1000 novels everyone must read: Comedy (part one)

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim (1954)

Amis’s first and — many would say — best book mixes sexually charged campus novel with angry-young-man critique of academic inertia, bourgeois convention and artistic pretension, with hilarious results. Jim Dixon is a history lecturer at an English university who doesn’t like his job but feels he has to try to keep it, and doesn’t much like his girlfriend either but feels he has to keep her, too, because she is emotionally unstable. The drunken lecture that has the effect of loosening these life-denying knots is a comic tour de force. Stephen Moss

Martin Amis: Money (1984)

Money is about a fat dumb bloke who hits Manhattan like a steam train — and Christ, does it hit back. As he drunkenly veers between topless bars, limos, clip joints, fast-food shacks and high-end film execs’ meeting rooms, it becomes clear that this is a man, as Amis puts it, addicted to the 20th century: an incarnation of all our greed, lust and stupidity. Yet his story is irresistibly witty and suspenseful; if the plot twists prove too much, you can just lie back and enjoy the gallows humour. Carrie O’Grady

Martin Amis: The Information (1995)

It seemed like life was imitating art when, shortly after The Information scooped a £500,00 advance, Amis publicly fell out with fellow-novelist Julian Barnes. The uncomfortable similarities to this story of enmity between the failing author Richard Tull and the more successful Gwyn Barry were all too obvious. The coincidence didn’t harm sales, but did overshadow the fact that this is one of Amis’s best works. Contemporary critics concentrated on the scandal rather than the prose, but, as is proved on every page, there is one thing that clearly separates Amis from his talent-free protagonists: he can write superbly. Sam Jordison

Beryl Bainbridge: The Bottle Factory Outing (1974)

Brenda and Freda work in London, sticking Italian labels on bottles of Spanish wine, yet even an outing takes them no further than Windsor. Domineering Freda organises the day, while Brenda quietly dreads it. Even when things start to go wrong, Brenda and the others don’t want any trouble and go to great lengths to avoid it. In this taut social comedy, the macabre lurks just beneath everyday drudgery. Bainbridge once worked in a bottle factory, and in this winner of the Guardian fiction prize, her eavesdropping narrative style Natalie Cate

Beryl Bainbridge: According to Queeney (2001)

Queeney is Samuel Johnson’s pet name for the precocious Miss Thrale, whose parents rescue him from ill-health and the eclectic mess of his own household. The last 20 years of the lexicographer’s life and his intimate friendship with Queeney’s mother, Hester, are recalled through a series of letters and first-person vignettes. The novel boldly juxtaposes Johnson’s extraordinary public figure with his commonplace needs for affection, sex and reassurance. Tipped by bookmakers to win the 2001 Booker, According to Queeney instead contributed to Bainbridge’s status as the writer most frequently nominated for the prize without ever actually winning it. NC

Julian Barnes: Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)

The great French writer Gustave Flaubert always wrote with a stuffed parrot on his desk. Geoffrey Braithwaite, a pedantic and crusty retired doctor, a widower whose unfaithful wife has committed suicide, is obsessed with Flaubert and pursues him and his parrot through a novel that is like the most perfect firework ever exploded into the sky. Flaubert is elusive but astounding, Braithwaite ponderous but heartbreaking, and Julian Barnes is the genius puppeteer behind the scene, telling a tale of misfortune and laughter in precise, sardonic and wondrous prose. An exuberant and joyous novel. Carmen Callil

Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989)

Threading his version of history with biblical, historical and personal chapters, each a snapshot of humanity creating its own story, this utterly engaging work of fiction undermines every conceit we might have as to the truth of history as told to us. Connected by the story of Noah and his ark and by the woodworm that eats away at it (and everything), this is a novel like no other — provocative, superbly funny, a wonderful and most original work, and one of those rare ones that give the reader a sense of ebullient, whooping joy. CC

Henry Howarth Bashford: Augustus Carp, Esq By Himself — Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man (1924)

Augustus Carp is a model citizen, driven by selfless zeal to reform the rough world of Edwardian Peckham. His young life is sorely tested by providence, in the shape of erythema and errant footballs. Undaunted, Augustus emerges as a skilled player of Nuts in May and follows his father as a vociferous and litigious defender of decency. Anthony Burgess described Bashford’s book as “one of the great comic novels of the 20th century”. Grotesque characters in slapstick episodes abound, but it is Augustus Sr’s grappling with slippery language and his son’s pompous syllabic blooms that really delight. NC

Samuel Beckett: Molloy (1951)

Molloy is a vagrant come home to die, sitting in his mother’s room, recounting his life’s adventurings in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness narrative that occupies a single paragraph stretching over almost 90 pages. How he was arrested for resting on his beloved bicycle in a manner that violated public decency, knocked over and killed a woman’s dog, fell in love (possibly), kicked a man to death in a forest; how he always enjoyed sucking pebbles. In the second part of the book, a detective called Moran is sent to track down Molloy. He sets out to find him, not knowing what he is supposed to do if he does; he, too, murders a mysterious, oppressive stranger; his mind and body begin to fail; he is preoccupied by urgent theological questions; he finally goes home to write his report. “It is not at this late stage of my relation that I intend to give way to literature,” Moran says of his brief and evasive description of the murder he has committed. SM

Max Beerbohm: Zuleika Dobson (1911)

The outrageously multi-talented Beerbohm’s only novel follows the fortunes of the eponymous femme fatale — “the toast of two hemispheres” — as she wreaks havoc among the besotted undergraduates of Judas college, Oxford, where, as the grand-daughter of the warden, she takes up residence. Written in an ornate prose you will either love or loathe, the novel has a sheen and grace that hark back to Wilde and prefigures Waugh, who called Beerbohm a “genius of the purest kind”. SM

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

Bellow’s breakthrough novel is a dashing bildungsroman that pointed out a fresh direction for US fiction. It caught the voice of a newly formed, melting-pot culture and is at once jubilantly expansive and agonisingly self-questioning. Augie March traces its hero’s rumble-tumble route from childhood to (relative) maturity. He clambers out of Chicago poverty, chases women, nearly drowns at sea and generally evades anyone resembling an authority figure. Augie opts to “go at things as I have taught myself, free-style”. This book does too. Xan Brooks

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader (2007)

A mobile library attacked by lapdogs is an unlikely beginning to a national crisis, but the old lady who comes in to apologise is Elizabeth II. With faultless etiquette, she borrows a book. Unexpectedly enchanted, she reads her way to empathy and insight, guided by gay palace worker Norman Seakins. Of course, royal-waving with one hand and page-turning with the other will never do, and the prime minister is forced to take action. Alan Bennett’s affectionate comedy celebrates the pleasure of literary discovery, but is serious about reading’s powers of personal and public transformation. NC

EF Benson: Queen Lucia (1920)

Mrs Emmeline Lucas, la Lucia, has single-handedly transformed the “bovine and unilluminated” village of Riseholme into a cultural oasis. Yet when Daisy Quantock acquires an Indian guru, Lucia’s social sway wobbles. Even her own Georgie Pillson, fellow Italian speaker and gentleman-in-waiting, is tempted to rebel when he alone discovers that a celebrated diva is in town. Lucia campaigns ruthlessly for five more novels, the last three inspiring Channel 4’s Mapp and Lucia series in the 1980s. In Benson’s characters, readers recognise their own foibles and pretensions, deliciously camped up, at a safe distance. NC

WE Bowman: The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956)

In the 1950s, neck-cricking epics of man’s battle with the world’s mightiest mountains were all the rage. Then along came Rum Doodle. Bungling expedition leader Binder is determined to claim the 40,000ft peak for England. A navigator with no sense of direction and a cook who gets creative with climbing rope prove a match for 3,000 porters and Binder’s stiff upper lip. A cult classic in mountaineering circles, WE Bowman’s novel is commemorated by the Rum Doodle restaurant in Kathmandu and Rumdoodle Peak in Antarctica. NC

William Boyd: A Good Man in Africa (1981)

Boyd’s first novel tells the rumbustious tale of Morgan Leafy, the incompetent, sexually obsessed first secretary at the British high commission in Nkongsamba, in Kinjanja, a fictional west African country that draws on Boyd’s upbringing in Ghana and Nigeria. Leafy, who loses his girlfriend to his arch-rival thanks to an untimely dose of gonorrhoea, is being blackmailed over an affair with the wife of a local party chief, and gets caught up in a bloody coup. The comedy is broad but effective. SM

Malcolm Bradbury: The History Man (1975)

Bradbury’s third novel, a cornerstone of the campus comedy genre, which also updated its author’s deeply serious preoccupation — previously expressed in Eating People Is Wrong (1959) and Stepping Westward (1968) — with the limits of liberalism. Howard Kirk, a modish sociology don at the University of Watermouth is an embodiment of all the good, brave liberal causes, and a devious manipulator whose real aim is not humanity’s progress but his own self-interest. Bleakly hilarious and ominously prophetic. DJ Taylor

Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon: No Bed for Bacon (1941)

London, 1594. A certain William is experimenting with his surname and Sir Walter is preparing the perfect potato. Lady-in-waiting Viola loses favour through an accurate but ill-advised impersonation of Mary Queen of Scots. This being the Golden Age, there’s only one thing for it: Viola must disguise herself as a boy and audition at the theatre! No Bed for Bacon is an early example of poking fun at the Elizabethans using their own dramatic devices. The novel was out of print in 1999, when its strong similarities to the plot of the newly released Shakespeare in Love caused a pother. NC

Peter Carey: Illywhacker (1985)

In Australian slang, an illywhacker is a confidence trickster, a conman, though he can also be a politician. Herbert Badgery is a 139-year-old charlatan who races us through a whirlwind of adventures and seductions, joking, inventing and telling wondrous tall stories as he goes. This is a virtuoso performance. Peter Carey, the funniest, most original and generous-hearted of great contemporary writers here produced a picaresque masterpiece, a touching epic about the vagabond as hero, and more, a novel that also acutely and hilariously captures the essential character of his native land. CC

JL Carr: A Season in Sinji (1967)

An RAF base in West Africa is the meeting point for cricket, conflict and romance in this semi-autobiographical novel. Flanders, stationed in the fictionalised city of Sinji, is waging his own war against the loathsome Officer Turton. Battle is done over a bizarre game of cricket, which serves not only as the novel’s comic counterpoint but also a poignant symbol of the world around them. Published 22 years after the war ended, A Season in Sinji draws heavily on Carr’s own experiences with the RAF — and his lifelong passion for cricket, of course. Charlotte Stretch

JL Carr: The Harpole Report (1972)

When Frank Muir said that this is “the funniest and perhaps the truest story about running a school that I ever have read”, he spoke with unknowing accuracy. An account of a new headmaster’s battles with absurd bureaucracy, impossible parents, and teachers who give away kittens as spelling prizes, The Harpole Report would be called a triumph of comic imagination if it didn’t so closely mirror the author’s own experiences as a headmaster. JL Carr’s eccentric charm is completely original, as is his warm, irresistible humour. SJ

Leonora Carrington: The Hearing Trumpet (1976)

Marian Leatherby is 92, sound in mind but deaf in ear. Her friend Carmella presents her with a hearing trumpet, and Marian can suddenly eavesdrop on the plots of her petit-bourgeois family. They send her to a home, a peculiar place where bungalows look like birthday cakes and nuns wink from paintings at supper-time. Marian discovers conspiracies and secret histories, and soon the old ladies are plunged into murder mystery, mutiny and apocalypse. Briton Leonora Carrington is better known as a Mexican surrealist painter, but here she creates an extraordinary feminist fantasy, in which old age becomes a riotous adventure. NC

Joyce Cary: Mister Johnson (1939)

Mister Johnson is a native aide to the British administrators in Nigeria. A boundless optimist, Johnson enthusiastically embraces all things English, from ill-fated road-building schemes to plum pudding. When the colonial lifestyle proves beyond his African pocket, natural resourcefulness leads him to swindle the very establishment he wishes to become part of. Johnson withstands abuse by creating his own reality, but the 1991 film by Bruce Beresford loses some of that complexity. Chinua Achebe found the novel so superficial that he credits it with inspiring him to write something about Nigeria “from the inside”. NC

Joyce Cary: The Horse’s Mouth (1944)

A wonderful novel by the unjustly neglected Cary that explores the life and inspiration of the impecunious artist Gulley Jimson, a warm, life-affirming character for whom art is life. The first-person narrative gives the book enormous zest, and it is impossible not to sympathise with Jimson. “I should laugh all round my neck at this minute if my shirt wasn’t a bit on the tight side,” he says to a nun who is tending him during a serious illness. “It would be better for you to pray,” she replies. “Same thing mother,” he says. The novel forms part of a trilogy with Herself Surprised and To Be A Pilgrim, but has eclipsed the other two books. Each covers the same events from the viewpoint of three different characters. Truth, Cary makes clear, will always depend on who is telling the story. SM

Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote (1605)

Alonso Quixada, a retired gentleman of La Mancha, his mind addled through overconsumption of chivalric romances, dons a home-made helmet and rusty armour, saddles up his hack Rocinante, recruits a squire in the person of Sancho Panza (a local labourer lured by the promise of his own island to govern) and sets out as a knight-errant to perform feats of bravery in honour of his (supposed) lady, Dulcinea. What follows is an episodic tale of surreal misadventure and mishap, the bulk of which end with Sancho getting a good drubbing at the hands of those the Don has tried to aid. Most copies of the first edition were lost in a shipwreck in the Caribbean, and thereafter the novel was hugely pirated. The appearance of a spurious second part prompted Cervantes to finish his own, darker continuation, published in 1615. Adam Newey

Edmund Crispin: The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)

As students converge on Oxford for Michaelmas term, Robert Warner’s theatre company comes to town. Sexy actress Yseut Haskell is so obnoxious that when she is found dead, Gervase Fen considers allowing her murderer to escape. Yet only Fen, an eccentric English professor fully aware of his fictional status, can solve the impossible case. Donning his enormous yellow raincoat, Fen sets out to prove his hypothesis before the death count rises. The first in a series of eight novels, this is both a classic detective story and a ludicrous literary farce. NC

Richmal Crompton: Just William (1922)

William Brown is English literature’s archetypal naughty schoolboy whose adventures continued until 1970, when Richmal Crompton’s last William book was published posthumously. Together with his gang, The Outlaws, William’s main preoccupations involve getting rich quick, avoiding elderly aunts, taunting the local millionaire’s daughter, Violet Elizabeth Bott, and beating his nemesis, the hateful Hubert Lane, at everything. The original illustrations by Thomas Henry rendered William universally recognisable, with his freckles, shorts and askew cap. The books have been adapted endlessly for radio and television. Kathryn Hughes

EM Delafield: The Provincial Lady (1930)

A lightly disguised autobiographical novel that recounts the experiences of an upper-middle-class woman trying to combine family life in pre-war Devon while dabbling in literary journalism. The real Delafield (born Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood) was far more than a dabbler: she had already published several novels by 1930 when she undertook to provide some light pieces for the periodical Time and Tide. The resultant Diary was a huge success, with its witty observations on friends, family, provincial society and metropolitan literati. It was followed by The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America, and The Provincial Lady in Wartime. KH

Peter De Vries: Slouching towards Kalamazoo (1983)

In “the buckle of the Bible belt” in 1963, Anthony Thrasher is a minister’s son who can quote Eliot but can’t pass eighth grade. Maggie Doubloon, a remedial tutor, takes a practical approach to teaching him The Scarlet Letter, becoming a modern-day Hester Prynne. Anthony tracks Maggie down to Kalamazoo and falls in love with their son’s babysitter, Bubbles Breedlove; they later marry and move to New York. Slouching towards Kalamazoo is a good starting point for reading De Vries. His trademark puns and aphorisms mix with literary allusion in this comic excursion into America’s east/west divide. NC

Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (1837)

The novel with which the 24-year-old “Boz” exploded on the Victorian literary scene. The project began as a series of monthly plates with captions. After the illustrator killed himself, young Dickens took charge and turned the project into a novel, immortalising the plump, retired gentleman of leisure, Samuel Pickwick, Esq. The narrative takes the form of comic episodes: an expedition to Rochester; a shooting party in Suffolk (involving near homicide among Pickwick club members); a misunderstanding about marriage that lands the baffled hero in jail for breach of promise. Among the novel’s many comic triumphs is Pickwick’s omni-competent cockney servant, Sam Weller. The novel inaugurated Dickens’s long partnership with his illustrator, “Phiz” — never read an edition without the original pictures. John Sutherland

Charles Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

A novel that British readers love, and American readers love to hate. Written when Dickens’s Pickwickian comic brio was being tempered by a new concern with structure. Martin is a trainee architect, along with saintly Tom Pinch, under the magnificently hypocritical Pecksniff. For obscure reasons, Martin’s grandfather (also called Martin) has his grandson dismissed. Old Martin dies, thought murdered by young Martin’s Uncle Jonas. Young Martin emigrates to America, is robbed blind, falls ill, and is only saved by his faithful servant, Mark Tapley. Martin returns to find his grandfather alive. The villainous Jonas poisons himself. The hero marries his true love Mary. The American scenes are among the most powerful things Dickens ever did in fiction. JS


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jan/19/1000-novels-comedy-part-one