10 Books That Made Me Laugh Out Loud
Literary laughs for the lockdown era
I’m always wary of authors who write about the rich; it convinces me they secretly salivate about being part of the fast set, like Richard Curtis and Julian Fellowes. Charles Jennings is genuinely hilarious on the subject of the ghastly rich, but in ‘Up North: Travels Beyond the Watford Gap’, he turns his jaundiced eye to the North of England and brings down a storm of invective from those who live there.
JG Farrell is one of my favourite writers. His Empire Trilogy starts with the excellent ‘Troubles’, set in a faded hotel from which vantage point the hero observes the Irish struggle for Independence. The third, ‘The Singapore Grip’, concerns the capture of the British colony by the Japanese in 1942. But it was the second, ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’, that caught the attention of critics and public alike, winning the Booker prize. It is a heartbreaking, frequently hilarious story of a siege – an amalgam of several real life Indian sieges into one superb novel.
It’s always interesting to hear how other writers got their start. I seem to recall that Carl Reiner’s ‘Enter Laughing’ is the model here, about high-speed writing on the Sid Caesar show at a tender, terrified age. ‘How I Became a Famous Novelist’ by Steve Hely covers similar ground – a loser sets out to write bestseller and accidentally succeeds – and is a joy from start to finish.
Jonathan Coe sometimes reminds me of Michael Frayn; the same English dryness, a comic way with a sentence. Frayn’s ‘Make and Break’ featured a man selling office partitions at trade fairs – I think the company motto was ‘Keeping the World Apart’. In Coe’s charming ‘Expo 58’ a hopeless civil servant is sent to a trade fair and duped into becoming a spy with embarrassing ease. Everything absurd and awful about postwar Britain is here, and it’s a comic delight.
‘A Bright Moon for Fools’ is an oddity. There’s something of ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ about its Falstaffian hero, drunkenly plunging into Venezuela and causing chaos wherever he goes – but the mystery is what happened to the talented author, Jasper Gibson, who seems to have vanished after this electric debut.
Michael Green is remembered as an eccentric newspaperman who once started the printing presses to run off his own edition, only to find that he couldn’t stop them. His classic, ‘Squire Haggard’s Journal’, is along with WE Bowman’s ‘The Ascent Of The Rum Doodle’, a one-of-a-kind volume that requires nothing more than a little knowledge of history and a sense of humour to appreciate.
The journal is a bawdy parody of a late 18th century gentleman’s diary. Amos Haggard is a Hogarthian grotesque, chugging Madeira, horsewhipping servants, rogering prostitutes, evicting paupers and discharging his pistols at anything foreign, revealing the origin of the Little Englander in all his sclerotic, xenophobic horror. The diary is obsessed with demises and unusual diagnoses, including ‘Putrefaction Of The Tripes’ and ‘Death from Windy Spasms’, and whether by accident or design somehow manages to capture the flavour of the times more succinctly than many more carefully researched biographies.
The wonderful Fu Manchu parody ‘The Shanghai Surprise’, the fourth-wall-breaking time novel ‘The Moving Toyshop’ and all of the wonderful ‘Reginald Perrin’ books have been spoken of here before but they will all raise laughter in these odd days.