George Mikes (1912–1987) (pronounced
Mik-esh) was a Hungarian-born British author most famous for his
humorous commentaries on various countries.
He was born on 15 February 1912 in the village of Siklos, Hungary.
His first job was as a journalist on a Budapest newspaper. In 1938
he was sent to London to cover the Munich Crisis expecting to stay
for a couple of weeks, but instead remained for the rest of his
life. It is reported that being a Jew from Hungary was a factor in
his decision. He married twice, with a son by his first marriage,
and daughter by his second. He was a friend of Arthur Koestler. He
died on 30 August 1987.
His first book (1945) was We Were There To Escape - the true story
of a Jugoslav officer about life in prisoner-of-war camps. The Times
Literary Supplement praised the book for the humour it showed in
parts, which led him to write his most famous book How to be an
Alien which in 1946 proved a great success in post-war Britain.
How to be an Alien poked gentle fun at the English, including a
one-line chapter on sex: "Continental people have sex lives; the
English have hot-water bottles."
Subsequent books dealt with (among others) Japan (The Land of the
Rising Yen), Israel (Milk and Honey, The Prophet Motive), the U.S. (How
to Scrape Skies), and the United Nations (How to Unite Nations),
Australia (Boomerang), the British again (How to be Inimitable, How
to be Decadent), and South America (How to Tango). Other subjects
include God (How to be God), his cat (Tsi-Tsa), wealth (How to be
Poor) or philosophy (How to be a Guru).
Apart from his commentaries, he wrote humorous fiction (Mortal
Passion; The Spy Who Died of Boredom) and contributed to the
satirical television series That Was The Week That Was.
His autobiography was called How to be Seventy.
Serious writing included a book about the Hungarian Secret Police
and he narrated a BBC television report of the Hungarian Revolution
William Brown's dissertation about George Mikes and the humor
phenomenon. This literary work constitutes a deep and very
articulated essay on the humor themes and besides it results to be a
vast panorama on the whole literary work of George Mikes, an author
that has written up to 37 books which have sold million of copies
all around the world. This new initiative of the Daimon Club and his
founder intends to be a homage to the nice Hungarian author that
wrote in English, and wants to be an ulterior stimulus for all those
people who are interested in this mysterious subject.
The following George Mike's texts are taken from this dissertation
that is substantially a bilingual text, even if unfortunately its
main structure is in Italian. Anyway the English readers can taste
all George Mikes' literary passages, but of course if they don't
know the Italian language they will lose the critical discourse
about the author and about the humor philosophy. And this is also
the reason why we are going to offer the text to different
publishers either Italians or not, in order to ask them to translate
the whole work and put it on the world wide book market.
"My very first reaction was to start crying
bitterly and go on sobbing for a long time. It was partly the shock,
partly the effect of the tales of the Brothers Grimm. I had learnd
from those tales that people with step-fathers and step-mothers were
the most miserable and pitiable creatures on earth, so I felt very
sorry for myself and Tibor. My second thought was the peculiarity of
my situation. I had never heard the expression: "deceased wife's
sister"- I only realised that Hédy my cousin was now to become my
sister: Dezso my uncle was now to become my father; and in a sense,
my own mother by marrying my uncle, was to become my aunt. In Tibor
alone could I find reassurance, he seemed to be a rock in this sea
of confusion, he was to remain my brother. I need not have worried.
Everything worked out well. Hédy and I fully accepted each other as
brother and sister from the very first moment to the last. I
accepted my step-father, too." Mikes, G. How to be seventy. André
Deutsch, London 1982.
"The joke was another speciality of Budapest. Jokes of course, were
not invented there, not even all the Budapest jokes. (I have written
a great deal about jokes and do not intend to repeat here what I
have said before, but during my previous researches I was struck by
their ubiquitousness. The first appearance of one joke was traced to
the Paris Commune in 1871. It was resurrected in modern guise in
Hungary and Poland in 1945 and was being told in China in the late
'70s.) Budapest prided itself on its jokes, very often witty and to
the point. But as Budapest regarded itself as the City of Jokes,
which had to respond with a joke to everything that happened...(Mikes
op. cit. pp.81).
"After some heart-searching I was driven to the conclusion that I
might as well attempt to write something which would not cause me
painful surprise to find described as humorous. One phrase
especially reverberated in my memory: "... the light touch that
turns unpleasant, indeed horrifying experience into good reading.".
I sat down and told all about my unpleasant, indeed horrifying,
experiences among the English. The result was a little book, called
How To Be an Alien. (op.cit. pp. 162).
"Unlike Malcom Muggeridge, I do not look forward to death with eager
anticipation. He hopes to get to heaven but he may, of course, get
the shock of his life-death by getting nowhere at all. I do not
expect to survive in any form or fashion and have no desire to do
so. What a horrible place this world would be if all the people ever
born were still around. What a burden it wuold be on the Ministries
of Pension all over the world. Being born involves the certanty of
death. Only those countless millions, the unborn ones, are really
safe. They will not die, but neither can they have any fun. I think
it is one of the beauties of life that it is not eternal. It would
be a frightful bore to go on and on and on, even in reasonable
health. Besides, I am used to being dead. Death is simple
non-existence and we are all used to non-existing. I did not exist
in 500 b.C. or in 50,000 b.C. or in 1793. Why should not existing in
2217 or 3117 be any different? Death is simply the end of the story.
If one is lucky, a good end to a pleasant story, for me, if I am
lucky, it will be simply the last anecdote." (op. cit. pp. 242-243).
"For a long time I, as a beholder, was convinced that humour - as I
have just pronounced - was in my eyes. I could not help seeing
everything around me as grotesque, funny, contradictory. That was
how and why I had been labelled as a humorist. I could not help it,
that was my destiny, the inevitable result of my genes and my early
upbringing. Through no fault of my own I reflected a distorted image
of the world. Then slowly, very slowly, it dawned on me that I was
mistaken. I see the world as it is. It is the world that is
grotesque, funny, and paradoxical, not my view of it. It is the
world that is distorted, not my vision. I am a sober observer,
objective and matter-of-fact. It is the world that is crazy." From
How to be a Guru (pp. 11)
"By trying to write a book of serious essays about humorists and
thus - at least as far as appearances are concerned - giving them
the treatment usually allotted to more serious writers, I have tried
to do a service to my own literary class and - If I may say so -
first of all to myself." (pp.10)
"A humorist is a writer, like the rest. He may make superficial fun
on manners, he may crack jokes on the obvious or again he may be a
serious and profound critic of society." (pp.11)
(from Eight Humorists)
"Great tragedy is more emotional, and consequently less intellectual,
than great humour." e ancora: "Tears may be reckoned superior to
laughter since tears cleanse us while laughter makes us feel guilty."
"What is humour ? I don't know,.... Here it will suffice to say that
essentially - at least for me - it is no less and no more than the
original Latin word denotes: flavour. It is simply a special flavour,
a way of looking at things." (pp. 13).
"A sense of humour is considered the flower of a noble soul. The man
with a sense of humour is supposed to be able to look at things with
detachment and see the smallness in teh great and the ludicrous in
the magnificent. He is able to laugh at himself and this is regarded
as one of the supreme human qualities."(pp.14).
"The first difficulty in the definition of humour was that people
approached it from different angles. Aristotle looked at it from an
aesthetic point of view, Bergson as a philosopher and Freud as a
psychologist. It is the story of rain, all over again." (pp. 17)
"And now I should like to return to the question: what is humour ?
Well, what is rain ? It is something different for the meteorologist
and the farmer; for the bank clerc it may be the phenomenon which
spoils his week-end, for the cinema owner it may be the phenomenon
which makes his week-end profitable.... One can also say that
whatever different individuals may have, rain is still rain, and
scientific definition will lead to precise results. But this is not
true. There is nothing magic about the methods which claim to be
scientific. Different sciences may reach different results, even
when dealing with the very same case. Legal insanity, for example,
is vastly different from medical insanity. Physicians may diagnose a
man sick: judges may call him a criminal. Medically he may be an
invalid, but legally he will be hanged." (pp. 16-17)
"Philosophy - if it is a science - is the king of all sciences:
philosophers have taught us all the wisdom about everything under
the sun; they have raised a mighty monument of human knowledge but
they have not yet solved even the very first question they posed
themselves thousands of years ago. In fact, they have never solved
anything. Whenever they have succeded in proving anything, other
philosophers have equally convincingly proved its opposite. They
have not solved the meaning of the universe and the aim of life; nor
have they solved the question: what is humour." (pp.17-18). e
prosegue: "We do not need to know what humour is - in the proper
philosophical sense - to go on enjoying humour. Just as we don't
have to know what life is to go on living. (pp. 18).
"I, for one, am not certain at all that the Universe has meaning and
the life has an aim: but there is humour." (pp. 18).
"The Old Testament says: "Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful;
and the end of mirth is heaviness:" But here the Old Testament is
superficial. We are grateful to the man who makes us laugh. Laughter
is a cospiracy. We always laugh at somebody's expense, even if that
somebody is ourself. Tears purify, laughter makes us feel guilty.
That is exactly why we prefer laughter to tears. If someone makes us
cry, he makes us aware of his superiority. So we love laughter and
dislike tears because we always prefer an accomplice to a preacher.
We always prefer sudden glory to lasting purity. I do, at least."
to be continued...
GEORGE MIKES ON HUMOUR
Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to talk about
humour and English humour. About humour, not books, but libraries
have been written since Aristotle to... through Arnie Bernstein to
Arthur Koestler, but they haven't really gone as far as to define
what humour is, but I'm not going to try to make up for' this
omission in this five minutes introduction. I rather hold' with John
Stuart Mill, who said that in certain cases definitions are very
difficult but when intelligent, reasonable people know what we are
talking about, then it's a pity to waste too much time on
definitions. Nevertheless I should like to say a few things about
humour: one is that humour, like beauty and like almost everything
else, is in the beholder's' eyes. It is just a way of looking at
things and either you see the contradictory, the paradoxical in
things or you see the tragic in the same thing. I have a sister who...
hasn't got sort of my attitude to life, which is a rather
indifferent, casual, shoulder-shrugging' attitude, she has a great
Slav soul, although she's not entitled to a Slav soul, not being a
Slav at all. But, you see, we... I had a very happy, very nice, very
pleasant childhood and she has an ab¬solutely horrible, terrible
childhood, but we had the same childhood, both of us. And I had very
pleasant, very understanding, very kind, very nice parents, she had
really the most awful, forbidding', strict' parents, but we both had,
needless to say, the (both of the) same parents. And, you know, she...
kept telling me stories about our childhood, horror stories which,
either I didn't remember at all, or I remembered as rather pleasant
little things which, all right, they happened and if I remember them
at all, I remember them with pleasure and understanding.
The other thing about humour I want to say that people say "Oh, it's
a wonderful gift, it is really the nicest thing in the world." Well,
it isn't. Humour, whatever else it may be, is always cruel. It is
always against a target' and it is always sharp-shooting'. If there
is no other target, then the target is the self.
About English humour, I would like to ask... I would like to say
that it is a little bit... a little bit like the Loch Ness Monster.
Not because it is so terrifying, but the Loch Ness Monster is world
famous, everybody knows about it, but it's not quite sure that it
exists. Now, of course, of course there are wonderful English
humorous writers and people laugh at many things at En¬gland, but
the question is the English do not mean that, they mean that there
is a very special English sense of humour which is unlike anything
else in the world and the
is "Is that true or isn't it true?" It is true, I can tell you, but
it is hard to discover and I don't say that against English humour.
When people, new-arrivals get to England and they see the English
mumbling' and talking and smiling, they think that they don't get
any jokes, they do get the jokes all right and very often the joke
is on us visiting foreigners, but it takes some time until we
One thing is, you know, this semi-factualness" and pseudo-fairness
of English humour which I love. I just want to tell you one very...
a little joke which I think is one of the most typical English jokes
I heard... that two friends meet and one says to the other (they ask)
"How are you?" and he said "Oh, I'm very well. Actually I'm getting
married." And he said "Oh, very nice. Whom are you getting... going
to marry?" and he says "Oh, I'm going to marry Anne Brown from
Little Bracknell." The other says "Good God! You can't marry her
because this woman has slept with half Little Bracknell." Six months
later they meet again and they said "How you are" and he says "Oh,
I'm married now." He said "To whom?" He said "Oh, I married Anne
Brown from Little Bracknell." He said "Look, I told you that you...
must not marry her because she slept with half Little Bracknell." He
said "Yes, you told me, but then I went to Little Bracknell: it's
quite a small village."
You know, this is the English attitude to it in a way. It's quite
logical, of course, it does make a difference whether one slept with
half London or half Little Bracknell. Nevertheless this was not
quite what the original chap meant.
Another thing, another characteristic of English humour is, of
course, the understatement, which is not a way of making jokes, it
is a way of life. It is this one degree under, that taking
everything a little bit less than face value". Americans,
Continentals, we all try to make jokes very often by wild
exaggeration. The English... you know, when an Italian kneels down"
in front of a girl and says that... declares that he adores her and
unless she comes home with him, he would shoot himself on the spot,
then the Englishman would say "Well, what about it?" And he means
exactly the same thing, with the same warmth1ó, with the same
passion or almost with the same passion, but it's a different way of
expressing himself. A very different way, I dare" say. Now the other
thing is... and last thing I want to say which is a great gift of
the English that they are able to laugh at themselves and that's
where really a sense of humour starts because everybody is able to
laugh at something. Even Stalin is reported
to laugh, was laughing at certain horrible jokes, but when you can
laugh at yourself, then the whole sense of humour starts because
then it becomes a sense of proportion that you know that while you
laugh at others, others can laugh at you and it is really that you
are still, of course, a wonderful man and really inimitable and but
perhaps not in absolutely everything. You may be beautiful, you may
be very intelligent, but perhaps somebody else may have a better
handwriting or dresses better and there you have something where the
real value of a sense of humour begins and almost ends. » From Speak
Up N. 13 March 1986