In last week's Spectator, the journalist and author Marcus Berkmann, selecting his books of the year, observed that "every compulsive reader is on a quest", and confided that his was for "the perfect comic novel".
This, wrote Berkmann, explained why he had about 80 PG Wodehouse books on his shelves, "a good quarter of which must be as near perfection as makes no difference".
This caught my eye. I published a life of Wodehouse in 2004, for which I read some 100 Wodehouse titles, including many collections of short stories. Some of his novels (I wouldn't estimate it as high as 20) are indeed close to perfection. Heavy Weather, The Code of the Woosters, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Hot Water and Thank You, Jeeves are all touched with greatness.
Wodehouse, a comic master dedicated to making his readers laugh, is a special case. Still, the English tradition has many comic novels, and Berkmann's provocative little paragraph got me thinking. Setting PGW to one side, which titles would I include in a top 10 of English literary comedy? A note to international readers: this has to be a strictly English catalogue. The American comic tradition is quite different. Not better or worse – just different. For the purposes of this discussion, then, I exclude Twain, and – because he is a special case – Wodehouse. So here's my list, a pre-Christmas cracker, in chronological order:
Lawrence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy
Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey
Thomas Love Peacock: Headlong Hall
Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers
RL Stevenson: The Wrong Box
Jerome K Jerome: Three Men in a Boat
Evelyn Waugh: Decline and Fall
Graham Greene: Travels with My Aunt
Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim
Hanif Kureishi: The Buddha of Suburbia
I'd also make a plea to include the Stories of Saki (HH Munro), which are small masterpieces of satire. The great comic writers omitted from this list are mainly playwrights: notably, Shakespeare, Jonson, Congreve, Sheridan and Wilde. If this list was international (and American), it would exclude half these names, and it might include more women. For some reason, very few women writers from the past appear to have been interested in comedy.
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