And by “funny” I don’t mean just amusing or acutely insightful about the human condition. I mean funny as in eliciting that audible and rhythmic contraction of the diaphragm unique to primates conscious of the distance between what they are and what they pretend to be.
1. Don Quixote
(Miguel de Cervantes)
The first, and arguably greatest, modern novel follows the exploits of Don Quixote de la Mancha, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, and his companion Sancho Panza. As the knight drapes his drab reality in a romantic veil, so that windmills become dragons and bedpans helmets, Sancho plays the voice of reason. But when things, finally, reveal themselves to be just what they are, what is there left for a medieval knight to do but leave the stage?
2. Dead Souls
Astranger named Chichikov arrives in a small Russian town with a proposal: to buy all the dead souls—serfs who have died but who have stayed on the government’s books as taxable assets. Landowners are more than happy to rid themselves of these burdens. The boobish townsfolk and the corrupt and easily beguiled gentry are first delighted, then suspicious. Could Chichikov be Napoleon in disguise? Gogol’s sketch of nineteenth-century Russian life makes British class warfare seem like cribbage.
3. 1066 and All That
(W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman)
Billed as the “only Memorable History of England, because all the History that you can remember is in this book,” and dedicated to the “Great British People without whose self-sacrificing determination to become top Nation there would have been no (memorable) history,” 1066 makes history as much fun as the “Disillusion of the Monasteries.”
4. The Trial
Josef K. has been accused of a crime, the exact nature of which remains a mystery. As he winds his way through a bizarre and byzantine legal system, hope dims that he will be found anything but guilty, even though he never learns of what. The definitive “Kafkaesque” tale, The Trial is often treated with nightmarish seriousness, but the author intended it to provoke giggles.
5. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
The gout-challenged Matthew Bramble, his family, and his servants tour England and Scotland, all the while writing letters back home expressing their unique and often absurd obsessions. The title character—a simpleminded stableman—comes to life through the descriptions offered by each member of the expedition. And when Clinker winds up in the clink, the Brambles must decide whether the hapless ostler is a true member of their clan.
6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Things could be worse for Arthur Dent and his pal Ford Prefect: they could have been left behind when the Vogons destroyed planet Earth. Instead they are treated to a series of otherworldly adventures involving increasingly menacing and ludicrous life-forms. Oh, spoiler alert: the ultimate answer to everything is “42.” The TV and film adaptations failed to do justice to Adams’s uproarious and speed-of-light wordplay.
7. Decline and Fall
Follow divinity student Paul Pennyfeather as he is “sent down” from Oxford for indecent behavior only to wind up being arrested on the day of his wedding to the Honourable Mrs Margot Beste-Chetwynde for trafficking in prostitution. Waugh’s merciless skewering of the upper classes and the privilege enjoyed by the daft and corrupt set the standard for high-minded satire for a generation at least.
8. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody
“Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603, in the seventieth year of her age and in the forty-fourth year of her reign. She was succeeded by James I. Everything was then ready for the Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes Day, the Thirty Years’ War, the Authorized Version, the settlement of Virginia, cigarettes, radio, the blindfold test, and silent butlers.” And so on.
The Greatest Generation gets a pummeling in this antiwar classic. Captain Yossarian seeks to get out of his World War II tour of duty by flying the requisite number of bombing raids, only to have the number increase with each successful run. Heller’s irreverent and, yes, Kafkaesque take on military intelligence (“The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with”) made out-of-sequence narratives hip long before Pulp Fiction.
10. The Great Pursuit
When the anonymously penned Pause O Men for the Virgin lands at the ailing Frensic and Futtle literary agency, the agents’ only hope to save their agency is to cut a $2 million deal for the execrable work with a commercially minded American publisher. The catch is that the author must commit to an extensive book tour. Enter Peter Piper, a would-be litterateur willing to do almost anything to get his masterpiece, Search for a Lost Childhood, into print, including masquerade as the author of the distasteful Pause.
11. A Confederacy of Dunces
(John Kennedy Toole)
Ignatius J. Reilly is an obese Louisiana prodigy, dead set against steady work and all things modern, awash in Scholasticism and Boethius, and ever mindful of his pyloric valve. Falstaff, Don Quixote, Rabelais’s Gargantua—Reilly has been compared to them all, yet Confederacy remains a unique comic vision, a picaresque novel of a dying one-man breed.
12. Your pick
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? The Devil’s Dictionary? Gulliver’s Travels? Tom Jones? Candide? Tristram Shandy? The Diary of a Nobody? A volume of P. G. Wodehouse? And we haven’t even touched on plays: The Clouds, Tartuffe, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Inspector General, The Man Who Came to Dinner, The Sunshine Boys, A Thousand Clowns, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Wrong Turn at Lungfish . . . Wait—why are you laughing?