100 best comic novels – Readers’ comments

If reading used-book catalogues is your idea of a pretty good time — it is, alas, mine — then you’ve probably run across titles followed by the words”Not in — ,” the blank being the standard bibliography of a particular author or subject. Such items, having escaped the gimlet-eye of a supposed expert in the field, tend to be especially desirable. I couldn’t help but recall this bookman’s phrase recently, since last month’s column on 20th-century comic novels in English provoked dozens of letters, e-mail postings and phone calls. Nearly everybody, apparently, has at least one favorite humorous classic, and it was shocking, positively shocking, that I failed to include this or that darling among the chosen 100 on my list. Not in Dirda.

So here is a supplement to my August carnival of comic writing. Some of these books I love and simply forgot about, several are new to me, but all arrive with enthusiastic recommendations. Try a couple. As before, most are novels, though a few works of nonfiction sneak in.

Joe Keenan, Blue Heaven (highly Wodehousean). Noel Coward, Pomp and Circumstance. Robert Barnard, Death of an Old Goat. Honor Tracey, The Straight and Narrow Path. Donald Ogden Stewart, Mr. and Mrs. Haddock Abroad. Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon, No Bed for Bacon. Ludwig Bemelmans, Dirty Eddie. J.P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man. Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald. Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle. E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provinical Lady.

Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger (most Twain is 19th century, but this bitter novel came out in 1916). Virginia Woolf, Orlando. Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels. Don Marquis, archy and mehitabel. Nathanael West, Day of the Locust. Eudora Welty, short stories. William Browning Spencer, Resume with Monsters. Bradley Denton, Blackburn. H.G. Wells, Tono Bungay. Booth Tarkington, Penrod. Pamela Hansford Johnson, The Unspeakable Skipton (a fictional portrait of Baron Corvo). Sybille Bedford, A Legacy. James McCourt, Mawrdew Czgowchwz. Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven.

Stephen Potter, One-Upmanship. Woody Allen, Without Feathers. John Nichols, The Milagro Beanfield War. Mysteries by Colin Watson, Tim Heald, Simon Brett, Pamela Branch, Delano Ames and Lawrence Block. Redmond O’Hanlon, Into the Heart of Borneo. Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana. Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney, Bored of the Rings. Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. John Fante, The Brotherhood of the Grape. Katherine Everard’s A Star’s Progress. Katharine Topkins, All the Tea in China.

John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor. William Kotzwinkle, Dr. Rat. Philip K. Dick, Clans of the Alphane Moon. Ernest Bramah, Kai Lung Unrolls his Mat. Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities. A.A. Gill, Sap Rising. William Boyd, A Good Man in Africa. James Wilcox, Modern Baptists. Roddy Doyle, The Commitments. Robert Ruark, Grenadine Etching. Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame. Something by Angela Thirkell, Carl Hiaasen, Betty McDonald, Finley Peter Dunne and Calvin Trillin.

Of all these”Not in Dirda” suggestions, I most regret overlooking the work of Peter De Vries (try The Mackerel Plaza) and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, a comic epic of the Old West as well as a great American novel.

Three Classics

As fall approaches, a reader’s fancy naturally turns to thoughts of mysteries, ghost stories, Victorian novels, and other autumnal fare. This is the time when Miltonists put away”L’Allegro” and pick up”Il Penseroso.” Yet before we all surrender to the louring melancholy of October, let us enjoy the best season of all, Indian summer.

During my holidays I read a good many comic novels, but none more outstanding than The Trials of Topsy, by A.P. Herbert, Augustus Carp, by Himself, and Mapp and Lucia, by E.F. Benson. I mentioned them briefly last month, but here I want to describe these books — all from the 1920s or early ’30s — more precisely, and, better yet, transcribe some passages from all three to convey at least a smidgen of their style and tone. Let’s start with Topsy.

A prolific contributor to Punch, A.P. Herbert is little read these days, but on the basis of this book and its companion, Topsy, M.P., he was obviously a man ahead of his time. For Topsy, a London debutante who writes breathless letters to her friend Trix, is nothing less than a Jazz Age Valley Girl. Imagine a blend of Lorelei Lee and the Alicia Silverstone of”Clueless”:

“Because my dear as I’ve been trying to tell you all this time, two nights ago we went over to the Hunt Ball of the Yealm Vale and Fowkley, my dear pronounced Yaffle, Mr. Haddock and me and that rather antiseptic young Guardee I told you about, Terence Flydde by name, my dear too Etonian, my dear utterly clean-limbed, washes all over and flawlessly upholstered, but of course the cerebellum is a perfect vacuum, well, my dear, I’ve always fancied he was rather attracted and of course he’s absolutely baneless but of course a girl would just as soon marry a pedigree St. Bernard dog, so I didn’t exactly propose to dedicate the evening to him though I must say those red coats are rather decorative. . .”

In the course of her adventures, Topsy writes about country weekends, charity bazaars, art shows, Christmas, reducing, and even politics. While working on Mr. Haddock’s Parliamentary campaign, our heroine prints up her own views on social issues and foreign affairs:”Of course don’t think I don’t adulate the poor because I simply do only the people I pity are the Middle Classes who of course pay for everything and get nothing and why they do it I simply can’t imagine and my advice to them is to pay no Income-Tax until they’ve one foot in the jail.” Elsewhere Topsy notes, with her usual impeccable logic,”Of course, I adore Peace and Disarmament and everything, but what I always say is well, what about pirates?” What indeed?

Augustus Carp, Esq. appeared in 1924 anonymously but is now known to be the work of a distinguished physician named Henry Howarth Bashford. Anthony Burgess considered it”one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century,” as will anybody else who finds and reads the book.