At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald
Chosen by David Nicholls
So many of my early reading memories involve hysterical laughter. There was Adrian Mole, of course, and Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Monty Python books, Woody Allen’s Without Feathers, Geoffrey Willans’s How to Be Topp, Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. Books were prized for being shocking or funny or, even better, both, and the promise that a book would make the reader “laugh out loud” seemed entirely plausible. Why not? It happened all the time.
Less so now perhaps, but a book that consistently makes me laugh is Penelope Fitzgerald’s At Freddie’s, a comic masterpiece from 1982 that really should be better known. It’s set in the early 60s, in a shabby, crumbling stage school in Covent Garden, full of terrifyingly precocious child actors and inept, downtrodden teachers, all presided over by the infamous Frieda “Freddie” Wentworth. Manipulative, enigmatic, sharp-tongued, opinionated, she’s an extraordinary comic creation; imagine Miss Jean Brodie played by Alastair Sim.
But if Freddie dominates both school and novel, there’s also a wonderful supporting cast, and I particularly like Pierce Carroll, the inept tutor, well intentioned but entirely incapable of controlling his class. There’s Boney Lewis, a charming, drunken actor famed for his Napoleon, an off-stage cameo from Noël Coward and a great comic set piece involving a hysterically pretentious production of King John, full of mad acting and mime.
If the idea of a stage school comedy sounds worryingly winsome, Fitzgerald dodges sentimentality and predictability. She’s clear-eyed about the prospects of the underdog and brilliant at capturing the desperation that lurks behind the smiles and bravado of those on the lower rungs – has anyone written about failure so well? There’s a bracing bitterness to the humour (“No emotion can be as pure as the hatred you feel for a child,” says Boney), and melancholy too, a sense that disaster is never far away; in this respect, the final page is quite unforgettable. Fitzgerald is rightly celebrated for the great, late historical novels such as The Blue Flower, but she is also a first-class, underrated comedian, even when the comedy is played against a backbeat of sadness.
- David Nicholls’s Us is published by Hodder.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend
Chosen by Nina Stibbe
When I wrote in a letter to my sister in 1983 “We’re ALL reading this Diary”, I was referring to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend, and for once I wasn’t exaggerating. Everybody was reading it and declaring it hilarious, satirical and miraculous. For me, it was joy and relief. Suddenly, here was this ordinary boy from Leicester writing about his hopes and dreams and his dysfunctional family. What thrilled me was that he made it seem normal – and funny – to worry. I’d just turned 20 and felt as if I’d done nothing but worry my entire life. “Saturday January 10th: ‘I think I’m turning into an intellectual. It must be all the worry.’” I’d had that exact thought many times, starting when I was about 10, and had felt myself ridiculous. Now it seemed quite endearing.
Adrian’s main concerns were similar to my own. He might be put into a children’s home because his mother is too busy reading Germaine Greer, having sex with a neighbour and being an alcoholic to serve up decent meals. Laughing with him, I felt my past was OK, and we could all be forgiven.
Also, Adrian’s sensitivity regarding Mrs Braithwaite’s defection from Labour to the SDP (“It’s a sad day when families are split by politics”) encouraged me to express my own political ideas, for example regarding Michael Foot’s self-esteem (“How must it feel to be called a scruffy old tramp all the time?”). And, if he hadn’t reported that Pandora Braithwaite’s horse (whose previous owners had lived in Zimbabwe) was called Ian Smith, would I have noticed that an acquaintance of mine was fostering a greyhound called Ted Hughes? I don’t know. I only know that this glorious book made me laugh the most, and the best.
- Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina is published by Penguin.
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Chosen by David Lodge
Choosing the author is no problem: Evelyn Waugh is the supreme master of comedy in modern English literature. But which novel: Decline and Fall? Vile Bodies? Black Mischief? Scoop? It’s a tough call, but I have a special fondness for Vile Bodies, his novel about the Bright Young Things of the 1920s. Although it was written partly out of the pain of discovering his first wife’s adultery and ends on “the biggest battlefield in the history of the world”, it is continuously amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny. Many scenes and episodes, especially those that involve Colonel Blount, the eccentric father of the hero’s on-off fiancee, still make me laugh every time I reread the book. Just remembering them can provoke a smile: for instance, Agatha Runcible’s appearance at the breakfast table in 10 Downing Street attired in Hawaiian fancy dress. That scene, like so many in Waugh’s comic fiction, works because of careful preparation and timing: Agatha’s ludicrous entrance is both unexpected and yet entirely consistent with the preceding narrative, from which certain details have been deftly omitted. And the sequence still works every time I revisit the novel because the language in which it is communicated, including the dialogue, is perfectly yet economically expressive. Comedy is generated from invented situations and verbal style, and Waugh was a master of both.
- David Lodge’s The Man Who Wouldn’t Get Up and Other Stories is published by Vintage.
The Just William books by Richmal Crompton
Chosen by Deborah Moggach
There’s a snobbishness in our literary world that equates laughter with shallowness. How untrue that is. There’s nothing shallow about my favourite comic writers – Nora Ephron, Nancy Mitford, Beryl Bainbridge (her description of undignified middle-aged sex in Injury Time strangely lingers). But for me, and I suspect many others, the funniest books of all time are the Just William books.
I suppose they’re for children, and I got hooked on them when I was William’s age, 11, but I still turn to them when I need a rush of joy. It’s a comfort just knowing they’re sitting on my shelves, shabby in their disintegrating jackets, waiting to welcome me back into the world of William, his fellow Outlaws and his suburban family of anxious mother, remote father and mad spinster aunts.
Richmal Crompton was a peerless writer who understood that the basis for comedy is the disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us. William’s older brother Robert considers himself to be a suave man about town but what we see is a hapless and humourless young chap, struggling to maintain his dignity, whose efforts to engage with the opposite sex are constantly sabotaged by his infuriating little sibling. Ditto Ethel, the vain and beautiful older sister, who also comes a cropper through William’s often well-meaning efforts to help her or, more often, get himself out of a scrape.
And the most important thing is that we mind about them. Great comedy isn’t heartless – far from it. When we laugh at its protagonists, we also laugh at ourselves. I’m 68, but there’s still a part of me who’s an 11-year-old crashing around the countryside, unwittingly causing mayhem from often the best intentions.
- Deborah Moggach’s Something to Hide is published by Vintage.
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome
Chosen by John O’Farrell
Comedy in all its forms seems to date much more quickly than other genres, so it is something of a miracle that an unambitious travelogue published in 1889 should still feel so fresh and funny today. Like the Thames navigation itself, Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is unchallenging, charming and meandering; the narrator disappears up anecdotal backwaters and lingers at riverside inns to spin another irrelevant yarn. You can smell the river on every page.
There is also a great humanity to the narrator: if he is critical of others, he is equally critical of himself. His exasperation with his friend Harris performing a comedy song is hilarious. Harris can never remember the words, and the description of the assembled party guests, so eager to laugh uproariously at the end of each verse but then denied the moment because the singer keeps stopping, is a window into the determination of Victorian England to remain jolly no matter what.
I regularly cycle past the house in Chelsea Bridge Road, where Jerome wrote this classic, and seeing the blue plaque always brings a smile to my face as I picture him staring out of the window of the top-floor flat, the Thames just about visible. And I imagine him writing about pleasure-boating today, and all the posh married couples swearing at each other in their huge fibre-glass cabin cruisers as they struggle to moor up beside the Harvester Inn, Cookham.
- John O’Farrell’s There’s Only Two David Beckhams is published by Black Swan.
Extinction by Thomas Bernhard
Chosen by Geoff Dyer
I am not exaggerating when I say that Thomas Bernhard is the funniest writer ever and that Extinction, his last novel, is his funniest. The narrator is in Rome when he learns that his parents and brother have been killed in a car crash back in Austria. The story, in so far as there is one, unfolds in a two-paragraph torrent over 300 pages from a narrator who claims to have “cultivated the art of exaggeration to such a pitch that I can call myself the greatest exponent of the art that I know of”.
Geoff Dyer’s White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World is published by Canongate.
Lint by Steve Aylett
Chosen by Bridget Christie
This satirical biography of the fictional cult writer Jeff Lint is still the funniest book I’ve ever read. It’s exhausting: every sentence is so funny and has so many ideas in it that I had to read it really slowly to take it all in. If you find the idea of a baffled chef funny, or titles such as “Jelly Result”, “The Stupid Conversation”, “I Eat Fog”, “The Nose Furnace”, “I Blame Ferns” or “The Man Who Gave Birth to His Arse”, then you’ll love it. Inventive, absurd and audacious, it’s a comic gem.
- Bridget Christie’s A Book for Her is published by Arrow.
The Jeeves series by PG Wodehouse
Chosen by Sebastian Faulks
The only book that’s ever literally made me fall out of bed laughing is Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn. I read it when I was about 26 and working on an old Fleet Street newspaper very like the one described in the novel. The passage that inflicted lifelong lumbar spine damage was old Eddie Moulton’s swansong, in which he remembers the great journalists of the past. One day, I really must get round to suing the author for all my osteopath bills.
Before that, The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis made me snort, shudder and chortle with embarrassed glee. It took the narcissistic young man’s comic novel to such new heights that it essentially killed off the genre – for which, many thanks. Also for “I … waved, with sinister, beckoning motions” and all that.
And earliest of all were PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories. I have never been able to tune in to Lord Emsworth, but the Jeeves-Wooster relationship has a tensely comic energy. A few years ago, I heard Terry Wogan read the famous Gussie Fink-Nottle prize-giving speech to a large audience at the Cheltenham festival. They say you could hear the laughter in Birmingham.
- Sebastian Faulks’s Where My Heart Used to Beat is published by Vintage.
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
Chosen by Jenny Colgan
I first came across Je Veux Mon Chapeau by Jon Klassen while living in France, and assumed it was French. Its graphic style and dark undertow seemed far more European than most anglophone books. It is Canadian, though, and for my money the funniest book ever written, and here is why: it is always funny, every single time you read it. And if you know any children at all, you will be reading it a lot.
It is funny in whatever language you read it (22 and counting) and to almost every child in the world. And like many parents and carers, I suspect, I hoard my children’s laughter like miser’s gold: one day, when I am old and drowsy, I want the memory of it ringing out to be all I hear.
- Jenny Colgan’s Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery is published by Sphere.
Augustus Carp, Esq by Henry Howarth Bashford
Chosen by Philip Ardagh
Although I’m a huge fan of PG Wodehouse in general and his Blandings stories in particular, and although Clive James’s series of unreliable memoirs has caused me to snort out loud in public, and after having weighed up Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men and Two Others, I’ve gone for Augustus Carp Esq, by Himself.
Subtitled “Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man”, and first published in 1924, it begins: “It is customary, I have noticed, in publishing an autobiography to preface it with some sort of apology. But there are times, and surely the present is one of them, when to do so is manifestly unnecessary.” Though written by Dr Henry Howarth Bashford – later Sir Henry, physician to George VI – his name did not appear in the book in his lifetime.
Carp’s nearest relative must be Pooter from Diary of a Nobody but, for me, Carp, the character and the book, surpasses Pooter and the better known classic. Here is a Sunday school superintendent, churchwarden and self-appointed president of a piety league, who religiously highlights the faults in others while constantly trying to pursue his own advancement through “good deeds”. (When falling out with those at the church of St James the Lesser, he joins the congregation of St James the Lesser Still.)
When tricked into believing that port is “a species of fruit squash imported from Portugal and known as Portugalade” he gets terrible “port-poisoning”. It all ends in tears, one of which lands on his employer, causing him to apologise –not to his employer “but to the moisture”. Why? “Because by apologising to the moisture, I was conveying to Mr Chrysostom, in the most trenchant way possible, my own opinion of his character.” Carp is, quite simply, a very British comic masterpiece.
- Philip Ardagh’s The Grunts on the Run is published by Nosy Crow.
What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe
Chosen by Marina Lewycka
The worse the world gets, the more we need to laugh. Recently I’ve enjoyed Obstacles to Young Love by the late David Nobbs (of Reginald Perrin fame) published in 2010; like the best comic fiction, it’s funny, sad, dark and poignant all at the same time. But my all-time favourite is What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe, which focuses on a single venal, privileged family who between them have fingers in the pies of agriculture, banking, healthcare, the media, the arms trade and the arts, which they ruthlessly exploit for their own ends. Cockup collides with conspiracy, while our hero, an unsuccessful novelist hired to write the family’s history, consoles himself by watching reruns of Carry On films, and by befriending the girl next door. The Radio 4 adaptation of the book was written by none other than David Nobbs. Coe’s Number 11, a sequel to What a Carve Up!, was published in November 2015. It’s also funny, dark and very bleak, but I think the original has the edge.
- Marina Lewycka’s The Lubetkin Legacy is published by Fig Tree.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Chosen by Shazia Mirza
This is not a book to be read in public. It should be enjoyed in private, where you can laugh, scream and dribble at your pleasure, without fear of being arrested. Me Talk Pretty One Day is in two parts, one about Sedaris’s childhood and family, and the second is about his experience in France as a foreigner.
It is funny and touching, and his accounts of trying to learn French will leave you spitting up the windows. His characters and situations are vivid and beautiful, and will remain with you long after you’ve finished the book and been given filthy looks by your fellow commuters. This is a book so funny it will make you feel alive.
- Shazia Mirza’s 2017 comedy tour starts in Bath on 19 January.
The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald
Chosen by Lissa Evans
“I had braced myself for a year-long stay; these casual mentions by other patients of staying two, three or even five years, made me feel as though I had just finished a hearty dinner and then been informed by my laughing hostess that she had canned those funny-tasting oysters herself.”
In 1937, Betty MacDonald, a divorcee living in Seattle, contracted tuberculosis. In 1948, after the enormous success of her first book, The Egg and I – about living on a chicken farm – she wrote a second, entitled The Plague and I, about her experiences in a sanatorium. Thomas Mann it ain’t, but while I’ve read The Magic Mountain once, The Plague and I has been a constant companion since I discovered it as a teenager.
Separated from her large, loud, loving family, placed on a regime of total bed-rest, perpetually cold (part of the “cure” was having all of the windows open, all of the time), hovering between loneliness, terror and utter boredom, MacDonald writes about her seclusion in a way that is painfully, barkingly funny. “I lay there, remembering the year we had sat at the Thanksgiving dinner table for four hours listening to a deservedly lonely man from Mary’s office recall every bridge hand he had held since 1908 …”
Her style is completely her own, the sprawling sentences packed with anecdote, incident, bang-on simile and throwaway wit – it’s like overhearing a conversation between someone who keeps forgetting to breathe and another who keeps asking “and what happened next?”
So, my panacea for 40 years has been a funny book about chronic illness. Fingers crossed it keeps working …
- Lissa Evans’s Crooked Heart is published by Black Swan.
The Best of Myles by Brian O’Nolan
Chosen by Ian Martin
Which Brian O’Nolan was funnier – novelist “Flann O’Brien” or columnist “Myles na gCopaleen”? Both were madly futuristic. At Swim-Two-Birds, his masterpiece, has characters conspiring against their author, erupting into the baffled real world as if in some weird Charlie Kaufman movie. The Third Policeman, with its proposition that people and their bicycles are exchanging molecules, one slowly becoming the other, now feels like something the mainstream media might be hiding from conspiracy theorists. However, The Best of Myles, an anthology of satirical columns he wrote for the Irish Times, has been a lighthouse for me since the early 70s, and remains the funniest book I’ve ever read. With swaggering confidence, O’Nolan invents a parallel-reality Dublin in 1940 and then riffs for 26 years, until he dies. It’s a four-dimensional tour de force. There are “regulars”: The Brother, a monstrous chancer; Keats and Chapman, literary dandies with a weakness for puns; and the Plain People of Ireland, a sort of unreliable chorus. It’s a world both banal and absurd, where rogue ventriloquist theatre escorts – and intoxicating ice-cream – cause mayhem. One bloke spends all day cracking a fiendish newspaper crossword just to stroll into a bar in the evening and help an astonished acquaintance “solve” it. This book is a masterclass in how to defy a boring world with mischief.
- Ian Martin’s Epic Space, an anthology of his satirical architectural columns, will be published in March by Unbound.
The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse
Chosen by Charlotte Mendelson
Novels rarely make me laugh. Practically everything else does, so clearly I’m not picky. Strangers giggling give me the giggles. Show me a wobbly film of an adult falling off a swing and I’m hysterical; if it’s a toddler I may need oxygen. Yet almost all contemporary fiction leaves me straight-faced.
There have been highlights: Cold Comfort Farm (“what do you do when you’re not ... eating people?”); Flann O’Brien; Douglas Adams; Catch-22. But nothing comes close to the salvation of my teenage years, the epitome of Englishness: PG Wodehouse. It shouldn’t work. Cricket, sentimental villagey poshness, chorus girls, spats: this is not my world. But Wodehouse’s sleight of hand – the apparent casualness of his observations, the Chandleresque daring of his similes – makes every description a joy: “Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove”; “I marmaladed a slice of toast”; “the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows”. But if you want proof of Wodehouse’s gloriousness, turn to The Code of the Woosters for the greatest line ever written about aunts, or anything else: “You cowered before her like a wet sock.”