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comedic novels that everyone must read (according to the guardian)

January 20, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim (1954)

Amis’s first and — many would say — best book mixes sexually charged campus novel with angry-young-man critique of academic inertia, bourgeois convention and artistic pretension, with hilarious results. Jim Dixon is a history lecturer at an English university who doesn’t like his job but feels he has to try to keep it, and doesn’t much like his girlfriend either but feels he has to keep her, too, because she is emotionally unstable. The drunken lecture that has the effect of loosening these life-denying knots is a comic tour de force. Stephen Moss

Martin Amis: Money (1984)

Money is about a fat dumb bloke who hits Manhattan like a steam train — and Christ, does it hit back. As he drunkenly veers between topless bars, limos, clip joints, fast-food shacks and high-end film execs’ meeting rooms, it becomes clear that this is a man, as Amis puts it, addicted to the 20th century: an incarnation of all our greed, lust and stupidity. Yet his story is irresistibly witty and suspenseful; if the plot twists prove too much, you can just lie back and enjoy the gallows humour. Carrie O’Grady

Martin Amis: The Information (1995)

It seemed like life was imitating art when, shortly after The Information scooped a £500,00 advance, Amis publicly fell out with fellow-novelist Julian Barnes. The uncomfortable similarities to this story of enmity between the failing author Richard Tull and the more successful Gwyn Barry were all too obvious. The coincidence didn’t harm sales, but did overshadow the fact that this is one of Amis’s best works. Contemporary critics concentrated on the scandal rather than the prose, but, as is proved on every page, there is one thing that clearly separates Amis from his talent-free protagonists: he can write superbly. Sam Jordison

Beryl Bainbridge: The Bottle Factory Outing (1974)

Brenda and Freda work in London, sticking Italian labels on bottles of Spanish wine, yet even an outing takes them no further than Windsor. Domineering Freda organises the day, while Brenda quietly dreads it. Even when things start to go wrong, Brenda and the others don’t want any trouble and go to great lengths to avoid it. In this taut social comedy, the macabre lurks just beneath everyday drudgery. Bainbridge once worked in a bottle factory, and in this winner of the Guardian fiction prize, her eavesdropping narrative style Natalie Cate

Beryl Bainbridge: According to Queeney (2001)

Queeney is Samuel Johnson’s pet name for the precocious Miss Thrale, whose parents rescue him from ill-health and the eclectic mess of his own household. The last 20 years of the lexicographer’s life and his intimate friendship with Queeney’s mother, Hester, are recalled through a series of letters and first-person vignettes. The novel boldly juxtaposes Johnson’s extraordinary public figure with his commonplace needs for affection, sex and reassurance. Tipped by bookmakers to win the 2001 Booker, According to Queeney instead contributed to Bainbridge’s status as the writer most frequently nominated for the prize without ever actually winning it. NC

Julian Barnes: Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)

The great French writer Gustave Flaubert always wrote with a stuffed parrot on his desk. Geoffrey Braithwaite, a pedantic and crusty retired doctor, a widower whose unfaithful wife has committed suicide, is obsessed with Flaubert and pursues him and his parrot through a novel that is like the most perfect firework ever exploded into the sky. Flaubert is elusive but astounding, Braithwaite ponderous but heartbreaking, and Julian Barnes is the genius puppeteer behind the scene, telling a tale of misfortune and laughter in precise, sardonic and wondrous prose. An exuberant and joyous novel. Carmen Callil

Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989)

Threading his version of history with biblical, historical and personal chapters, each a snapshot of humanity creating its own story, this utterly engaging work of fiction undermines every conceit we might have as to the truth of history as told to us. Connected by the story of Noah and his ark and by the woodworm that eats away at it (and everything), this is a novel like no other — provocative, superbly funny, a wonderful and most original work, and one of those rare ones that give the reader a sense of ebullient, whooping joy. CC

Henry Howarth Bashford: Augustus Carp, Esq By Himself — Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man (1924)

Augustus Carp is a model citizen, driven by selfless zeal to reform the rough world of Edwardian Peckham. His young life is sorely tested by providence, in the shape of erythema and errant footballs. Undaunted, Augustus emerges as a skilled player of Nuts in May and follows his father as a vociferous and litigious defender of decency. Anthony Burgess described Bashford’s book as “one of the great comic novels of the 20th century”. Grotesque characters in slapstick episodes abound, but it is Augustus Sr’s grappling with slippery language and his son’s pompous syllabic blooms that really delight. NC

Samuel Beckett: Molloy (1951)

Molloy is a vagrant come home to die, sitting in his mother’s room, recounting his life’s adventurings in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness narrative that occupies a single paragraph stretching over almost 90 pages. How he was arrested for resting on his beloved bicycle in a manner that violated public decency, knocked over and killed a woman’s dog, fell in love (possibly), kicked a man to death in a forest; how he always enjoyed sucking pebbles. In the second part of the book, a detective called Moran is sent to track down Molloy. He sets out to find him, not knowing what he is supposed to do if he does; he, too, murders a mysterious, oppressive stranger; his mind and body begin to fail; he is preoccupied by urgent theological questions; he finally goes home to write his report. “It is not at this late stage of my relation that I intend to give way to literature,” Moran says of his brief and evasive description of the murder he has committed. SM

Max Beerbohm: Zuleika Dobson (1911)

The outrageously multi-talented Beerbohm’s only novel follows the fortunes of the eponymous femme fatale — “the toast of two hemispheres” — as she wreaks havoc among the besotted undergraduates of Judas college, Oxford, where, as the grand-daughter of the warden, she takes up residence. Written in an ornate prose you will either love or loathe, the novel has a sheen and grace that hark back to Wilde and prefigures Waugh, who called Beerbohm a “genius of the purest kind”. SM

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

Bellow’s breakthrough novel is a dashing bildungsroman that pointed out a fresh direction for US fiction. It caught the voice of a newly formed, melting-pot culture and is at once jubilantly expansive and agonisingly self-questioning. Augie March traces its hero’s rumble-tumble route from childhood to (relative) maturity. He clambers out of Chicago poverty, chases women, nearly drowns at sea and generally evades anyone resembling an authority figure. Augie opts to “go at things as I have taught myself, free-style”. This book does too. Xan Brooks

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader (2007)

A mobile library attacked by lapdogs is an unlikely beginning to a national crisis, but the old lady who comes in to apologise is Elizabeth II. With faultless etiquette, she borrows a book. Unexpectedly enchanted, she reads her way to empathy and insight, guided by gay palace worker Norman Seakins. Of course, royal-waving with one hand and page-turning with the other will never do, and the prime minister is forced to take action. Alan Bennett’s affectionate comedy celebrates the pleasure of literary discovery, but is serious about reading’s powers of personal and public transformation. NC

EF Benson: Queen Lucia (1920)

Mrs Emmeline Lucas, la Lucia, has single-handedly transformed the “bovine and unilluminated” village of Riseholme into a cultural oasis. Yet when Daisy Quantock acquires an Indian guru, Lucia’s social sway wobbles. Even her own Georgie Pillson, fellow Italian speaker and gentleman-in-waiting, is tempted to rebel when he alone discovers that a celebrated diva is in town. Lucia campaigns ruthlessly for five more novels, the last three inspiring Channel 4’s Mapp and Lucia series in the 1980s. In Benson’s characters, readers recognise their own foibles and pretensions, deliciously camped up, at a safe distance. NC

WE Bowman: The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956)

In the 1950s, neck-cricking epics of man’s battle with the world’s mightiest mountains were all the rage. Then along came Rum Doodle. Bungling expedition leader Binder is determined to claim the 40,000ft peak for England. A navigator with no sense of direction and a cook who gets creative with climbing rope prove a match for 3,000 porters and Binder’s stiff upper lip. A cult classic in mountaineering circles, WE Bowman’s novel is commemorated by the Rum Doodle restaurant in Kathmandu and Rumdoodle Peak in Antarctica. NC

William Boyd: A Good Man in Africa (1981)

Boyd’s first novel tells the rumbustious tale of Morgan Leafy, the incompetent, sexually obsessed first secretary at the British high commission in Nkongsamba, in Kinjanja, a fictional west African country that draws on Boyd’s upbringing in Ghana and Nigeria. Leafy, who loses his girlfriend to his arch-rival thanks to an untimely dose of gonorrhoea, is being blackmailed over an affair with the wife of a local party chief, and gets caught up in a bloody coup. The comedy is broad but effective. SM

Malcolm Bradbury: The History Man (1975)

Bradbury’s third novel, a cornerstone of the campus comedy genre, which also updated its author’s deeply serious preoccupation — previously expressed in Eating People Is Wrong (1959) and Stepping Westward (1968) — with the limits of liberalism. Howard Kirk, a modish sociology don at the University of Watermouth is an embodiment of all the good, brave liberal causes, and a devious manipulator whose real aim is not humanity’s progress but his own self-interest. Bleakly hilarious and ominously prophetic. DJ Taylor

Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon: No Bed for Bacon (1941)

London, 1594. A certain William is experimenting with his surname and Sir Walter is preparing the perfect potato. Lady-in-waiting Viola loses favour through an accurate but ill-advised impersonation of Mary Queen of Scots. This being the Golden Age, there’s only one thing for it: Viola must disguise herself as a boy and audition at the theatre! No Bed for Bacon is an early example of poking fun at the Elizabethans using their own dramatic devices. The novel was out of print in 1999, when its strong similarities to the plot of the newly released Shakespeare in Love caused a pother. NC

Peter Carey: Illywhacker (1985)

In Australian slang, an illywhacker is a confidence trickster, a conman, though he can also be a politician. Herbert Badgery is a 139-year-old charlatan who races us through a whirlwind of adventures and seductions, joking, inventing and telling wondrous tall stories as he goes. This is a virtuoso performance. Peter Carey, the funniest, most original and generous-hearted of great contemporary writers here produced a picaresque masterpiece, a touching epic about the vagabond as hero, and more, a novel that also acutely and hilariously captures the essential character of his native land. CC

JL Carr: A Season in Sinji (1967)

An RAF base in West Africa is the meeting point for cricket, conflict and romance in this semi-autobiographical novel. Flanders, stationed in the fictionalised city of Sinji, is waging his own war against the loathsome Officer Turton. Battle is done over a bizarre game of cricket, which serves not only as the novel’s comic counterpoint but also a poignant symbol of the world around them. Published 22 years after the war ended, A Season in Sinji draws heavily on Carr’s own experiences with the RAF — and his lifelong passion for cricket, of course. Charlotte Stretch

JL Carr: The Harpole Report (1972)

When Frank Muir said that this is “the funniest and perhaps the truest story about running a school that I ever have read”, he spoke with unknowing accuracy. An account of a new headmaster’s battles with absurd bureaucracy, impossible parents, and teachers who give away kittens as spelling prizes, The Harpole Report would be called a triumph of comic imagination if it didn’t so closely mirror the author’s own experiences as a headmaster. JL Carr’s eccentric charm is completely original, as is his warm, irresistible humour. SJ

Leonora Carrington: The Hearing Trumpet (1976)

Marian Leatherby is 92, sound in mind but deaf in ear. Her friend Carmella presents her with a hearing trumpet, and Marian can suddenly eavesdrop on the plots of her petit-bourgeois family. They send her to a home, a peculiar place where bungalows look like birthday cakes and nuns wink from paintings at supper-time. Marian discovers conspiracies and secret histories, and soon the old ladies are plunged into murder mystery, mutiny and apocalypse. Briton Leonora Carrington is better known as a Mexican surrealist painter, but here she creates an extraordinary feminist fantasy, in which old age becomes a riotous adventure. NC

Joyce Cary: Mister Johnson (1939)

Mister Johnson is a native aide to the British administrators in Nigeria. A boundless optimist, Johnson enthusiastically embraces all things English, from ill-fated road-building schemes to plum pudding. When the colonial lifestyle proves beyond his African pocket, natural resourcefulness leads him to swindle the very establishment he wishes to become part of. Johnson withstands abuse by creating his own reality, but the 1991 film by Bruce Beresford loses some of that complexity. Chinua Achebe found the novel so superficial that he credits it with inspiring him to write something about Nigeria “from the inside”. NC

Joyce Cary: The Horse’s Mouth (1944)

A wonderful novel by the unjustly neglected Cary that explores the life and inspiration of the impecunious artist Gulley Jimson, a warm, life-affirming character for whom art is life. The first-person narrative gives the book enormous zest, and it is impossible not to sympathise with Jimson. “I should laugh all round my neck at this minute if my shirt wasn’t a bit on the tight side,” he says to a nun who is tending him during a serious illness. “It would be better for you to pray,” she replies. “Same thing mother,” he says. The novel forms part of a trilogy with Herself Surprised and To Be A Pilgrim, but has eclipsed the other two books. Each covers the same events from the viewpoint of three different characters. Truth, Cary makes clear, will always depend on who is telling the story. SM

Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote (1605)

Alonso Quixada, a retired gentleman of La Mancha, his mind addled through overconsumption of chivalric romances, dons a home-made helmet and rusty armour, saddles up his hack Rocinante, recruits a squire in the person of Sancho Panza (a local labourer lured by the promise of his own island to govern) and sets out as a knight-errant to perform feats of bravery in honour of his (supposed) lady, Dulcinea. What follows is an episodic tale of surreal misadventure and mishap, the bulk of which end with Sancho getting a good drubbing at the hands of those the Don has tried to aid. Most copies of the first edition were lost in a shipwreck in the Caribbean, and thereafter the novel was hugely pirated. The appearance of a spurious second part prompted Cervantes to finish his own, darker continuation, published in 1615. Adam Newey

Edmund Crispin: The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)

As students converge on Oxford for Michaelmas term, Robert Warner’s theatre company comes to town. Sexy actress Yseut Haskell is so obnoxious that when she is found dead, Gervase Fen considers allowing her murderer to escape. Yet only Fen, an eccentric English professor fully aware of his fictional status, can solve the impossible case. Donning his enormous yellow raincoat, Fen sets out to prove his hypothesis before the death count rises. The first in a series of eight novels, this is both a classic detective story and a ludicrous literary farce. NC

Richmal Crompton: Just William (1922)

William Brown is English literature’s archetypal naughty schoolboy whose adventures continued until 1970, when Richmal Crompton’s last William book was published posthumously. Together with his gang, The Outlaws, William’s main preoccupations involve getting rich quick, avoiding elderly aunts, taunting the local millionaire’s daughter, Violet Elizabeth Bott, and beating his nemesis, the hateful Hubert Lane, at everything. The original illustrations by Thomas Henry rendered William universally recognisable, with his freckles, shorts and askew cap. The books have been adapted endlessly for radio and television. Kathryn Hughes

EM Delafield: The Provincial Lady (1930)

A lightly disguised autobiographical novel that recounts the experiences of an upper-middle-class woman trying to combine family life in pre-war Devon while dabbling in literary journalism. The real Delafield (born Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood) was far more than a dabbler: she had already published several novels by 1930 when she undertook to provide some light pieces for the periodical Time and Tide. The resultant Diary was a huge success, with its witty observations on friends, family, provincial society and metropolitan literati. It was followed by The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America, and The Provincial Lady in Wartime. KH

Peter De Vries: Slouching towards Kalamazoo (1983)

In “the buckle of the Bible belt” in 1963, Anthony Thrasher is a minister’s son who can quote Eliot but can’t pass eighth grade. Maggie Doubloon, a remedial tutor, takes a practical approach to teaching him The Scarlet Letter, becoming a modern-day Hester Prynne. Anthony tracks Maggie down to Kalamazoo and falls in love with their son’s babysitter, Bubbles Breedlove; they later marry and move to New York. Slouching towards Kalamazoo is a good starting point for reading De Vries. His trademark puns and aphorisms mix with literary allusion in this comic excursion into America’s east/west divide. NC

Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (1837)

The novel with which the 24-year-old “Boz” exploded on the Victorian literary scene. The project began as a series of monthly plates with captions. After the illustrator killed himself, young Dickens took charge and turned the project into a novel, immortalising the plump, retired gentleman of leisure, Samuel Pickwick, Esq. The narrative takes the form of comic episodes: an expedition to Rochester; a shooting party in Suffolk (involving near homicide among Pickwick club members); a misunderstanding about marriage that lands the baffled hero in jail for breach of promise. Among the novel’s many comic triumphs is Pickwick’s omni-competent cockney servant, Sam Weller. The novel inaugurated Dickens’s long partnership with his illustrator, “Phiz” — never read an edition without the original pictures. John Sutherland

Charles Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

A novel that British readers love, and American readers love to hate. Written when Dickens’s Pickwickian comic brio was being tempered by a new concern with structure. Martin is a trainee architect, along with saintly Tom Pinch, under the magnificently hypocritical Pecksniff. For obscure reasons, Martin’s grandfather (also called Martin) has his grandson dismissed. Old Martin dies, thought murdered by young Martin’s Uncle Jonas. Young Martin emigrates to America, is robbed blind, falls ill, and is only saved by his faithful servant, Mark Tapley. Martin returns to find his grandfather alive. The villainous Jonas poisons himself. The hero marries his true love Mary. The American scenes are among the most powerful things Dickens ever did in fiction. JS

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

John Lanchester: The Debt to Pleasure (1996)

Tarquin Winot, an epicure nonpareil, is the unreliable narrator of Lanchester’s debut, a delicious emulsion of gourmand musings, recipes, egotism, erudition and delusion. As Tarquin takes us with him on his jaunt through France, the sea air tickling his false moustache, his reminiscences of a life spent cultivating the most refined tastes begin to hint at a more sinister truth. And why is he forever consulting that surveillance manual? To say any more would spoil a truly delightful confection. Carrie O’Grady

Alain-René Lesage: Gil Blas (L’Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane) (1715- 1735)

The amiability of the luck-riding narrator Gil Blas and the rich variety of his adventures on both sides of the law and among every strata of society, make this one of the great picaresque novels of the 18th century. Even if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the book itself, you’ll almost certainly have read something influenced by it. Fielding’s Tom Jones, Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, to name just three, all owe a debt to Lesage’s romp through 17th-century Spain. Sam Jordison

David Lodge: Changing Places (1975)

Changing Places deals with the experiences of two academics as they embark upon an exchange programme. Englishman Philip Swallow temporarily re-locates to California, while American Morris Zapp arrives in the West Midlands to work at the University of Rummidge. By the end of the book, the two men have gone much further, swapping politics, lifestyles and even wives. Within this broad, comic plotting, Lodge wryly explores the differences between the highly professionalised American academia of the time, especially its love affair with literary theory, and the much more pragmatic, not to say amateurish, British tradition. Kathryn Hughes

David Lodge: Nice Work (1988)

A government scheme designed to foster understanding between academia and industry is a surprising success in David Lodge’s deft pastiche of the industrial novel genre. When the radical feminist lecturer Robyn Penrose is sent to shadow workaholic factory boss Victor Wilcox, they start out in argument and incomprehension, but eventually their mutual understanding extends to sharing Jacuzzis. Along the way, Lodge presents a bleak view of Thatcher’s Britain, but the book is too entertaining to ever seem dour, and clever enough to confirm him as one of the leading comic writers of his generation. Sam Jordison

Rose Macaulay: The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” The famous opening sentence sets the tone for the entertaining romp that follows, as Aunt Dot, her niece Laurie, and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg journey from Istanbul to Trebizond on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. A madcap first half gives way to a more serious second, which examines the meaning of faith. The potentially jarring combination of comedy, romance, history and theology shouldn’t work, but miraculously does. This was Macaulay’s final novel — she died two years after it was published — and is highly autobiographical. Stephen Moss

AG Macdonnell: England, Their England (1933)

“No one need be afraid that this is a war book,” writes Archie Macdonell in chapter one of his famous novel/memoir/satirical portrait of England between the wars. Nonsense, of course. This is absolutely a war book, with the survivors of the first world war making merry among the ruins, political and economic. Mild-mannered Scotsman (a self-portrait one assumes) Donald Cameron goes in search of the spirit of England and falls in with assorted lunatics. Everyone remembers the rumbustious cricket match but the pièce de résistance is the wonderfully unhinged Huggins helping Cameron to pack for a country-house weekend. Warning: not for the politically correct — this is whiter-than-white England in the 1930s, remember. But on the plus side, Macdonnell clearly loathed hunting. SM

Compton Mackenzie: Whisky Galore (1947)

Compton Mackenzie delights in reworking the true story of the wreck of the alcohol-laden SS Politician, which replenished the supplies of a Scottish island community that had been “feeling the ill-effects of no whisky” thanks to second world war shortages, and how the islanders’ covert salvage operations led them into conflict with petty local officialdom. Good humoured and full of intriguing complexities, it demonstrates why Mackenzie was such a popular writer in the middle of the last century — and makes you wonder why he is so neglected today. SJ

David Madsen: Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf (1995)

Something of the nature of David Madsen’s debut can be gleaned from the titular tiny narrator’s opening declaration: “This morning his Holiness summoned me to read to him from St Augustine, while the physician applied unguents and salves to his suppurating arse.” But even that is scant preparation for this riot of torture, odd sex, wrestling, ecclesiastical corruption, twisted philosophy and good, old-fashioned corruption in Madsen’s salacious recreation of Renaissance Rome. SJ

W Somerset Maugham: Cakes and Ale — Or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930)

Never has the bitchery of the London literary world been more scathingly depicted. In 1928, Thomas Hardy died. It was the biggest literary funeral since Tennyson. Hardy filtered his authorised biography through his young, second wife, Florence. Details of his passionate, doomed, first marriage were largely suppressed. Maugham’s novel is narrated by William Ashenden, who had known the recently deceased novelist, Edward Driffield (Hardy) and his first wife, Rosie (Emma Hardy). The hack man of letters, Alroy Kear (Hugh Walpole) has been authorised to write the biography. Gradually, details of Driffield’s life are exhumed. But hovering over the narrative is the question: “How much is it proper for posterity to know?” Maugham wrote bigger novels, but nothing sharper. John Sutherland

Armistead Maupin: Tales of the City (1978)

Armistead Maupin brought these stories — which include More Tales of the City (1980), Further Tales of the City (1982), Babycakes (1984), Significant Others (1987), Sure of You (1989) and Michael Tolliver Lives (2007) — to print in local papers so quickly that he was able to immediately comment on news and develop some playful interactions with his original San Francisco readership. His observance of current events also ensured he was one of the first writers to discuss Aids. The disease added deeply felt tragedy to his originally joyous chronicle of gay and transgender life, but even that couldn’t dampen the irrepressible spirit of the mixed-up characters floating around glorious queen bee landlady Anna Madrigal. A series as effortlessly stylish as the city it celebrates. SJ

Jay McInerney: Bright Lights, Big City (1984)

1980s hyper-decadence, wise-crackingly depicted. The unnamed hero-narrator works on a Manhattan-based magazine (transparently the New Yorker) in “The Department of Factual Verification.” By night he hangs out in clubs and ingests “Bolivian Marching Powder”. His evil angel (and pusher) is Tad Allagash. His good angel is his brother Michael who comes to the city to save him. In vain. After being fired by his ogress supervisor, Ms Clara Tillinghast, he embarks on a night of epic debauchery after which, symbolically, he swaps his raybans for some bread at an early morning bakery. He concludes “I will have to learn everything all over again”. JS

Spike Milligan: Puckoon (1963)

Long after Spike Milligan’s unlikely position as national treasure and favourite of Prince Charles have been forgotten, his subversive genius will remain: the prime example of which is Puckoon. A surreal, freewheeling satire set in a village that is divided in two during the partition of Ireland when officials muck up the drawing of a boundary line in their hurry to get to the pub, it’s necessarily troubled, but hilarious. It also contains the funniest funeral scene in fiction. SJ

Magnus Mills: The Restraint of Beasts (1998)

Magnus Mills was the bus driver whose first novel won him a million-pound advance. Or rather he wasn’t. Once the press hysteria died down, the true figure turned out to be a fraction of that. By then, however, The Restraint of Beasts had become a publishing sensation, shortlisted for the Booker and the Whitebread first novel prize. Thomas Pynchon hailed it as “a demented, deadpan comic wonder”. If you only read one black comedy about fatal-accident-prone high-tensile-fence erectors, make it this one. Phil Daoust

John Mortimer: Charade (1947)

Based on his own experiences with the Crown Film Unit during the second world war, John Mortimer’s debut features a nameless narrator who gets a job on an army training film, is disappointed to learn that his title of “assistant director” is a euphemism for general dogsbody, but soon finds diversion in investigating a mysterious death. There’s no pretence at profundity here, but this entertaining farce allows Mortimer to display plenty of his dry wit and yarnspilling ability a full 30 years before he struck gold with Rumpole. SJ

John Mortimer: Titmuss Regained (1990)

“Leslie held a simple view of human nature. Mankind, it was his considered opinion, was motivated by greed. The carrot was money, the stick failure.” In this second airing, Mortimer’s eponymous shadow-side creation is now a Thatcherite cabinet minister. Publicly in favour of unimpeded development, he is privately faced with the awkward necessity of preventing a new town being built in the backyard of the home he has bought for his new bride. The resulting mayhem is a far from subtle satire, sparing no one in its depiction of greed and self-interest. Joanna Hines

Iris Murdoch: Under the Net (1954)

Jake Donaghue has no fixed address and no fixed income, but, as he is quick to point out, he has a wealth of friends and a rich inner life — and his odyssey through the Soho pubs, milk bars and Battersea bedsits of 50s London is entertaining and funny. Though less finely crafted than her later books, Under the Net introduced readers to the wonderful Planet Murdoch, where engaging characters can discuss such topics as “the central knot of being” without being boring or pretentious — no mean feat. Joanna Hines

Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin (1957)

The campus novel to end all campus novels. Nabokov’s short but dense and glittering book follows the declining fortunes of Timofey Pnin, a dual-exile from communist Russia and occupied Europe, who has ended up teaching Russian at Waindell College in the US. The novel charts Pnin’s comic misadventures and his difficulties in grappling with America. But, as ever, this is not enough for Nabokov, who plays elaborate games with the narrative voice, and in the final chapter provides an entirely new frame that upends everything we have read previously. A masterpiece that should be read alongside Nabokov’s two contemporaneous American novels, Lolita and Pale Fire, in which Pnin reappears. SM

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire (1962)

An epic, a satire, a jeu d’esprit . . . Nabokov’s perennial favourite is all of these at once. The bulk of the book is taken up by a 999-line poem by a venerable American poet reflecting on his life. It is annotated by a Professor Kinbote, whose slightly unbalanced foreword gives a hint of what’s to come: his gloss on the poem is wildly at odds with what the verse seems to say, and introduces another level of reality that leaves us guessing. While academics squabble over the book’s metafictional qualities, ordinary readers are still glad to be in on the joke. CO

Shiva Naipaul: Fireflies (1970)

In the rush to acclaim Nobel-winning Vidia, people tend to forget his hugely talented younger brother, and the three novels he wrote before his premature death, aged only 40, in 1985. Fireflies is a long, tragicomic family saga (compare the elder Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas) in which the grounddown Lutchmans, satellites of a once prominent Hindu family now in terminal decline, try vainly to make good amid the shifting landscape of 1950s Trinidad. DJ Taylor

Victor Pelevin: The Sacred Book of the Werewolf (2008)

If you want satire, who better to turn to than the Russians? Victor Pelevin’s fizzing, insidious novel takes on consumer culture, the oil industry, PR and oligarchs (a combination of “oil” and “gargle”, we’re told), through the story of a Moscow prostitute who also happens to be a 2,000-year-old Chinese fox. Her affair with a federal security agent entangles her in a world of werewolves and shape-shifters who are able to howl the oil out of the ground. Sexy and lively, this is a terrific eastern take on matters increasingly relevant to westerners. CO

Robert Plunkett: My Search for Warren Harding (1983)

Smog-choked Los Angeles and its vacuous, strutting inhabitants are the target of Robert Plunkett’s acidulous farce. Our narrator, the aptly named Elliot Weiner, heads to LA on the trail of President Harding’s letters to his now-ancient mistress, Rebekah, who is spinning out her senescence in the Hollywood hills. The stakes get higher and the comedy lower as Weiner’s increasingly frantic efforts to get his hands on the letters — culminating in the bedding of Rebakah’s titanic granddaughter — predictably descend into glorious chaos. Sarah Crown

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women (1952)

There are a number of English novelists who can claim an inheritance from Jane Austen, but none so authoritatively as Barbara Pym. This is the second of her dozen witty high comedies of English life and manners. The setting is postwar London, the heroine a spinster, Mildred Lathbury, who says of herself that “women like me really expected very little — nothing, almost” but to whom, through the all-too-human passions of the vicars, widows, anthropologists and lotharios she encounters, everything happens. An enchanting, fiercely intelligent, ferociously funny romantic novel. Carmen Callil

Barbara Pym: Less Than Angels (1955)

A group of students are alternately united and divided by the opening of Professor Felix Byron Mainwaring’s anthropological library and research centre — otherwise known as “Felix’s Folly”. Would-be anthropologists Mark and Digby are determined to secure the only two research grants on offer — despite a woeful lack of experience — while their fellow students seem more preoccupied by affairs of the heart. Frequently bearing comparisons to Austen, Pym enjoyed a huge revival in 1977 after Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, both writing in the TLS, named her one of the 20th century’s most underrated novelists. Her elegant wit and keen insight into human behaviour continue to mark her out today. Charlotte Stretch

Raymond Queneau: Zazie in the Metro (1959)

Published in French as Zazie dans le métro, this is by far Raymond Queneau’s best-known book. It has overshadowed his many other achievements, in part because it was immediately made into a well-received film by Louis Malle. Zazie Lalochere, up from the country to stay in Paris for a couple of days with her female impersonator uncle, is France’s answer to Holden Caulfield, a sassy adolescent with a sharp ear for language. All she wants to do is ride the metro, but the metro is strike-bound, so she escapes the ministrations of her uncle and wanders round Paris instead, just about staying out of the clutches of those who might wish to test her somewhat knowing brand of innocence. A classic that captures a glorious moment in French cultural life. SM

Mordecai Richler: Solomon Gursky Was Here (1990)

What happened to the Renaissance man Solomon Gursky? Moses Berger, a scholar and drunk, is researching the enigmatic figure. Mordecai Richler’s fictional Gursky family is inspired by the Jewish Bronfmans. In 400 pages we time-hop between 1850 and 1983; it creatively combines magic realism, a natural wit and Dickensian scope of vision. Of Richler’s 11 novels this has been regarded as his best work. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and won the Commonwealth writers prize in 1990. Richler also wrote screenplays, one of which, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was nominated for an Oscar. Kohinoor Sahota

Philip Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

Philip Roth was mostly seen as an earnestly high-toned young novelist until he published Portnoy’s Complaint, and you can still feel his exhilaration at throwing off his inner censor in the pages of his comic masterpiece (“Up society’s ass, copper!”). “Probably the last American novel,” as Jonathan Franzen once put it, “that could have appeared on Bob Dole’s radar as a nightmare of depravity.” Alexander Portnoy’s wildly energetic monologue on Jewishness, sex and, of course, masturbation has managed to become a monument without losing its freshness and funniness. Chris Taylor

Saki: The Westminster Alice (1902)

This political parody uses Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to critique the British government. As enthusiasm for the Boer war declined, questions were being asked about how it was handled. And in the episode “Alice goes to Lamberth”, even the Church of England is criticised. It was first published in the Westminster Gazette in collaboration with cartoonist Francis Carruthers Gould. Saki, the pseudonym of Hector Hugh Munro, was a famous satirist who contributed political sketches to the Gazette and was the political correspondent for the Morning Post. KS

Saki: The Unbearable Bassington (1912)

Cosmus Bassington is an upper-class young man with a cynical outlook. As his mother keeps trying to sort out his life, “his naughtiness, his exasperating selfishness” interferes. Set within Mayfair and Westminster, it delights in depicting parks, clubs, theatres and drawing rooms. Sandie Byrne (the biographer of HH Munro, aka Saki) recently accused it of “unbearable anti-semitism”. KS

Ronald Searle: Hurrah for St Trinian’s (1948)

In St Trinian’s skirts are short, pupils are well-armed, and mayhem is rife: the jagged, ink-blotted drawings in Searle’s cartoons often show girls who have been murdered with pitchforks or suffered horrific injuries in team sports. In 1958, a series of comedy films were made with Alistair Sim, in drag, as the headmistress. The more recent adaptation, in 2007, had an all-star line up with Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Russell Brand, but lacked the dark edge The Belles of St Trinian’s — the first film about the school, released in 1954 of Searle now near-forgotten masterpiece. KS

Will Self: Great Apes (1997)

Planet of the Apes meets Nineteen Eighty-Four. Simon Dykes wakes up one morning to a world where chimpanzees are self-aware and humans are the equivalent of chimps in our world. Simon has lived a life of quick drugs, shallow artists and meaningless sex. But this London, much like a PG tips advert, has chimps in human clothing but with their chimpness intact. The carnivalesque world is humorous, gripping and provocative. KS

Tom Sharpe: Porterhouse Blue (1974)

Porterhouse is a Cambridge college renowned for its excellent dining and academic mediocrity, where students are chosen for their wealth rather than wisdom and academics tend to die of strokes brought on by excessive eating. When a progressive new master tries to reform the place, he enters battle with the college’s reactionary conservative establishment — and in this glorious farce that can only have one result: all parties end up looking as absurd as each other. Sharpe’s gift is to make their discomfort and pain a joy to behold. SJ

Tom Sharpe: Blott on the Landscape (1975)

This satirical work looks at rural England at its best. Sir Giles Lynchwood, millionaire property developer and Tory MP, wants a motorway to be driven through the ancestral home of his spouse, Lady Maud. But local opposition grows. This has laugh-out-loud moments, witty dialogue, and an imaginative story. The work is thought to be based on the proposed construction of a motorway through south Shropshire. It produced a six-part BBC television adaptation starring Geraldine James, George Cole and David Suchet. The script was written by Malcolm Bradbury. KS

Wilfred Sheed: Office Politics (1966)

George Wren is “number four editor” at a little-known magazine, the Outsider, which Sheed’s disclaimer hastens to add “resembles no magazine living or dead”. The office is made up of eccentrics, and George feels there is not much in the publication that he believes in. And, of course, there is the office politics: gossiping, conspiring and backstabbing. The work still remains fresh today. Sheed himself worked as a journalist, and his novels were generally satirical about the profession. Two of his novels, including this one, have been nominated for the US National Book Awards. Kohinoor Sahota

Charles Simmons: Belles Lettres Papers: A Novel (1987)

Frank Page has been interested in Belles Lettres, a fictional review journal, as an undergraduate and is rewarded with a job offer. He recounts his time there through the journal’s history, office politics, sexual harassment, and a Shakespearean hoax. The novel takes an amusing look at the world of journalism. Simmons, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, has responded to similarities by saying “nobody could possibly confuse me with Frank Page, he is loyal, wise and discreet”. KS

Jane Smiley: Moo (1995)

The story takes place in the late 1980s, in the American midwest, at Moo University (fictional, of course), and things are not what they seem. The halls are filled with academic one-upmanship, hypocrisy and prejudices. The thick tome has five parts, more than a dozen overlapping plots, and several key characters vying for attention. Smiley is a Pulitzer prize winner for her 1991 novel A Thousand Acres. KS

Thorne Smith: Topper Takes a Trip (1932)

Cosmo Topper is a respectable banker, but his four spirit friends burden his life. When he is on holiday in the south of France with his wife, the four friends descend upon him. This supernatural fantasy-fiction puts Topper in situations that are compromising, dangerous and altogether amusing. Smith is best known for his Topper series, which sold millions of copies in the 1930s. This story was adapted for TV by Norman Z McLeod, with Constance Bennett, Roland Young and Billie Burke, and received two Oscar nominations. KS

Tobias Smollett: The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753)

The darkest of Smollett’s novels, with a protagonist chosen “from the purlieus of treachery and fraud”. With charm and swagger, the selfstyled Count cuts a swathe through European high society. Gifted at “gaining upon the human heart”, he ruthlessly analyses others’ (particularly women’s) vanities. Indeed, he becomes a kind of satirist, conversing knowingly about art or international politics or Newtonian science in London salons. In Smollett’s representation, the English nobility are too weak-minded to see that he is a mere sharper. After many triumphs and reverses, he renounces evil and goes to live “a sober and penitent life” in a northern county. John Mullan

Tobias Smollett: The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748)

Smollett’s first novel turns much of his own life — the search for patronage, his terrifying experiences as a naval surgeon — into an innocent’s progress through eighteenth-century Europe. He is generous and intelligent, but he relishes a fight. Roderick tells his own rollicking story, which includes being press-ganged, kidnapped by smugglers, and recruited into the French army. Like many heroes of picaresque fiction, he suffers a spell in prison. Smollett crowds into the novel representatives of every social group he can think of (Cringer the MP, Vulture the bailiff, Strutwell the aristocrat, Bellower the actor, and so on) — a rich cast of satirical types. JM

Tobias Smollett: The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751)

The title should tell you what to expect. Smollett’s mischiefmaking hero wanders the world and gets into scrapes. Young Peregrine has a predilection for practical jokes (the violent pranks of English boarding school fiction have their origins here). This persists into adult life, and he punishes those he disapproves of with falling chamber pots and worse. He starts with plenty of cash and tours Europe, witnessing the ludicrous vices of foreigner but becoming something of a rake himself. Booze, sex and misanthropy lay him low, Smollett’s comedy becoming too gloomy for laughs, but faithful servants and the love of a good woman redeem him in the end. JM

Tobias Smollett: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771)

Written in illness and Italian exile, the last of Smollett’s novels is a brilliant anatomy of British follies. Written in letters, it takes us in a party of genteel tourists around Britain, safeguarded by the resourceful servant Humphry. Their accounts of what they see are often mutually contradictory. Smollett’s representative seems to be the irascible (but secretly kind) squire, Matthew Bramble, whose missives sounding off about the evils of modern civilisation are wonderfully splenetic. London appals him, but Bath, with its nouveaux riches hypochondriacs and noxious waters, drives him to vividly expressive horror. You can almost smell what he smells. JM

Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759)

It was penned by a middleaged eighteenth-century clergyman living in provincial obscurity, yet this is as wild and witty and formally audacious as any novel in the language. Tristram starts trying to tell the story of his own life with the moment of his conception, an episode of coitus interruptus that is the most extraordinary opening of any English novel. Then he finds himself having to go backwards in time, trying to explain who he is by telling us about the Shandy family, a cast of high-quality eccentrics. His narrative includes diagrams and typographic jokes, black pages and blank pages, every comic resource of print. JM

Mike Stocks: White Man Falling (2006)

Former sub-Inspector RM Swaminathan — known to everybody as Swami — is a suicidal paralytic, confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke while beating a police suspect. When the novel’s titular white man jumps from the window of a South Indian hotel, before dying at Swami’s feet, the ex-policeman is drawn into a theatre of the absurd in which he cannot physically perform. Stocks’s rollicking debut novel, published in 2006, can be seen to capitalise fully on the contemporary trend for comedy of the blackest kind. Deliberately using provocative themes as key targets of humour, White Man Falling is a skilful blend of farce and satire. Charlotte Stretch

RS Surtees: Handley Cross (1843)

The most hilarious of the novels about the Pickwick of fox-hunting, Jorrocks, immortalised by Surtees’s pen and the illustrations of John Leech. The spa town of Handley Cross resolves to gentrify itself under the leadership of Captain Miserrimus Doleful, who recruits an out-of-towner as the master of their hunt. Their new MFH, Jorrocks, turns out to be a 20-stone retired greengrocer and an incorrigibly vulgar cockney. He takes up his post at Diana Lodge. Hilarious hunting adventures ensue, many centred around the maladroit James Pigg. At one low point, Jorrocks is incarcerated in Hoxton asylum, as a hunting lunatic. All ends serenely, and the gross greengrocer cantered on for a number of sequels. John Sutherland

Jonathan Swift: A Tale of a Tub (1704)

“God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book,” commented the older Swift on this effusion of his youthful satirical fancy. A parody of learned wit, its allegorical narrative of three brothers who represent the different types of Christian belief almost disappears under Swift’s prefaces and digressions and mock-annotations. Its narrator is a modern hack, puffed up with enlightenment overconfidence, who claims to have here “dissected the Carcass of Humane Nature”. Believing in mechanical explanations of everything, he discovers the ignoble origins of our spiritual aspirations, shrouded in “Vapours ascending from the lower Faculties”. JM

Booth Tarkington: Penrod (1914)

Penrod Schofield is an eleven year-old schoolboy, growing up in the American midwest with friends Sam Williams and Maurice Levy. Typically boyish adventures — from copied homework assignments to the infamous Great Tar Fight — may have secured Penrod a reputation as “the Worst Boy in Town”, but they have also endeared him to generations of readers. For many, Tarkington’s sketches completely reinvented a strand of juvenile fiction that had previously peaked with Huckleberry Finn. As Princeton professor Dean West put it, upon handing the Pulitzer-prizewinning author his second honorary degree in 1918, “Tarkington rediscovered the American boy and wrote the idyll of his life.” CS

WM Thackeray: The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)

This is the author’s least favourite Thackeray novel, although following the 1975 Kubrick movie readers rate it almost as highly as Vanity Fair. Redmond Barry is an Irish bully. At 15 he fights a duel and, tricked into thinking he has killed his man, takes flight and serves as an infantryman in Frederick the Great’s wars. Later, he turns professional gambler. By chicanery he marries a rich widow and sets himself up as a nobleman. Eventually, his outrages catch up with him. He ends a broken man in debtors’ prison. The story is told, guilelessly, by an unregenerate Barry. Thackeray came to think the work too “savage” and did everything in his lifetime to keep it out of print. JS

Angela Thirkell: Before Lunch (1939)

Town planning might seem an unlikely target for comedy, but there is no shortage of wit and charm in this tale of a small village threatened by the arrival of a teashop. While urban developments are being fought, happily married Catherine Middleton tries to unravel the tangled love affairs and broken engagements that connect her friends. Published in 1939, Thirkell’s irresistible comedy of manners is the most well-known of her Barsetshire series – set in the same fictional cathedral town as Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles, and adopting a similarly affectionate satirical voice. CS

Leslie Thomas: Tropic of Ruislip (1974)

Local news reporter Andrew Maiby’s life of drab frustration and increasing fear of middle age is enlivened when he has an affair with a girl from — heavens! — the nearby council estate. Thomas’s wry 1974 study in suburbia paints a snobbish society dominated by inertia and golf clubs, in which houses are named Khartoum or High Sierra and hamsters make the news. Thomas treats his well-drawn characters with affection as well as humour, making this a book to be enjoyed, not sniggered through. JS

John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)

Toole never saw his only book published: he killed himself in 1969. But thanks to the persistence of his mother, and champions including Walker Percy, the book was picked up and became a cult classic. Its hero, Ignatius J Reilly, is brilliantly repulsive — from his gaseous emissions to his habit of raging against the universal offensiveness of modern culture. His efforts to get a job result in hilarious encounters with various deep south oddballs. If Comic Book Store Guy from the Simpsons ever moved to New Orleans, this would be his story. Carrie O’Grady

Anthony Trollope: Barchester Towers (1857)

The second, and most cheerful, instalment of the massive Barsetshire series, centred on the cathedral of the title. The novel opens with one of his finest scenes: the traditionalist Archdeacon Grantly is by the deathbed of his father, the bishop. If the old man dies before the current government falls, the archdeacon will succeed. If not, a reformer will come in. The old bishop lingers, and the new-broom Bishop Proudie and the odious chaplain, Obadiah Slope, shake the cathedral close to its foundation. Battle ensues. One of the prizes is Eleanor Bold, previously encountered in The Warden, now coveted by Slope. All turns out well and the way is opened for three more Barsetshire episodes before the terminally gloomy Last Chronicle of Barset. Barchester Towers is many readers’ favourite Trollope of the 47 he offered the reading public. JS

Kilgore Trout: Venus on the Half-Shell (1974)

Kilgore Trout is actually a figment of Kurt Vonnegut’s imagination: an unsuccessful sci-fi writer who stars in several of his novels. The real author of this playful parody is Philip José Farmer, who took Trout’s questions about why we are created “only to suffer and die” and sent an astronaut around the universe to try and find an answer. The result is a funny and inventive piece of fan fiction that mimics Vonnegut’s style without ever cheapening it. Vonnegut himself later grumbled about the book, but it remains an affectionate and worthy tribute. Sam Jordison

Mark Twain: The Mysterious Stranger (1916)

Although he spent years working on this bitter social commentary, Mark Twain died before he could bring it to publication. His literary executor released a version in 1916, which academics declared a hodge-podge — but while there may be controversy surrounding the text, there’s no doubting the brilliance of Twain’s writing. The inventive chaos wreaked by an amoral teenage angel called Satan in a medieval Austrian village is simply hilarious — even if it also demonstrates the unhappy moral: “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.” SJ

John Updike: The Witches of Eastwick (1984)

The men are weak and the women malicious in John Updike’s vision of Rhode Island life. His magic-using divorcees use their powers for mischief and seduction, until the mysterious Darryl Van Horne arrives, bringing dark powers of his own and spreading gossip about the town and jealousy among the witches. This bestseller works as social satire and a tale of the unexpected, physicality, skulduggery and the neatly imaged practicalities of sorcery joining to create a splendidly pungent read. JS

Evelyn Waugh: Decline and Fall (1928)

Waugh’s bleak, amoral first novel is a young man’s book, best read by young men (and perhaps the odd woman). “I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all,” says Mr Prendergast, a former vicar whose doubts have led him to leave the church and who is now teaching at the appalling Llanabba Castle school in Wales. Paul Pennyfeather, another would-be theologian, is sent down from Oxford for indecent behaviour, gets a job at Llanabba, falls in love with the mother of one of the boys, enters glittering London society, becomes involved in the trafficking of prostitutes and ends up in prison, where he once more encounters his fellow masters from Llanabba. Prison is marginally the less oppressive of the two institutions. The blackest of black comedies. Stephen Moss

Evelyn Waugh: Vile Bodies (1930)

Waugh’s second novel was nearly called Bright Young Things, the title that Stephen Fry’s film version adopted in 2003. We’re in the world of 1920s brittle wit and decadence. (On board ship: “‘It’s just exactly like being inside a cocktail shaker,’ said Miles Malpractice. ‘Darling your face — eau de nil.'”) Amid the frocks, the glitter, the noise and the champagne, Adam Fenwick-Symes courts Nina. Parties abound: “Masked parties, savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Russian parties, circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood. . .” But as war looms, the novel’s tone becomes darker. Charlotte Higgins

Evelyn Waugh: Black Mischief (1932)

Waugh’s third novel is a sharp satire on the nonsenses of intertwined African and western politics. His hero, Basil Seal, a feckless member of the London smart set, is called upon to assist his fellow Oxford graduate, the new emperor of the African state of Azania, to modernise the nation. Emperor Seth decides to abolish a number of outmoded institutions, including the death penalty, infant mortality, marriage, mortgages and emigration, and requires Seal to carry out his policies. Seal’s finest hour (though he does manage to eat his mistress at a cannibal feast) is the creation of a birth control pageant — “through sterility to culture”! CH

Evelyn Waugh: Scoop (1938)

Although Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of Morning gives it a good run for its money, this is, for many, the Fleet Street satire. A misunderstanding between newspaper magnate Lord Copper (modelled on Lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook) and his hapless foreign editor Salter (“Up to a point, Lord Copper”) means that William Boot, the mild nature columnist, is sent to Ishmaelia instead of the swashbuckling novelist John Boot. The reluctant war correspondent arrives with two tonnes of luggage, including canoe and cleft sticks, and is promptly embroiled in the backstabbing, fact-embroidering machinations of the press pack. Waugh covered (and approved of) Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia for the Daily Mail. His mockery of journalism, at least, contains just the right sting of truth. Aida Edemariam

Evelyn Waugh: The Loved One (1948)

The funniest novel ever written about the American way of death. The novelist went to Hollywood with a view to the studios buying one of his works. The deal went sour, but not as sour as Waugh’s reaction to the new-age cemetery, Forest Lawn. The Loved One (funeral trade euphemism for “corpse”) centres on a young English poet, Dennis Barlow. Let go from Megalopolitan, he has found work at an animal funeral parlour, the Happier Hunting Ground. The death of his uncle leads to dealings upmarket with Whispering Glades (ie Forest Lawn). When the young corpse beautician who loves him kills herself, Dennis ruthlessly comes out on top. Southern California, Waugh believed, had solved all the problems of life except death. The Catholic church had rather better answers. JS

Fay Weldon: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983)

Rather than give in to “useless bleating” when her accountant husband leaves her for another woman, Weldon’s suburban she-devil Ruth Patchett decides to get revenge. She “accidentally” burns down his house (after suffocating the family guinea pig), ruins her wayward man by means of an ingenious fraud, and sets about destroying his new lover. There’s real delight to be taken in the details of her various triumphs, but this is more than an emasculating fantasy. Weldon’s study of envy and inequality is as sharp as the surgeon’s knife Ruth uses to achieve her aims. SJ

HG Wells: Tono Bungay (1909)

Satire on the crass commercialism of 20th-century advertising. George Ponderovo is apprenticed to his Uncle Edward, a chemist. Between them, they concoct “Tono Bungay” — a quack medicine, which promises “The Secret of Vigour”. It makes them rich. George goes on to become an internationally renowned scientist. Uncle Edward is ruined when Tono Bungay is exposed as snake-oil. The novel ends with George, cruising down the Thames in his motor boat “X2”, with the sombre thought: “We are all things that make and pass, striving upon a hidden mission, out to the open sea.” JS

Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle: Molesworth (2000)

It is an enduring mystery that a book about a grubby boy at prep school (the authentically dreadful St Custard’s) in the 1950s should still be quite so funny. And yet, as any “fule kno”, Nigel Molesworth’s orthographical idiosyncrasies, sturdy anti-authoritarianism and worm’s eye view of the world are ever captivating. This collection of works includes Down with Skool (1953), How to be Topp (1954), Whizz for Atomms (1956) and Back in the Jug Agane (1959). Unmissable sections include “The Private Life of a Gerund”, “Boo to Sir or Are Masters Nesessessary” and “The Revolt of the Prunes”. CH

Nigel Williams: The Wimbledon Poisoner (1990)

The first of a trilogy that also includes They Came from SW19 (1992) and East of Wimbledon (1993), Williams’s strangely lovable suburban protagonists may be determined to “think about nice things” but have a habit of taking the reader to some very dark places. Williams displays impressive — not to mention unique — comic talent in producing a genuinely funny trilogy about a man who tries to murder his wife, a teenager grieving for his dead father, and the cultural tensions surrounding London’s Islamic communities. The humour is more rib-kicking than tickling, but that just adds to the pleasure of these agreeably tasteless creations. SJ

Angus Wilson: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956)

Poor Wilson is now largely forgotten and more or less out of print. There is a (slightly) expensive edition of this in the Faber Finds series, or you can seek out a secondhand copy, of which there are many, because in the 1960s Wilson was a power in the land. Wilsonites consider this teeming satirical novel — so densely peopled it includes a helpful dramatis personae at the front — to be his best. It centres on Gerald Middleton, an ageing, ineffectual professor of medieval history who considers his life a failure, has made a loveless marriage, and, worst of all, comes to realise that early in his life he was involved in an archaeological dig — the “Melpham excavation”, when a phallic figure was found in the tomb of a revered 7th-century missionary — which was the greatest historical hoax of the age. Belatedly, he decides to try to unearth the truth, even though it means wrecking the cosy pretence that has governed the rest of his life. The delightful title comes from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. SM

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  1. April 15, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    This is very up-to-date info. I think I’ll share it on Facebook.

  2. May 27, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    If only more people could hear this..

  3. May 29, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Very awesome read. Honestly..

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