Alexander McCall Smith’s top 10 favourite humorous books

Alexander McCall Smith is a professor of medical ethics at Edinburgh university and the author of more than 50 books. He is best known for his series about a female Botswanan detective, The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. His latest work is a collection of short stories, Portuguese Irregular Verbs.

1. Mapp and Lucia by EF Benson

All of Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books deserve to be on this list; this is glorious comic writing, made all the funnier by the fact that the jokes are repeated many times. And one might always join the Tilling Society, which is composed of admirers of these books.

2. Lucia in Wartime by Tom Holt

It may be cheating to add this, but Tom Holt deserves the very greatest praise for writing two quite brilliant Benson books with the blessing of the Benson Estate. A remarkable achievement.

3. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

This is the classic Edinburgh novel. Miss Brodie teaches at an Edinburgh girls’ school. She admires Mussolini and has a marvellous turn of phrase, especially when describing the gaseous domains of chemistry teachers. The humour here is dry as a dog biscuit, which suits Edinburgh very well.

4. The Young Visiters (sic) by Daisy Ashford

Mr Salteena, “an elderly man of 42”, enjoys inviting young girls to stay with him. So we are told at the beginning of this extraordinary tale.

5. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh’s humour is biting. One might feel a bit sad reading him today, because we know the world of his characters is doomed and will be replaced by a new form of nastiness.

6. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Academia is a very obvious target for the humorist. The modern academic comedy owes a great debt to Lucky Jim, which is still a very amusing book. Jim’s misfortune with the counterpane is a warning to all house guests.

7. The English Teacher by RK Narayan

RK Narayan’s Malgudi novels are humorous gems and it is a great pity that they are not better known. He wrote beautifully and with great compassion, something regrettably lacking in some humorous writing.

8. Die Gefangennahme eines Postboten (The Capture of a Postman) by Michael von Poser

Michael von Poser is a contemporary German writer whose work reaches only a very small audience. This is a great pity, because it is achingly funny. This virtually unobtainable collection of stories includes the tale of a postman who is kidnapped by a small village which wishes to attract Rome’s attention. As a result of the indifference of the German public to his work, von Poser now devotes himself to translating Chinese poetry into German and writing humorous essays on subjects such as hatmaking and the art of leaving the house.

9. The Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy by Sigmund Freud

The psychoanalytical movement has unintentionally produced the most remarkably funny works. This story of Little Hans who fears that he will be bitten by dray horses is unconsciously humorous. Most Freudians do not find this sort of thing at all funny, consciously or otherwise.

10. The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury

This novel deserves to survive because it captures, so beautifully and so wittily, a form of posturing which afflicted our intellectual and cultural life for many decades and which is still alive and well in some quarters. Perhaps somebody should now write The Art Man.


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