise Minty, the goat, as a surrogate child. This type of plot device, the interruption of each narrative by way of a parallel narrative, is a good illustration of the Formalist conception of plot versus story. Plot becomes merely a ‘part’ of the wider whole which becomes the story which the reader digests. For the Formalists plot devices are interruptions made by the author to slow down action and, in their analysis, we become aware of the formal laws of the artistic method of storytelling. In the case of Key’s Poetry Programme, the act of interruption by argument which distracts from the story of the poem becomes a plot device itself for the poem; it slows down the arrival and development of a story line, as well as vice versa with the argument’s escalation.

This distinction between plot and story, so central to the Formalists conception of literary analysis, is itself so typical to Key’s comedy that it becomes his central mode of working. In fact the analysis which Boris Eikhenbaum brings to Gogol’s Overcoat can be perfectly summed up in the manner in which Key’s own documentary on Gogol’s Overcoat deals with storytelling. For Eikhenbaum, the essence of Gogol’s Overcoat, ‘how it was made’, is in the distinction between plot and story mediated by the use of ‘skaz’, which is oral storytelling of a folk kind that utilises dialect and slang and is largely unstructured or improvised. In the analysis of the Overcoat the use of skaz is such to turn a pathetic story into a work of melodrama and tragedy. The Overcoat is about a poor, lowly titular councillor who only wants to copy documents and who is berated by his peers for his tatty overcoat. After scrimping and saving he buys a wonderfully expensive overcoat only to have it robbed of him. He dies from the cold and only is posthumously avenged by a ghost who starts to steal overcoats from pedestrians. This type of storytelling is typical of Key and it is found in his documentary on Gogol which sees Key go through the same plot process. And it is typical of his poetry shows. Each week he will tell an absurd story that bears little or no relation to his chosen topic. Through the medium of skaz he will sell the show as tacking ‘The thorny issue of …’ or ‘The thorniest of all issues…’ (e.g. ‘The thorny issue of work…’ say): and as such absurd stories become the stuff of tragedy.

Key’s chronotope: daily life and the tragic

The nature of plot-story in Key’s poems develop a chronotope that is typical of skaz, that of the general articulation of time-and-space as organised by the general day-to-day life activity of all people in society. Each poem is itself a tawdry topic about tiny people – Bob and his pipe; Mike Ladder and his career as a bank clerk; etc – whose daily struggles become mirrored in Key and Basden’s extra-literary banter. Take the poem ‘The Godfather’ about ‘the thorniest of all issues, the family’: the poem sees a deluded man, named Warren, who desires nothing more to be Godfather to the son of two not-so-close friends, Rodney and Polly. The poem sees Warren move from Godfather who plays up at family events to megalomaniac gift-giver. The poem is interpreted by Basden and Key’s extra-literary family affair: Key’s going to Devon to visit his friend, Jamie, who turns out to be Basden’s father. Much to Basden’s annoyance that his parents will not visit him to help him paint his flat because they were spending the weekend with Key (without Basden present), the family drama also concerns the delusions of kinship played out in the poem. The time-space of the poem, the connectedness of events around the drama of family-friend social events (Christenings, Birthdays, etc.), are mirrored in the time-space of Basden-Key’s extra literary arguments around the etiquette of family-friend (social gatherings). These two aspects of the daily organisation of life becomes the basis upon which plot-story disjuncture’s may take place, i.e. as Holquist notes of his essay on Gogol, “the dialogue between story and plot is in this sense the enabling condition of narrative as such.” (2002:120)

Given the essentially ‘daily-life’ quality to much of Key’s work, the skaz element is crucial to his telling any story: it will always be told conversationally, casually, as if he were ‘in the pub’ and often such distance proves to be the disjuncture to which most of the comedy arises. This is clearest in his documentaries for Radio4 (Tim Key’s Suspended Sentence; Tim Key and Gogol’s Overcoat; Tim Key’s Easy USSR). His manner of documentary production is pure Gogol in that it mirrors Gogol’s ‘Notes on a Madman’. Gogol’s ‘Notes on a madman’ is written, not unlike a documentary, as a diary and organised around dated entries. Gogol’s diariest proves his madness by way of a discrepancy of self-identity between the ordered dating of events (October 3rd, November 6th) and the chaos of the entires. As Holquist notes, “the tension between the calendar’s order and the clerk’s growing disorientation finally becomes unbearable, until the time-space of the headings becomes as disordered as the clerk’s entries beneath them …from this point on, the lack of system in the clerk’s fantasies is matched by the disordered dates he uses to them into chapters (“martober 86” …)” (2002:120) Key employs the exact same trick in his documentary on Gogol, beginning with an ordered series of dates (October 3rd etc.) till his eventual madness to buy his own overcoat takes him over and he, too, falls into madness and begins dating his documentary entries in manic fashion, in fact borrowing Gogol’s “martober” at one point.

The organisation of narrative around daily life, e.g. diary entries, told through the medium of skaz demonstrates a way of telling stories where precisely ‘not meaning anything’ evolves into a melodrama of life in modern society. It is a performative trick. Such is Key’s trick. What is said of Gogol in Key’s documentary can be said of Key’s work itself:

‘there isn’t a philosophy. It’s a dip into a half crazed world. You can enjoy it. You can be puzzled by it. But it can’t change your life.’

Conclusion

So what is the sociological truth value of this type of art?

The truth value of a work of art is, according to Adorno, its ability to reflect the social conditions of the age and “to do so in its inner cells, in its structural relations” (Witkin, 2003:13), or to use the terms I’ve employed here, the formal relationships of the work of art and its being ‘put together’. For a work to have truth value there has to be a structural homology between how social relations and obligations are structured and how the work of art mirrors this social organisation of life in its component parts. This formal method holds some merit when analysing Key’s poems as having a social truth value. The truth value that exists in Key’s poetry is that life itself is absurd and often the ‘stuff of tragedy’ parades in everyday life through the most banal, fatuous and trivial forms of social interaction and relationships, from lovers to mothers, from professional working relationships to parliamentary politics, from waiters and their clientele. And more often than not these stories are so little worth telling that constant interruptions, digressions and parallels compete with them for precedence (only highlighting again how trivial they are). While most of the time we play the leading role in our own lives, the point is that our stories will be told by others. We are not heroic figures despite being treated as such by many conventions of modern life, be it careers, celebrity advertising or folk philosophy or popular psychology. Key’s absurd poems, such as the one about Bob throwing a pipe, reveal to us the truth condition of modern society: we think of ourselves as tragic heroes but we are in fact quite pathetic in the end.

Bibliography

Eichenbaum, Boris (1974), ‘How Gogol’s Overcoat is made’ in Maguire, Robert A. (ed.), Gogol from the twentieth century: eleven essays, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press)

Holquist, Michael (2002), Dialogism: Bakhtin and his world, (London: Routledge)

Key, Tim (2011a), 25 Poems, 3 Recipes and 32 Other suggestions, (London: The Invisible Dot Ltd)

Key, Tim (2011b), The Incomplete Tim Key, (London: Canongate Books Ltd)

Witkin, Robert W. (2003), Adorno and popular culture, (London: Routledge)

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