After writing about war in literature and enemies in literature the past two weeks, it’s time to lighten up. So this post will analyze Dostoyevsky’s use of smiley-face emoticons in Crime and Punishment.
Well, maybe not. But I do plan to discuss some of the funniest novels — ranging from satirical to just plain silly — that I’ve read. Then I’ll ask you to name your favorites!
Obviously, some novels are mostly comedic in content. But many serious, dramatic, poignant novels contain enough hilarious passages to be part of this post, too. Moby-Dick himself was in stitches when reading Herman Melville’s bedroom scene featuring Ishmael and Queequeg. Or perhaps I’m confusing that with Captain Ahab’s leg being in stitches after said whale took a bite…
Let’s start with Charles Dickens’ laugh-out-loud first novel: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which features the fabulously funny Sam Weller. Pickwick launched Dickens into a popularity stratosphere he never left — even as his wonderful, increasingly ambitious books were never quite that humorous again. Was Bleak House a jest-fest? Don’t think so.
Colette had a similar career arc, entering the novel-writing realm with the sidesplitting Claudine at School before moving on to weightier (yet still engaging) works. The title character in Colette’s late-career Gigi wouldn’t last a minute in a battle of witticisms with the rambunctious Claudine — and wouldn’t beat Claudine in mixed martial arts, either.
Speaking of first novels, the seriocomic Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has more laughs per square page than any of the six subsequent novels in J.K. Rowling’s series.
Also hilarious is Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, in which the “thing” that hits an incandescent bulb is not a light-dazzled moth…
Then there’s Jeeves in the Offing, or almost any other P.G. Wodehouse novel or story starring the brilliant British valet and his rather clueless “master” Bertie Wooster. Wodehouse could make a shopping list funny, though Amazon execs didn’t chuckle when the pre-Internet Jeeves declined to buy household supplies online.
In a very different milieu, novels don’t get much more amusing (or ribald) than Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre. Delightful “southern humor” can also be found in Charles Portis’ Norwood and The Dog of the South, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle novel and Sneaky Pie Brown mysteries, and Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Mixed with the laughs in those books are serious themes such as poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia. “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?” Those authors know.
Academia can also be a great source of humor and satire, as evidenced by novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and, to an extent, Adam Langer’s Ellington Boulevard. The first two books star professors (one beleaguered and the other basically a stalker), while Langer’s work has a disaffected graduate student as a secondary character. Duke Ellington Boulevard is another name for West 106th Street in Manhattan, a rapidly gentrifying borough with rents that are…hilarious.
Returning to older novels, we see Mark Twain mixing strong antiwar satire with goofy humor in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Henry Fielding even naming a character “Lady Booby” (for her personality) in his uproarious Joseph Andrews, and Miguel Cervantes being much funnier than one expects in Don Quixote. (By the way, Rocinante is Don Quixote’s horse, not an artificial sweetener.)
More hilarity? Valancy Stirling dramatically parts with her oppressively conventional mother and other relations in L.M. Montgomery’s moving/inspiring The Blue Castle, but the conversations the newly confident Valancy has with her family are funnier than the funniest sitcom. Italo Calvino is incredibly droll in his short-story-collection-as-novella Marcovaldo. John Steinbeck, so earnest in The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, will crack you up in Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday. And you don’t need an explanation from me about how delightful (albeit unsettling) are Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Given the Queen of Hearts’ predilection for offing heads, I’m grateful the top of this blog post still has one.
Your examples of the funniest literary works?
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I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering/meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson, among others.