1000 novels everyone must read: Comedy (part two)

Denis Diderot: Jacques the Fatalist and His Master (1796)

Jacques and his master are journeying to an unknown destination, as befits the philosophy in the title. Jacques starts to recount a tale clearly lifted from Tristram Shandy, but any linear narrative is diffused by comic mishaps, bawdy anecdotes and hobby horses galloping off in all directions. Even the reader interrupts, goading the beleaguered narrator into further asides and pleas for tolerance. In this “unmade bed of a book”, Diderot continues the work of Cervantes and Sterne, guiding the novel away from the confines of sentiment and allegory. Natalie Cate

JP Donleavy: A Fairy Tale of New York (1973)

Cornelius Christian returns to America with no money and a dead wife. Unable to pay for her funeral, he is taken on as an apprentice mortician. Though Cornelius is a drunken womaniser, he exudes a mysterious allure of class and brilliance to other characters, and lurches into a series of darkly absurd adventures as a result. To readers, the charm is in his relentless honesty and the creeping melancholy of “the great sad cathedral that is New York City”. This mood is reflected in the Christmas hit by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, which borrowed the book’s title. NC

Roddy Doyle: The Commitments (1987)

Derek and Outspan dream of making it big. The problem: they’re shite and haven’t any knowledge of the music business. Then Jimmy Rabbitte offers to be their manager and, convinced Ireland is ready for a soul revolution, advertises in the paper for “Dublin’s hardest-working band”. This is the story of how a motley working-class crew bring Motown to Barrytown, and how success brings its own challenges. Alan Parker’s film provided the music but lost much of the rapid-fire dialogue of this and the remaining books in The Barrytown Trilogy, which follows the fortunes of the Rabbitte family. NC

Maria Edgeworth: Ennui (1809)

The young Earl of Glenthorn lives a life of luxurious indolence, tainted only by a growing sense of ennui. Lavish entertainment and outrageous gambling do nothing to alleviate his world-weariness, while his estates and tenants languish neglected. Financial ruin leads to marriage, marriage to scandal, and only his old Irish nurse, Ellinor, can save him. She persuades Glenthorn to return to his estate in Ireland, where violent revolution and strange twists of fate await. Social satire and political allegory combine in this setting to make Ennui the first regional comic novel in English. NC

Willem Elsschot: Cheese (1933)

In his author’s preface, Willem Elsschot explains that, portrayed artistically, even a herring can be tragic. Thus prepared, we embark on the tragi-comic tale of shipping clerk Frans Laarmans’s ambition to become a cheese magnate. Laarmans takes sick leave and orders 10,000 Edams. Only later does he realise he has no sales experience and doesn’t like cheese. Yet with the first accounts to settle, 20 tonnes of waxen dairy produce start to weigh heavily on his mind. This understated fable of capitalist folly is as relevant and wryly amusing today as it was in the 1930s. NC

Helen Fielding: Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996)

Weight: nine stone (terrifying slide into obesity — why? why?); alcohol units: six (excellent); cigarettes: 23 (vg). With these words, Fielding’s hapless heroine, who began life in a newspaper column, became a legend. The 2001 film missed the point: Jones is too sharp for her own good (and genuinely thin), which makes her diary much more entertaining than a mere chronicle of idiocy. The plot is cribbed from Austen, but the comic timing is spot-on and the gentle satire still zings. Carrie O’Grady

Henry Fielding: Joseph Andrews (1742)

Written in imitation of Don Quixote and in repudiation of Richardson’s closeted, morally earnest Pamela, Fielding’s first novel takes to the English open road. Joseph is supposedly Pamela’s brother, a virtuous servant who will not succumb to his libidinous mistress and is cast out of the household. He sets off on foot to find his sister in the company of Parson Adams, one of the great comic characters in all fiction. Adams is a wise innocent, clever and learned but entirely unaware of the selfish motivations of others. Somehow the pair survive their encounters with the hypocrites and villains they meet on their journey. John Mullan

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones (1749)

The first great comic novel in English has, as Coleridge said, one of the most beautifully engineered plots in all literature. Tom Jones is a foundling, another of Fielding’s good-hearted nobodies, who sets off on the high road to seek his fortune, and encounters every species of vice and folly that Hanoverian England has to offer. Like a benign and teazing deity, Fielding sits above the action, brilliantly entangling and then miraculously disentangling the fortunes of everyone Tom knows. The special flavour of the novel is given by the many passages in which Fielding converses wryly with the reader about the peculiarities of human nature. JM

Ronald Firbank: Caprice (1917)

At under a hundred pages, Caprice could be deemed too slender for the novel form. Yet Ronald Firbank helped transform Victorian tome into modernist fragment, and in this, the least camp and most widely accessible of his works, he diverts the traditional path of the bildungsroman. Caprice charts the rise and fall of young Sarah Sinquier, a rural canon’s daughter who runs away to the London stage. Though Sarah’s demise is swift, the rich hedonism of the theatre brings her a dazzling moment of glory that the stable provinces of Applethorp could never have provided. NC

Gustave Flaubert: Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881)

“This book will be the death of me,” Flaubert wrote to George Sand, and so it proved. The text wasn’t quite finished when he died, and it was published a year after his death. The book was ahead of its time, and met with critical disapproval, but today it is hailed as a brilliant forerunner of 20th-century literary experimentalism. Bouvard and Pécuchet are two Parisian clerks who meet one hot summer’s day and have an instant affinity. When Bouvard unexpectedly inherits a fortune, they retire together to a village in Normandy and embark on a series of projects, all of which end in catastrophe. Flaubert’s purpose is manylayered — to provide a portrait of 19th-century French life, to vilify bourgeois thinking, and to question what is knowable and achievable. Some see Bouvard et Pécuchet as a brilliant failure, but its sheer ambition is extraordinary: to encapsulate all knowledge, and to dismiss it. Stephen Moss

Michael Frayn: Towards the End of Morning (1967)

Michael Frayn’s third novel is a tale of middle-aged journalistic angst and the search for a significance and career fulfilment that are probably illusory. John Dyson, head of crosswords and miscellaneous features at a chaotically organised paper, is desperate to escape into television, but obstacles stand in the way — not least his complete lack of talent. A picture of a heavy-drinking, incestuous Fleet Street that was just about to disappear. Frayn worked at the Guardian and the Observer in the 1960s, and drew on his experiences at both. His conclusion, which he took to heart when he quit Fleet Street in 1968 — “A journalist is finished at 40, of course” — only increases the pain. SM

William Gerhardie: The Polyglots (1925)

Considered by many to be his masterpiece, Gerhardie’s account of Captain Georges Hamlet Alexander Diabologh’s encounter with his eccentric extended family is drawn substantially from his own experiences. The characters — domineering, invalided Aunt Teresa; moustachioed serial-adulterer Uncle Emmanuel; Captain Negodyaev, gripped by persecution mania; Uncle Lucy, who loses his estate and hangs himself while accoutred in his sister’s silk lingerie — are seen through Diabologh’s condescending eyes in the pages of his journal. Detachment is eroded, however, when he encounters delectable cousin Sylvia. Absurdity shot through with tragedy, potent and hilarious. Sam Jordison

Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm (1932)

A laugh-out-loud satire that has survived better than the sneer-out-loud “flapdoodle” it satirised (notably Mary Webb’s mud-and-blood saga, Precious Bane). Flora Poste, a 20-something flapper visits the Starkadder farm in Howling, Sussex. The household is inhabited by Heathcliffian Seth, the sylph Elfine, and Uncle Amos, a hellfire preacher. Big Business, the massively phallic bull, bellows day and night in the barn. Aunt Ada Doom mutters continually about the nasty something she saw in the woodshed. In a few weeks, before flying back to civilisation in her private plane, Flora drags Starkadder into the modern world (Seth, for example, is dispatched to broody fame in Hollywood). John Sutherland

Ivan Goncharov: Oblomov (1859)

Nineteenth-century Russian writers were obsessed by the figure of the “superfluous man” — the well-bred, well-educated man who could find no role in an inert, dysfunctional society. Oblomov, the greatest comic character in Russian literature, is just such a figure: a nobleman who can barely be bothered to get out of bed, which is where most of the novel takes place. An early love affair is thwarted by his inertia, his associates betray him, and his friend Stolz fails in repeated attempts to galvanise him. Yet still we warm to the kind, gentle, all-too-human Oblomov, because we see in him an essential part of ourselves. The book was an instant sensation in Russia; “Oblomovitis” became a recognised malady, and Lenin used the character to encapsulate what had to be swept away in 1917. Apparently, Russian mothers still tell their children to stir themselves or they will turn into little Oblomovs. SM

Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows (1908)

The most perennially beloved of animal fables and a celebration of an all-chaps world. The work was composed as bedtime entertainment for the author’s son — on whom the immortal Toad was based. The story opens with Mole bursting out of his hole in spring to move into riverside digs with Rat (in zoological fact, a vole). Ratty messes about in boats. Toad messes about with the newfangled automobile (“poop! poop!”), which lands him in prison. He escapes, hilariously cross-dressed as a washerwoman. Meanwhile, the oikish stoats and weasels have occupied Toad Hall. With the aid of Mole, Rat and the fearsome Badger, the property is reclaimed, and Edwardian England is safe. As 1914 would prove, it wasn’t. JS

Richard Greaves (George Barr McCutcheon): Brewster’s Millions (1902)

Most enduring of literature’s “spend, spend, spend” fantasies. On his 25th birthday, impecunious New Yorker Monty Brewster is informed his grandfather has left him a million dollars. Five days later an uncle dies, leaving him a cool $7m, on condition that he spends every cent of his grandfather’s million within a year. Monty goes on a wild spree. Meanwhile, he must choose between haughty socialite Barbara and poor-but-virtuous Peggy. Monty loses everything through the treachery of a secretary. But a lucky investment brings him yet more millions, and he is free to marry Peggy and live in luxury. Frequently filmed, most notably in 1985, starring Richard Pryor. JS

Michael Green: Squire Haggard’s Journal (1975)

Eighteenth-century diarist Amos Haggard is more Tom Jones than James Boswell. Entries focus on carousing and whoring, though drizzle
and deaths from “spasmodick rumblings” are also noted. Poachers, paupers and papists are all subjected to pot-shots from the vile squire’s quill. Relying on a lucrative marriage for idiot son Roderick, Haggard takes him on a grand tour funded by cheating at cards and winning belching contests. Michael Green first invented the hero of this rollicking parody for the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Simple column, and the BBC adapted the novel for a television series in the early 1990s. NC

Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana (1958)

One of Graham Greene’s “entertainments”, this brilliantly plotted and very funny book pokes fun at the uselessness of British intelligence. James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman living in ultra-sensitive pre-revolutionary Havana, is recruited as a spy by a secret service smoothie called Hawthorne. Wormold does it because he needs the money, but he’s useless and has no worthwhile contacts, so he fabricates a network of sub-agents and sends bogus information to his superiors, including a diagram of a vacuum cleaner that he claims is a top-secret military installation. His reports become ever more elaborate and eventually he is rumbled, but Hawthorne is too embarrassed to sack him. Instead, Wormold gets a job back in London training other spies, and an OBE. Greene called the book a “lighthearted comedy”, but it’s also a useful reminder of a cold-war world that now seems very distant. SM

Graham Greene: Travels With My Aunt (1969)

Henry Pulling, a recently retired bank manager who had been looking forward to a life occupied by dahlias, is dragged into crime and exotic travel by his wayward Aunt Augusta. A journey from suburban London to Brighton to Istanbul to South America, it also explores recent history — with a compassionate overview of the sorrows of war, a hilarious send-up of 1960s counter culture, and surprising revelations about Henry himself. Graham Greene described his most enjoyably straightforward comedy as “the only book I have written for the fun of it”, and it’s easy to reciprocate his pleasure. SJ

Giovanni Guareschi: The Little World of Don Camillo (1948)

Don Camillo is the priest of a small village in postwar Italy. Locked in an ongoing but amicable feud with Mayor Peppone and his communist supporters, hot-headed Don Camillo is gently chided by the voice of Christ. The Little World is created through a series of stories and vignettes, with subjects ranging from the mayor’s desire to christen his son Lenin to the priest’s stroll through a minefield. The book has spawned a rather larger world of Don Camillo: three subsequent novels, two additional English short story collections, six films, and two BBC adaptations. NC

Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)

Told entirely from the point of view of Christopher Boone, a teenager who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, this novel demonstrates the strengths of the unreliable narrator. After discovering his neighbour’s dead dog and learning that his mother is not, as his father had told him, dead, Christopher embarks on a journey to discover the true story. Because his view is blinkered by his condition, the reader becomes a more active participant, seeing the links where the literalminded narrator cannot. Despite our narrator’s fear of human affection, this is a gorgeously warm and hugely touching debut novel. Hadley Freeman

Eric Hodgins: Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1946)

Anyone who has suffered at the hands of estate agents, builders, electricians, architects or plumbers will empathise with the plight of Mr Blandings and the hassles he faces after moving from Manhattan to rural Connecticut in Eric Hodgins’s property-porn classic. The resonant theme has been successfully translated into two blockbuster movies (one of the same name starring Cary Grant and the Tom Hanks vehicle The Money Pit). Both are amusing, but neither can match the urbane wit of Hodgins’s prose, nor the elegance of Shrek creator William Steig’s accompanying illustrations. SJ

Nick Hornby: High Fidelity (1995)

The grumpy owner of a north London record store and his two socially inept employees slowly start to recognise that there’s more to life than mix tapes in Nick Hornby’s debut. It’s an amusingly accurate exposure of that male need to collect obscure records, make top fives of everything, and shirk relationship commitment — but the book that launched a thousand lists is more than an excuse to laugh at every man’s inner-nerd. Written with rare ease, this is also a touching and elegant affirmation of the power of love and friendship. SJ

Bohumil Hrabal: I Served the King of England (1983)

Ditie, the hero of Hrabal’s comic masterpiece, learns early in his career to keep his ears open without hearing, keep his eyes open without seeing. From busboy he progresses to become a waiter in a Prague hotel, and then a millionaire with a hotel of his own; but his personal parameters remain those of the small man. Building on the rambling style of Hasek’s Svejk, the novel’s humour and bathos achieve universal significance in the contrast between Ditie’s meagre resources and his eternally grandiose ambition. Joanna Hines

James Hynes: The Lecturer’s Tale — A Novel (2001)

In this pun-rich academic send-up, Professor Nelson Humboldt comes into an unusual gift. When his finger is surgically reattached following a freak accident, he discovers that he can use it to control people. Immediately, he sets about proving that even a little power can corrupt, and takes over the English department in his midwestern university. The meshing of gothic horror and literary theory might seem unlikely, but Hynes puts it to superb comic use in pointing out the absurdities of gender theory, tenure tracks and campus-based culture wars. SJ

Christopher Isherwood: Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935)

A chance encounter kick-starts a close friendship between Berlin-based English teacher William Bradshaw and Arthur Norris, an elderly gentleman with a nervous flicker in his light blue eyes. Norris, as we discover with young William, is quite the man of paradoxes: flamboyant in his tastes but heavily in debt, apolitical but a fervent member of the communist party, polite and mannered but sexually deviant. Frequently squeezed into one volume with Isherwood’s other Berlin-novel, Goodbye to Berlin, Mr Norris Changes Trains is less a documentary about Weimar life and more of a masterpiece in comic portraiture. Philip Oltermann

Howard Jacobson: The Mighty Walzer (1999)

Teenage table tennis champion Oliver Walzer knows a lot about ping-pong, but he’s yet to learn how to use his own balls — and so Howard Jacobson’s coming of age story gets its theme and endless opportunity for comic set pieces. The humour is deadpan and bites hard, while Walzer’s worldview is shot through with misanthropy. But there’s still an irresistible charm to the novel’s affectionate nostalgia for Jewish life in 1950s Manchester, born of the fact that so much of it is taken from the author’s own intriguing autobiography. SJ

Randall Jarrell: Pictures from an Institution (1954)

Professor of English Randall Jarrell blends literary dexterity and professional experience to dazzling effect in his campus novel. The institution in question is Benton, a progressive women’s college, and this is not so much a novel as a series of sketches of Benton’s most important members. Through them, Jarrell explores all the great campus archetypes, from rapier-tongued novelist Gertrude Johnson, whose “bark was her bite”, to Flo Whittaker, whose social campaigning is as tireless as her outfits are outlandish. The combination of affection and goggling outrage with which Jarrell paints his subjects is endearing, as well as painfully funny. Sarah Crown

Jerome K Jerome: Three Men in a Boat (1899)

Three Men in a Boat is an account of a Thames boating holiday undertaken by three male friends. It was originally intended as a serious travel guide, detailing points of interest between Kingston and Oxford. However, the humorous set-pieces — including an account of getting lost in the maze at Hampton Court and falling overboard — soon took over, and the work is generally regarded as a comic masterpiece. Its portrayal of quintessential Englishness, particularly in the form of the lackadaisical narrator “J”, based on Jerome himself, has ensured the book’s popular success around the world. It remains a huge hit in Russia. Kathryn Hughes

James Joyce: Finnegans Wake (1939)

One of the best-known but least-read works of the 20th century, Finnegans Wake is a confounding mix of the ridiculous and the sublime. Because the novel is so hard to understand, there’s little agreement about the plot — other than that it’s a prolonged immersion into the stream of consciousness provoked by the titular Finnegan’s dreams. Indeed, the jury’s still out about whether this is a work of genius or gibberish, but the fact that such a big book with so little punctuation has survived for so long says something about its fascination. SJ

Garrison Keillor: Lake Wobegon Days (1985)

Lake Wobegon is the midwest American town invented by Garrison Keillor for his Prairie Home Companion radio show. It’s a place with one traffic light (“almost always on green”) and two parking meters (which are never used since all the spaces around them are free), which is full of “good people in the worst sense of the word”. Keillor’s first book maps the town’s history and the small dramas surrounding its inhabitants with low-key humour and a quiet brilliance that made it one of the unlikeliest — but most-loved — multimillion sellers of the 1980s. SJ

Andrey Kurkov: Death and the Penguin (1996)

The titular penguin is the bird Viktor Zolotaryov adopts when cash-strapped Kiev zoo starts giving its animals away for free. Death comes in the obituaries Viktor is employed to write for people who are still alive — but tend to expire unnervingly promptly and in suspicious circumstances. Andrey Kurkov’s flair for using such surreal material to highlight grim realities, and his ability to maintain a light comical tone while exposing the dark corners of post-Soviet life, has earned him comparisons with Russian greats such as Bulgakov. This book is good enough to withstand them. SJ


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