The Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh splits nearly into two parts: the first is spent in an all-boys school, the second in a prison. The two parts side-by-side give the impression that the settings are not as entirely different as one suspects. The first half of the book spends a long time introducing each of the characters and the second half of the book takes its time killing each of them off. Characters have silly names, such as Lady Circumference.
Someone asked me at dinner the other day for a book recommendation—a funny book recommendation. It was difficult to think of any right away! Although I laugh while reading many books, I haven’t read many books that I would characterize as comedies. So I turned to Facebook with the question, “What’s the funniest book you’ve ever read?” I received quite a variety in the results! I have gathered them all here for convenience. (Note: I have not read most of these.)
- Cervantes, Don Quixote (1615).
- Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (essay, 1729).
- Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749).
- Voltaire, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759).
- Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836).
- Edgar Allen Poe, «Never Bet the Devil Your Head» (1841).
- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
- Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889).
- Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband (play, 1895).
- P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), generally recommended.
- Psmith, Journalist (1915).
- Leave it to Psmith (1923).
- Summer Moonshine (1937).
- World of Mr. Mulliner (1972).
- O. Henry, «Ransom of the Red Chief» (1910).
- Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928).
- Evelyn Waugh, Scoop (1938).
- Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954).
- W.E. Bowman, The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956).
- Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961).
- Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961).
- Michael Green, The Art of Course Acting (1964).
- David Lodge, The British Museum is Falling Down (1965).
- Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979).
- John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980).
- Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes (comic strip, 1985-1995).
- Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens (1990).
- Terry Pratchett, Small Gods (1992).
- Dave Barry, Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys (1995).
- David Foster Wallace, «Shipping Out» (1996). Reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), or available here: https://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/HarpersMagazine-1996-01-0007859.pdf
- Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997).
- David Sedaris, general recommendation. Best known for his essay collection Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000).
- Augusten Burroughs (1965-present), general recommendation. Best known for his memoir Running with Scissors (2002).
- Chuck Klosterman, essays. Best known for his essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto (2003).
- Terry Pratchett, Going Postal (2004).
- Michael Perry, Off Main Street (2005), especially «Rock Slide!», a story about kidney stones.
- Mark Helprin, Freddy and Fredericka (2005).
- Karen Russell, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006).
- David Wong, John Dies at the End (2007).
- Christopher Moore, Fool (2009).
- Justin Halpern, S███ My Dad Says (2010).
- Tina Fey, Bossypants (2011).
I also want to add Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and «Revelation» by Flannery O’Connor. Happy reading!
This novel is a fictional account of the life of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. And what a delightful book! I feared it would be cheesy, but Evelyn Waugh draws on a wide range of sources, and where he fills in the gaps, he does so in a way that is plausible and entertaining. (Sometimes he is certainly making things up, but this is usually obvious and with great comic effect.) Coming from Evelyn Waugh, it has a humor similar in tone to Brideshead Revisited, but usually more obviously funny and without such long periods of melancholy in between.
I am now reading Helena by Evelyn Waugh. In one place, Lactantius is speaking to Helena about why he dedicates himself to writing about Christianity:
“You see it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing, and the wrong form to the right thing. Suppose that in years to come, when the Church’s troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,” and he nodded toward the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. “A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does–it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.”
Now I had never heard of a gibbon before, but the context indicated that it was some sort of primate. Two seconds of research indicated that there is a primate called a gibbon, depicted just above. But I imagine that Waugh was hoping the word would also call to mind the English gentleman pictured just below.
That is, he is almost surely referring to Edward Gibbon, the author of the many-volumed History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Looking around only briefly to see if Waugh ever engaged the work of Gibbon more directly, I discovered that Waugh’s first novel was actually titled Decline and Fall, a clear borrowing from Gibbon’s major work. In Lactantius’ observation, there is a passing reference to both the excellence of Gibbon’s style and the error of his content.
Newman shared similar thoughts, lavishing the highest praise on Gibbon’s style, “With all his faults, his want of simplicity, his affection, and his monotony, few can be put in comparison with him; and sometimes, when I reflect on his happy choice of expressions, his vigorous compression of ideas, and the life and significance of his every work, I am prompted indignantly to exclaim that no style is left for historians of an after day. O who is worthy to succeed our Gibbon!” And for all of the philosophical disagreements he may have had, he still admits Gibbon’s superiority as a historian with respect to others, “It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon.”
This is all to say that I am quite eager to arrive at reading Gibbon, whose work is perhaps the longest on my list. I only read excerpts of it for college, but I doubt I grasped the extent of his importance for our modern biases about history and Christianity in particular. To conclude: “[T]he ecclesiastical historian could not ignore the issue of the miraculous, a question which was to make Gibbon a sceptic and Newman a Roman Catholic.”