1000 novels everyone must read: Comedy (part three)

John Lanchester: The Debt to Pleasure (1996)

Tarquin Winot, an epicure nonpareil, is the unreliable narrator of Lanchester’s debut, a delicious emulsion of gourmand musings, recipes, egotism, erudition and delusion. As Tarquin takes us with him on his jaunt through France, the sea air tickling his false moustache, his reminiscences of a life spent cultivating the most refined tastes begin to hint at a more sinister truth. And why is he forever consulting that surveillance manual? To say any more would spoil a truly delightful confection. Carrie O’Grady

Alain-René Lesage: Gil Blas (L’Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane) (1715- 1735)

The amiability of the luck-riding narrator Gil Blas and the rich variety of his adventures on both sides of the law and among every strata of society, make this one of the great picaresque novels of the 18th century. Even if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the book itself, you’ll almost certainly have read something influenced by it. Fielding’s Tom Jones, Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, to name just three, all owe a debt to Lesage’s romp through 17th-century Spain. Sam Jordison

David Lodge: Changing Places (1975)

Changing Places deals with the experiences of two academics as they embark upon an exchange programme. Englishman Philip Swallow temporarily re-locates to California, while American Morris Zapp arrives in the West Midlands to work at the University of Rummidge. By the end of the book, the two men have gone much further, swapping politics, lifestyles and even wives. Within this broad, comic plotting, Lodge wryly explores the differences between the highly professionalised American academia of the time, especially its love affair with literary theory, and the much more pragmatic, not to say amateurish, British tradition. Kathryn Hughes

David Lodge: Nice Work (1988)

A government scheme designed to foster understanding between academia and industry is a surprising success in David Lodge’s deft pastiche of the industrial novel genre. When the radical feminist lecturer Robyn Penrose is sent to shadow workaholic factory boss Victor Wilcox, they start out in argument and incomprehension, but eventually their mutual understanding extends to sharing Jacuzzis. Along the way, Lodge presents a bleak view of Thatcher’s Britain, but the book is too entertaining to ever seem dour, and clever enough to confirm him as one of the leading comic writers of his generation. Sam Jordison

Rose Macaulay: The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” The famous opening sentence sets the tone for the entertaining romp that follows, as Aunt Dot, her niece Laurie, and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg journey from Istanbul to Trebizond on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. A madcap first half gives way to a more serious second, which examines the meaning of faith. The potentially jarring combination of comedy, romance, history and theology shouldn’t work, but miraculously does. This was Macaulay’s final novel — she died two years after it was published — and is highly autobiographical. Stephen Moss

AG Macdonnell: England, Their England (1933)

“No one need be afraid that this is a war book,” writes Archie Macdonell in chapter one of his famous novel/memoir/satirical portrait of England between the wars. Nonsense, of course. This is absolutely a war book, with the survivors of the first world war making merry among the ruins, political and economic. Mild-mannered Scotsman (a self-portrait one assumes) Donald Cameron goes in search of the spirit of England and falls in with assorted lunatics. Everyone remembers the rumbustious cricket match but the pièce de résistance is the wonderfully unhinged Huggins helping Cameron to pack for a country-house weekend. Warning: not for the politically correct — this is whiter-than-white England in the 1930s, remember. But on the plus side, Macdonnell clearly loathed hunting. SM

Compton Mackenzie: Whisky Galore (1947)

Compton Mackenzie delights in reworking the true story of the wreck of the alcohol-laden SS Politician, which replenished the supplies of a Scottish island community that had been “feeling the ill-effects of no whisky” thanks to second world war shortages, and how the islanders’ covert salvage operations led them into conflict with petty local officialdom. Good humoured and full of intriguing complexities, it demonstrates why Mackenzie was such a popular writer in the middle of the last century — and makes you wonder why he is so neglected today. SJ

David Madsen: Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf (1995)

Something of the nature of David Madsen’s debut can be gleaned from the titular tiny narrator’s opening declaration: “This morning his Holiness summoned me to read to him from St Augustine, while the physician applied unguents and salves to his suppurating arse.” But even that is scant preparation for this riot of torture, odd sex, wrestling, ecclesiastical corruption, twisted philosophy and good, old-fashioned corruption in Madsen’s salacious recreation of Renaissance Rome. SJ

W Somerset Maugham: Cakes and Ale — Or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930)

Never has the bitchery of the London literary world been more scathingly depicted. In 1928, Thomas Hardy died. It was the biggest literary funeral since Tennyson. Hardy filtered his authorised biography through his young, second wife, Florence. Details of his passionate, doomed, first marriage were largely suppressed. Maugham’s novel is narrated by William Ashenden, who had known the recently deceased novelist, Edward Driffield (Hardy) and his first wife, Rosie (Emma Hardy). The hack man of letters, Alroy Kear (Hugh Walpole) has been authorised to write the biography. Gradually, details of Driffield’s life are exhumed. But hovering over the narrative is the question: “How much is it proper for posterity to know?” Maugham wrote bigger novels, but nothing sharper. John Sutherland

Armistead Maupin: Tales of the City (1978)

Armistead Maupin brought these stories — which include More Tales of the City (1980), Further Tales of the City (1982), Babycakes (1984), Significant Others (1987), Sure of You (1989) and Michael Tolliver Lives (2007) — to print in local papers so quickly that he was able to immediately comment on news and develop some playful interactions with his original San Francisco readership. His observance of current events also ensured he was one of the first writers to discuss Aids. The disease added deeply felt tragedy to his originally joyous chronicle of gay and transgender life, but even that couldn’t dampen the irrepressible spirit of the mixed-up characters floating around glorious queen bee landlady Anna Madrigal. A series as effortlessly stylish as the city it celebrates. SJ

Jay McInerney: Bright Lights, Big City (1984)

1980s hyper-decadence, wise-crackingly depicted. The unnamed hero-narrator works on a Manhattan-based magazine (transparently the New Yorker) in “The Department of Factual Verification.” By night he hangs out in clubs and ingests “Bolivian Marching Powder”. His evil angel (and pusher) is Tad Allagash. His good angel is his brother Michael who comes to the city to save him. In vain. After being fired by his ogress supervisor, Ms Clara Tillinghast, he embarks on a night of epic debauchery after which, symbolically, he swaps his raybans for some bread at an early morning bakery. He concludes “I will have to learn everything all over again”. JS

Spike Milligan: Puckoon (1963)

Long after Spike Milligan’s unlikely position as national treasure and favourite of Prince Charles have been forgotten, his subversive genius will remain: the prime example of which is Puckoon. A surreal, freewheeling satire set in a village that is divided in two during the partition of Ireland when officials muck up the drawing of a boundary line in their hurry to get to the pub, it’s necessarily troubled, but hilarious. It also contains the funniest funeral scene in fictin. SJ

Magnus Mills: The Restraint of Beasts (1998)

Magnus Mills was the bus driver whose first novel won him a million-pound advance. Or rather he wasn’t. Once the press hysteria died down, the true figure turned out to be a fraction of that. By then, however, The Restraint of Beasts had become a publishing sensation, shortlisted for the Booker and the Whitebread first novel prize. Thomas Pynchon hailed it as “a demented, deadpan comic wonder”. If you only read one black comedy about fatal-accident-prone high-tensile-fence erectors, make it this one. Phil Daoust

John Mortimer: Charade (1947)

Based on his own experiences with the Crown Film Unit during the second world war, John Mortimer’s debut features a nameless narrator who gets a job on an army training film, is disappointed to learn that his title of “assistant director” is a euphemism for general dogsbody, but soon finds diversion in investigating a mysterious death. There’s no pretence at profundity here, but this entertaining farce allows Mortimer to display plenty of his dry wit and yarnspilling ability a full 30 years before he struck gold with Rumpole. SJ

John Mortimer: Titmuss Regained (1990)

“Leslie held a simple view of human nature. Mankind, it was his considered opinion, was motivated by greed. The carrot was money, the stick failure.” In this second airing, Mortimer’s eponymous shadow-side creation is now a Thatcherite cabinet minister. Publicly in favour of unimpeded development, he is privately faced with the awkward necessity of preventing a new town being built in the backyard of the home he has bought for his new bride. The resulting mayhem is a far from subtle satire, sparing no one in its depiction of greed and self-interest. Joanna Hines

Iris Murdoch: Under the Net (1954)

Jake Donaghue has no fixed address and no fixed income, but, as he is quick to point out, he has a wealth of friends and a rich inner life — and his odyssey through the Soho pubs, milk bars and Battersea bedsits of 50s London is entertaining and funny. Though less finely crafted than her later books, Under the Net introduced readers to the wonderful Planet Murdoch, where engaging characters can discuss such topics as “the central knot of being” without being boring or pretentious — no mean feat. Joanna Hines

Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin (1957)

The campus novel to end all campus novels. Nabokov’s short but dense and glittering book follows the declining fortunes of Timofey Pnin, a dual-exile from communist Russia and occupied Europe, who has ended up teaching Russian at Waindell College in the US. The novel charts Pnin’s comic misadventures and his difficulties in grappling with America. But, as ever, this is not enough for Nabokov, who plays elaborate games with the narrative voice, and in the final chapter provides an entirely new frame that upends everything we have read previously. A masterpiece that should be read alongside Nabokov’s two contemporaneous American novels, Lolita and Pale Fire, in which Pnin reappears. SM

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire (1962)

An epic, a satire, a jeu d’esprit . . . Nabokov’s perennial favourite is all of these at once. The bulk of the book is taken up by a 999-line poem by a venerable American poet reflecting on his life. It is annotated by a Professor Kinbote, whose slightly unbalanced foreword gives a hint of what’s to come: his gloss on the poem is wildly at odds with what the verse seems to say, and introduces another level of reality that leaves us guessing. While academics squabble over the book’s metafictional qualities, ordinary readers are still glad to be in on the joke. CO

Shiva Naipaul: Fireflies (1970)

In the rush to acclaim Nobel-winning Vidia, people tend to forget his hugely talented younger brother, and the three novels he wrote before his premature death, aged only 40, in 1985. Fireflies is a long, tragicomic family saga (compare the elder Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas) in which the grounddown Lutchmans, satellites of a once prominent Hindu family now in terminal decline, try vainly to make good amid the shifting landscape of 1950s Trinidad. DJ Taylor

Victor Pelevin: The Sacred Book of the Werewolf (2008)

If you want satire, who better to turn to than the Russians? Victor Pelevin’s fizzing, insidious novel takes on consumer culture, the oil industry, PR and oligarchs (a combination of “oil” and “gargle”, we’re told), through the story of a Moscow prostitute who also happens to be a 2,000-year-old Chinese fox. Her affair with a federal security agent entangles her in a world of werewolves and shape-shifters who are able to howl the oil out of the ground. Sexy and lively, this is a terrific eastern take on matters increasingly relevant to westerners. CO

Robert Plunkett: My Search for Warren Harding (1983)

Smog-choked Los Angeles and its vacuous, strutting inhabitants are the target of Robert Plunkett’s acidulous farce. Our narrator, the aptly named Elliot Weiner, heads to LA on the trail of President Harding’s letters to his now-ancient mistress, Rebekah, who is spinning out her senescence in the Hollywood hills. The stakes get higher and the comedy lower as Weiner’s increasingly frantic efforts to get his hands on the letters — culminating in the bedding of Rebakah’s titanic granddaughter — predictably descend into glorious chaos. Sarah Crown

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women (1952)

There are a number of English novelists who can claim an inheritance from Jane Austen, but none so authoritatively as Barbara Pym. This is the second of her dozen witty high comedies of English life and manners. The setting is postwar London, the heroine a spinster, Mildred Lathbury, who says of herself that “women like me really expected very little — nothing, almost” but to whom, through the all-too-human passions of the vicars, widows, anthropologists and lotharios she encounters, everything happens. An enchanting, fiercely intelligent, ferociously funny romantic novel. Carmen Callil

Barbara Pym: Less Than Angels (1955)

A group of students are alternately united and divided by the opening of Professor Felix Byron Mainwaring’s anthropological library and research centre — otherwise known as “Felix’s Folly”. Would-be anthropologists Mark and Digby are determined to secure the only two research grants on offer — despite a woeful lack of experience — while their fellow students seem more preoccupied by affairs of the heart. Frequently bearing comparisons to Austen, Pym enjoyed a huge revival in 1977 after Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, both writing in the TLS, named her one of the 20th century’s most underrated novelists. Her elegant wit and keen insight into human behaviour continue to mark her out today. Charlotte Stretch

Raymond Queneau: Zazie in the Metro (1959)

Published in French as Zazie dans le métro, this is by far Raymond Queneau’s best-known book. It has overshadowed his many other achievements, in part because it was immediately made into a well-received film by Louis Malle. Zazie Lalochere, up from the country to stay in Paris for a couple of days with her female impersonator uncle, is France’s answer to Holden Caulfield, a sassy adolescent with a sharp ear for language. All she wants to do is ride the metro, but the metro is strike-bound, so she escapes the ministrations of her uncle and wanders round Paris instead, just about staying out of the clutches of those who might wish to test her somewhat knowing brand of innocence. A classic that captures a glorious moment in French cultural life. SM

Mordecai Richler: Solomon Gursky Was Here (1990)

What happened to the Renaissance man Solomon Gursky? Moses Berger, a scholar and drunk, is researching the enigmatic figure. Mordecai Richler’s fictional Gursky family is inspired by the Jewish Bronfmans. In 400 pages we time-hop between 1850 and 1983; it creatively combines magic realism, a natural wit and Dickensian scope of vision. Of Richler’s 11 novels this has been regarded as his best work. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and won the Commonwealth writers prize in 1990. Richler also wrote screenplays, one of which, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was nominated for an Oscar. Kohinoor Sahota

Philip Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

Philip Roth was mostly seen as an earnestly high-toned young novelist until he published Portnoy’s Complaint, and you can still feel his exhilaration at throwing off his inner censor in the pages of his comic masterpiece (“Up society’s ass, copper!”). “Probably the last American novel,” as Jonathan Franzen once put it, “that could have appeared on Bob Dole’s radar as a nightmare of depravity.” Alexander Portnoy’s wildly energetic monologue on Jewishness, sex and, of course, masturbation has managed to become a monument without losing its freshness and funniness. Chris Taylor

Saki: The Westminster Alice (1902)

This political parody uses Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to critique the British government. As enthusiasm for the Boer war declined, questions were being asked about how it was handled. And in the episode “Alice goes to Lamberth”, even the Church of England is criticised. It was first published in the Westminster Gazette in collaboration with cartoonist Francis Carruthers Gould. Saki, the pseudonym of Hector Hugh Munro, was a famous satirist who contributed political sketches to the Gazette and was the political correspondent for the Morning Post. KS

Saki: The Unbearable Bassington (1912)

Cosmus Bassington is an upper-class young man with a cynical outlook. As his mother keeps trying to sort out his life, “his naughtiness, his exasperating selfishness” interferes. Set within Mayfair and Westminster, it delights in depicting parks, clubs, theatres and drawing rooms. Sandie Byrne (the biographer of HH Munro, aka Saki) recently accused it of “unbearable anti-semitism”. KS

Ronald Searle: Hurrah for St Trinian’s (1948)

In St Trinian’s skirts are short, pupils are well-armed, and mayhem is rife: the jagged, ink-blotted drawings in Searle’s cartoons often show girls who have been murdered with pitchforks or suffered horrific injuries in team sports. In 1958, a series of comedy films were made with Alistair Sim, in drag, as the headmistress. The more recent adaptation, in 2007, had an all-star line up with Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Russell Brand, but lacked the dark edge The Belles of St Trinian’s — the first film about the school, released in 1954 of Searle now near-forgotten masterpiece. KS

Will Self: Great Apes (1997)

Planet of the Apes meets Nineteen Eighty-Four. Simon Dykes wakes up one morning to a world where chimpanzees are self-aware and humans are the equivalent of chimps in our world. Simon has lived a life of quick drugs, shallow artists and meaningless sex. But this London, much like a PG tips advert, has chimps in human clothing but with their chimpness intact. The carnivalesque world is humorous, gripping and provocative. KS

Tom Sharpe: Porterhouse Blue (1974)

Porterhouse is a Cambridge college renowned for its excellent dining and academic mediocrity, where students are chosen for their wealth rather than wisdom and academics tend to die of strokes brought on by excessive eating. When a progressive new master tries to reform the place, he enters battle with the college’s reactionary conservative establishment — and in this glorious farce that can only have one result: all parties end up looking as absurd as each other. Sharpe’s gift is to make their discomfort and pain a joy to behold. SJ

Tom Sharpe: Blott on the Landscape (1975)

This satirical work looks at rural England at its best. Sir Giles Lynchwood, millionaire property developer and Tory MP, wants a motorway to be driven through the ancestral home of his spouse, Lady Maud. But local opposition grows. This has laugh-out-loud moments, witty dialogue, and an imaginative story. The work is thought to be based on the proposed construction of a motorway through south Shropshire. It produced a six-part BBC television adaptation starring Geraldine James, George Cole and David Suchet. The script was written by Malcolm Bradbury. KS


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