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From the tragic to the lighthearted, I like most kinds of literature. I like the great books (especially Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Dickens, Eliot, and Conrad). I like a good action novel (the late-great Vince Flynn, but also Lee Child and Daniel Silva). I really love great historical fiction (Hilary Mantel, Patrick O’Brian, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle). I love the great epic poems (Homer, Virgil, and Dante), and have forced myself to at least appreciate some modern poets (Auden, Yeats, Stevens, and Billy Collins).
I like old stuff (Don Quixote, the Canterbury Tales, and pretty much anything by Shakespeare). I’ve become a real fan of sci-fi/fantasy (LOTR, of course, but also Gene Wolfe, Robert Heinlein — though Stranger in a Strange Land is a weird book — and Roger Zelazny). OK, I hate romance novels., and I must say that I’ve never embraced the group that Joseph Epstein calls the “boy novelists” (Mailer, Roth, Updike).
But a special category for me is the great comic novel or story. I grew up with O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief” and Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Penrod and Sam. All of Twain’s books have some hilarious scenes. As I became an adult, I went through a Kurt Vonnegut phase (though I can’t read his books now). Catch-22, which I recently reread, still stands up pretty well in the “black humor” category. Confederacy of Dunces was funny, but not as funny as I’d been led to believe.
Which brings me to my point: what are the Ricochetti’s favorite comic novels or stories?
I’ll throw out a few of my favorites:
August Carp, Esq, by Himself (actually written by Henry Bashford): It presents itself as the autobiography of one Augustus Carp, the world’s most clueless hypocrite. He pretends to be religious but is only sanctimonious. He’s a man who believes the reader is panting to hear about everything that ever happened to him. Of a nasty little incident in his early life, he writes: “But the fact remains that for several weeks I suffered from indigestion in two main directions.” He’s a misogynist and a hypochondriac. Above all things, he’s hilariously hypocritical. Truly one of the funniest books ever written.
Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson: War breaks out when Lucia moves to Tilling, a small town on the south coast of England, whose previous arbiter of all things social is the redoubtable Miss Mapp. Lucia immediately seeks supremacy. War ensues. The war is comparable to academic squabbles, because the fighting is so vicious but so little is at stake. Early in the battle, Miss Mapp sizes up the political landscape: “Miss Mapp, though there was no question about her being the social queen of Tilling, sometimes felt that there were ugly Bolshevistic symptoms in the air . . . .” Good from start to finish.
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome: The story of a boat trip by three friends (and one dog) on the Thames. This is truly a joyous, and very funny, book. This little exerpt makes clear that all fishermen lie, but only the very best make it an art form: “Some people are under the impression that all that is required to make a good fisherman is the ability to tell lies easily and without blushing; but this is a mistake. Mere bald fabrication is useless; the veriest tyro can manage that. It is in the circumstantial touches of probability, the general air of scrupulous—almost of pedantic—veracity, that the experienced angler is seen.” And, in the midst of all the humor, Jerome manages to throw in little moral fables. Here’s one that teaches us much about ambition and enduring to the end:
“I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life. He is not for straining himself to pass all the other boats. If another boat overtakes him and passes him it does not annoy him—all those that are going his way. This would trouble and irritate some people; the sublime equanimity of the hired boatman under the ordeal affords us a beautiful lesson against ambition and uppishness.”
One of thing I’ve noticed about great comic novels is that I like to reread them often, even when I know the jokes are coming. They’re good for the soul.
So, Ricochetti, tell us about your favorite comic novels and stories.Published in