Good Reading : July 2006
18 goodreading ı JULY 2006 Byron was once at a church service when the preacher leaned forward from the pulpit and, f ixing his congregation with an unforgiving eye, pronounced: ‘No hopes for them as laughs.’ Most of us would happily take a different view. A book without laughter can be hard work. We don’t perhaps read Proust entirely for the laughs, though they are good laughs; fewer gig- gles in Tolstoy, and by page 739 of The Brothers Karamazov we long for Ivan to ask Katerina whether she’s heard the one about the Russian, the Pole and the Finn. Some of the best humorous writing is by authors one wouldn’t really call humorists: the most sublimely funny scene in English literature is in Chapter 19 of Pride and Prejudice, in which the appalling Mr Collins proposes marriage to Elizabeth Bennet. Well, yes, only my opinion, and some people may not agree, just as some people don’t f ind Mr Wegg funny; but if you don’t, there are other pleasures in Pride and Prejudice or Our Mutual Friend. Well over 100 years after its publication, Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat remains for many people their idea of ‘a funny book’, and there must be few people for whom the famous scenes in which Harris tries to open the recalcitrant tin of pine- apple or sings a comic song don’t raise a chuckle. But Jerome wasn’t a humorist in the sense that he wrote nothing but humour; indeed even in Three Men there are passages of sheer sentimental sludge. Books which set out only to be funny are a different matter; they only succeed if their writers have a particular kind of genius. Of writers who write solely to raise a laugh, the master must be PG Wodehouse, almost literally incapable of writing a laughless line. There isn’t much point in commending Wodehouse to those who complain that his books are simply about silly English snobs inhab- iting a world of wealth and privilege. True. All one can say is that if he had taken it into his head to rewrite Das Kapital it would have become one of the funniest books of the century (and a distinct improvement on the original, if you ask me). Certainly, books in which every single sentence is a masterpiece of comedy writing can be a little wearing; beginners should start with the celestial Jeeves short stories and play themselves in. The American equivalent of Wodehouse is probably James Thurber, who I suspect is unfashionable these days. He was a sketch-writer rather than a storyteller, though his best pieces for The New Yorker have the quality of good short stories. Thurber’s women are as horrific as his dogs are delightful. And they always have the last word. There’s no denying that American humorists, at their best, are great. Damon Runyon, for instance, with his stories of life on and off Broadway in the 1930s, about guys and dolls who include Joey Uptown, Miss Missouri Martin and the Hi Hi Boys, Madame La Gimp and Harry the Horse. Runyon’s is a world as whole and unmistakable as Wodehouse’s; read how Izzy Cheesecake and Jo-Jo (‘who has jowls you can cut what a One of life’s most enjoyable feelings is laughing your head off at something you’re reading — the only drawback being embarrassment if you’re on the bus at the time. DEREK PARKER guides us through a selection of his favourite humorous books. See if you agree with his choice. hoot!