Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 29 August 2015
What’s the funniest novel ever?
I occasionally think of what are the funniest books ever written and whether my views are unusual. Looking at lists on the Net, some books come up again and again, even some weird ones.
David Kelly in The New York Times 2008 says:
All of which raises the question: what’s the funniest novel ever? There’s a difference, of course, between the greatest comic novel (“Don Quixote”? “Tristram Shandy”? “Ulysses”?) and the novel you find the funniest. “Da Ali G Show” certainly isn’t the best TV comedy ever, but no program makes me laugh harder. Likewise, “A Confederacy of Dunces” may not be great literature, but Ignatius J. Reilly cracks me up.
Here are some nominees from editors at the Book Review: “Lucky Jim” (which got the most votes), David Lodge’s “Small World,” “The Code of the Woosters,” “Leave It to Psmith,” “Bech: A Book,” “Sabbath’s Theater,” Carl Hiaasen’s novels, Jim Harrison’s early novels (“Warlock,” “A Good Day to Die”), Richard Russo’s “Straight Man,” Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys,” “Catch-22″ and “Candy.” Waugh, Gogol and John Mortimer received votes, too, and one colleague who is usually not given to laughing out loud while reading said, “‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ both made my stomach hurt.”
I think Kelly’s distinction between the great comic novel and what makes you laugh out loud is important. One weird one that came up frequently in others’ lists was Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. I did laugh out loud several times when I read Catch 22 for the first time, but it is hardly a comic novel, as the humour is used as a counterpoint to the grim realities of the Second World War.
Nevertheless, I have my own weird ones. For example, I think The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky are very funny novels.
Let’s get onto the laugh out loud novels. The humour must be sustained throughout. There are several contentious choices here too, but I’ll stick to the mainstream ones that I like, with one exception. The list is:
Three men in a boat by Jerome K Jerome, 1889.
PG Wodehouse (any Jeeves and Bertie Wooster book) 1915 to 1974.
Evelyn Waugh (several) 1928 to 1950s
1066 and all that by WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, 1930.
Cold comfort farm by Stella Gibbons, 1932.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams, 1979 (originally a BBC radio comedy, 1978).
A Confederacy of dunces by John Kennedy Toole, 1980.
Terry Pratchett (several of his discworld series) 1983 to 2015.
Three men in a boat is a bit like Citizen Kane the 1941 movie, it’s hard to get past. But it thoroughly deserves its reputation. Harris’s description, for example, of his uncle Podger trying to hang a picture has reduced me to tears of laughter on several occasions.
Cold comfort farm is a comic masterpiece but one that makes you laugh out loud throughout. Jeeves and Bertie Wooster are universally popular. Evelyn Waugh has written wonderful novels in several genres including the first comic genre above, but for laugh out loud he has given us Vile bodies 1930, Black mischief 1932 and Scoop 1938.
I find Black Mischief the most laugh out loud funny, though it is probably a lesser novel than the other two. 1066 and all that I feel is more a historical parody than a laugh out loud book, but it has some of both.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the galaxy surprised me when I saw it on lists, I don’t know why, because it certainly is a laugh out loud book, perhaps I hold it in too much awe. The late Terry Pratchett had a weird and wonderful sense of humour and certainly several of his discworld series are laugh out loud books.
Some swear by A Confederacy of Dunces, but I’ve tried and could never get into it.
The Evolution Man
The Evolution Man Roy Lewis 1963 is a very special and not so widely known book that does belong on the list of the funniest books ever. I borrowed it again recently from Lesley, a trusted friend, who is the repository of several books I don’t own but re-read from time to time. Neglected books below also think it should be more widely known and I have taken the review of the book by Terry Pratchett from them.
The Evolution Man is similar to another neglected book Before Adam by Jack London 1907 (also well-worth reading) but, apart from the resemblance of the story, its vital telling and a focus on evolution, they are completely different. I don’t want to go too much into the story of The Evolution Man because that would spoil it.
The narrator is Ernest but the story is about his father Edward. They are a cave family from somewhere in the mid-Pleistocene and Edward is perhaps the ‘greatest cave man of the era’ and is very much in favour of promoting his family, but more importantly the evolution of the species, and he worries that he doesn’t have enough time. It is a desperate race. Indeed, he is very concerned about the possibility that they might slip back. He does everything he can to promote a larger brain, including a focus on developing new technology.
Part of the book’s laughter potential comes from the tension between the prehistoric setting and the modernity of the intellectual context, of the modern knowledge and understanding of evolution, with the everyday practicality of survival in the stone age.
In the Neglected books commentary, the editor makes the point that, unlike many writers on the prehistoric who attempt to adopt a caveman point of view, Lewis eschews this and gives Edward an understanding of the modern terminology, together with the names. The editor states: ‘The fact that it turned out to be purest Oxbridge English was simply a lucky accident.’
Neglected books gives several small excerpts from the book and one larger one, which I recommend you read. I’ll just give a few to add to this from early in the book.
The first paragraph
When the winds blew strongly from the North, bringing an icy reminder that the great ice-cap was still advancing, we used to pile all our stores of brushwood and broken trees in front of the cave, make a really roaring fire and tell ourselves that however far south it came this time, even in Africa, we could meet it and beat it.
Ernest tells us that the mammoths and elephants Elephas antiquus were good at providing firewood.
The mammoths who reckoned that they were just about perfect in those days, only tore up trees when they were angry or showing off to the females. In the mating season we had only to follow the herds to collect firewood, but at other times a well-aimed stone behind the ear of a browsing mammoth would work wonders, and maybe set you up in kindling for a month.
Uncle Vanya was a counterpoint to Ernest’s father Edward. Uncle Vanya doesn’t believe they should have ever come down from the trees and he views Edward’s advances as dangerous. He is very similar in many ways to the atavistic apeman or throwback in Before Adam by Jack London.
[When] the dank rain made one’s joints creak and ache, Uncle Vanya would come and visit us. During a lull in the noise of the jungle traffic you would hear him coming, with a swish-swish through the tree-tops, punctuated by an occasional ominous crack of an overburdened branch, and a muffled oath, which became a scream of uninhibited rage when he actually fell.
When the story begins, however, they don’t have fire or caves and huddle cold in precarious places at the mercy of the big predators. And when they do have fire, they don’t have cooking. Food and how to get it is important to them. They came down from the trees to get meat, but getting meat isn’t so easy.
…chasing meat on four legs when you are trying to go about on two is a mug’s game; and we were forced to stand up in order to see over the top of the savannah grass.
Leading to an early catch 22:
With a horde, you can surround and run down game; but to keep a horde together needs a large and regular food supply. This is the oldest of vicious circles in economics: to make any sort of bag you need a team of hunters; but to feed the team you must be sure of a regular bag.
Then there was eating:
I doubt if many people remember today [he means post-cooking] what agonies of indigestion we endured in those early times; or indeed how many succumbed to it. Tempers were permanently soured by gastric disturbances; and the lowering sullen grimace of the subhuman pioneers of primordial days had far less to do with their moroseness or savagery than the condition of their stomach linings. The sunniest disposition is apt to be undermined by chronic colitis.
He continues on the theme a page later:
It must be remembered that in becoming meat-eaters we had to chew, and therefore to taste, all this rich, unsuitable food. The carnivores — the great cats, the wolves and dogs, the crocodiles — merely tore their meat into pieces and swallowed it, careless of whether it was shoulder, rump steak, liver or tripes. We could not bolt our food. ‘Chew one hundred times before you swallow’, another maxim of childhood, was based on the certainty that severe belly-ache would follow if it were ignored. However nasty the gobbet, in primeval times it had to be well explored by mouth and palate. Hunger was our only sauce; but that we had in plenty.
Roy Lewis himself was quite an unusual man and had an unusual career. He obtained his BA at King’s College Oxford in 1934 and went on to study at the London School of Economics. He began his career as an economist but then edited journals and newsletters and became more interested in journalism but of a specialist and economic nature. The books that Lewis wrote or edited, often jointly were non-fiction.
He is best known for his novel first published in 1960 as What we did to father Hutchinson. Published by Penguin books as The Evolution Man in November 1963. The cover shows Pablo Picasso’s design for the front cover of the inaugural issue of the art journal, Minotaure, in June 1933.
Despite being a laugh aloud book, The Evolution Man as all good books do is tightly constructed and has a slightly deeper edge to it as novelist David Edelman says:
While Roy Lewis’s The Evolution Man is filled with Cro-Magnon humor, the book has much more simmering in its prehistoric pot than gags about stone tablet typewriters. Beneath its mammoth-skin covering, the book wrestles with the very idea of technology and how far humanity should take it, from the point of view of a culture where turning back to all fours was a tangible possibility.
What more can one say? Further information is provided below. I encourage you to read this wonderful book.
Key words: Roy Lewis, The Evolution Man, stone age, funniest books ever written, Three men in a boat, Jerome K Jerome, PG Wodehouse, 1066 and all that, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, Cold comfort farm, Stella Gibbons, Evelyn Waugh, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the galaxy, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of dunces, Vile bodies, Black mischief, Scoop, Before Adam, Jack London, The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad, Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The quotation is from David Kelly in The New York Times 15 September 2008 What’s the funniest novel ever? The whole article is worth reading.
The Evolution Man and excerpts
The Neglected books article on The Evolution Man dovetails nicely with the present article and should be consulted.
Jack London Before Adam 1907 is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.
Terry Pratchett Review
Terry Pratchett on The Evolution Man, from Close Encounters: Eminent writers, editors and critics choose some favorite works of fantasy and science fiction The Washington Post, Sunday, 7 April 2002:
I first read The Evolution Man by Roy Lewis (in and out of print all the time — a Web search is advised!) in 1960. It contains no starships, no robots, no computers, none of the things that some mainstream critics think sf is about — but it is the hardest of hard-core science fiction, the very essence. It’s also the funniest book I have ever read, and it showed me what could be done. It concerns a few hectic years in the life of a family of Pleistocene humanoids. They’ve learned to walk upright and now they’re ready for the big stuff — fire, cookery, music, arts and the remarkable discovery that you shouldn’t mate with your sister. Because it’s too easy, says Father, the visionary horde leader. You can’t get a head of water without damming the stream. In order to progress humanity must create inhibitions, frustrations and complexes, and drive itself out of an animal Eden. To rise, we must screw ourselves up. Nonsense, says his apelike brother Uncle Vanya. Get back to the trees, it’ll all end in tears! And so the debate rages under the prehistoric sky until, one day, someone invents the bow and arrow. . . . And we know what happened next. The debate continues. But never has it been put so well as in this insightful book.
Roy Lewis‘s biography on Wikepedia is interesting in its own right.
The David Edelman quote comes from his book review, but as there are potential spoilers involved, I only give a link to his site for those who must go further.