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The Comic Novel

by Andrew Corbin, Acquisitions and Reference Librarian

This article originally appeared in the "Off the Shelf: A Reader's Review" column in the Library's Summer 2010 Features Newsletter.

Serious Readers, some would have us believe, only read Serious Books. This is, of course, utter nonsense, and there is no better time than the summer, with its promise of relaxation and rejuvenation, to explore the guilt-free pleasures of that often slighted literary form, the comic novel. What follows is an incomplete introduction to some of literature's frothiest, funniest and most entertaining writings.

British Classics

When it comes to razor sharp comedies, nobody holds a candle to the British. A particular favorite of many Library members, including W.H. Auden, is E.F. Benson (1867-1940), whose Mapp and Lucia series about two women battling for social supremacy over their small village have such a rabid cult following that many fans refer to themselves as Luciaphiles. Once readers have devoured the Mapp and Lucia novels (which begin with Queen Lucia), they should investigate Benson's lesser-known delights Paying Guests and Secret Lives. Another famous fan of E.F. Benson was Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), herself the author of several splendid comic gems including The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Not-so-loosely based on her family, this pair of novels serves up a cast of characters as eccentric as anything in English fiction. If Mitford\'s reputation were based solely on these two novels, her place in the pantheon of greats would be assured, but she did write several other highly amusing books worth reading, including Highland Fling and The Blessing. Arguably the crown jewel of British comic novels is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1922-1995). Set at an unnamed provincial English university, Lucky Jim recounts the exploits of one Jim Dixon, an unenthusiastic professor of medieval history seemingly hell-bent on making a complete mess of each and every aspect of his life, from his disastrous love affairs to his equally disastrous academic career. Amis went on to write several more comic novels, some funnier than others, but none ever quite matched the brilliance of Lucky Jim. The two that come closest are That Uncertain Feeling and Take a Girl Like You.

Further Reading:

American Classics

One of the most iconic creations of American comic writing is Anita Loos's (1888-1981) deathless Lorelei Lee, the far-from-dumb Roaring Twenties blonde bombshell of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, who gold-digs her way around the world, setting down her experiences (visiting the "Eyefull Tower" or meeting "Dr. Froyd") in a diary as artless as it is hilarious. Sadly, over the years Lorelei Lee has been divorced from her literary roots and become associated in the minds of most with Marilyn Monroe's brilliant portrayal of her in the 1953 film. Similarly, the original novel Auntie Mame, written by Patrick Dennis (1921-1976), has largely been forgotten in favor of the classic film starring Rosalind Russell. This is a dire mistake, as Dennis's Auntie Mame is a true American comic classic, with a more risque sense of humor than the film and far less sentimentality. Dennis' other masterpiece is unquestionably Little Me, the divinely absurd memoirs of a made-up actress named Belle Poitrine. As a spoof of celebrity culture Little Me has no equal, in part because of the 150 photographs that accompany the text depicting various scenes from the ever so slightly sordid career of Miss Poitrine. She is the only actress in the world either dumb enough, or cunning enough, to turn Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter into a movie musical about a varsity football player and a cheerleader. The essence of camp humor, it really must be seen to be believed.

Dawn Powell (1896-1965) is a novelist whose works languished in obscurity until the 1990s, when she was rediscovered by a whole new audience who thrilled to her witty and unsentimental satires of New York life. Though she had perhaps more in common with Evelyn Waugh than with Anita Loos or Patrick Dennis, Powell's sensibility was unquestionably American; at her best, she was a sort of literary Preston Sturgis, deftly balancing screwball comedy with keen social observation. Readers new to Powell should begin with A Time to Be Born, featuring the brilliantly conceived romance novelist-cum-arch-villainess Amanda Evans Keeler, or Angels on Toast, a satire of bohemian culture and the publishing industry in post-World War II New York.

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Contemporary Humorists

For the last half century, David Lodge (b. 1935) has been writing comic novels that rank among the very best his native England has produced. His particular forte is the academic comedy, with Nice Work, about a feminist professor and a factory manager who are forced to shadow each other at work as part of a government program, and Small World, a scathing sendup of academic conferences and all of the attendant shenanigans, being excellent introductions to Lodge's consistently brilliant body of work.

Another contemporary English voice that bears comparison with the classics is that of Helen Fielding (b. 1958), whose Bridget Jones's Diary introduced readers to one of literature's most endearingly hapless heroines. Single, on the wrong side of 30, and something of a disaster at work, Bridget emerged fully formed as a sort of modern Everywoman for the 1990s. Her anxieties, frustrations, and hopes suddenly seemed to sum up the zeitgeist - so much so that she spawned an entire genre, the somewhat derisively named "Chick Lit." With her sharp wit and healthy appreciation of life's many little ironies, Bridget is a character for the ages.

Novelist, playwright, screenwriter, diarist, critic, and monologist Alan Bennet (b. 1934) has become, for better or worse, an English National Treasure - "better," because he deserves it; "worse," because it makes him sound fussy and genteel, which he resolutely is not. He is, however, a master at exploring a particular brand of English comedy, the bittersweet kind in which melancholy haunts every laugh. Those going on a long car trip this summer would do well to bring along the audio version of Bennett's Talking Heads, a collection of 12 monologues originally written for radio and here performed by the likes of Patricia Routledge, Anna Massey, Thora Hird, and Bennett himself. His deceptively simple novella An Uncommon Reader, about Queen Elizabeth II's headlong plunge into the world of reading and the political anxiety that ensues, would also make terrific vacation reading.

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