Waugh Among the Funniest

The Guardian asked writers to name the funniest book they had read. The results are in today’s issue where the choices of 14 of those polled are reprinted. Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies was selected by another comic novelist David Lodge (who perhaps not coincidently is also the Honorary President of the Evelyn Waugh Society):

Choosing the author is no problem: Evelyn Waugh is the supreme master of comedy in modern English literature. But which novel: Decline and Fall? Vile Bodies? Black Mischief? Scoop? It’s a tough call, but I have a special fondness for Vile Bodies, his novel about the Bright Young Things of the 1920s. Although it was written partly out of the pain of discovering his first wife’s adultery and ends on “the biggest battlefield in the history of the world”, it is continuously amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny. Many scenes and episodes, especially those that involve Colonel Blount, the eccentric father of the hero’s on-off fiancee, still make me laugh every time I reread the book. Just remembering them can provoke a smile: for instance, Agatha Runcible’s appearance at the breakfast table in 10 Downing Street attired in Hawaiian fancy dress. That scene, like so many in Waugh’s comic fiction, works because of careful preparation and timing: Agatha’s ludicrous entrance is both unexpected and yet entirely consistent with the preceding narrative, from which certain details have been deftly omitted. And the sequence still works every time I revisit the novel because the language in which it is communicated, including the dialogue, is perfectly yet economically expressive. Comedy is generated from invented situations and verbal style, and Waugh was a master of both.

Another writer, David Nicholls, had trouble choosing and included Waugh’s Decline and Fall on his short list but ultimately selected Penelope Fitzgerald’s At Freddie’s. Other selections included the Jeeves series by P G Wodehouse (named by novelist Sebastian Faulks), Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (John O’Farrell’s choice) and What a Carve Up by Jonathan Coe (selected by comic novelist Monica Lewycka). Yesterday’s Guardian carries an essay by Coe entitled, “Will satire save us in the age of Trump?”

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