Thursday 23 April 2015


I don't like depressing books. Misery lit leaves me cold. The reason I put off reading Anna Karenina for nearly thirty years was because I assumed Russian novels would be awfully gloomy, on account of all the snow and vodka and endless numbers of characters. I had a huge Hardy binge as a teenager, when I was still blithe enough to sail past fictional tragedies unscathed but reached field level as I was about to begin Jude the Obscure and there it has glowered on the bookshelf, unread, ever since,  bleakly telegraphing a literary 'Keep Out' sign. 

Left to my own devices, I have a marked preference for books where the good end happily and the bad unhappily. Or perhaps, if the bad really can't bring themselves to end unhappily, then at least repentantly.  But above all, I like a novel that makes me laugh. Things that are simultaneously bleak and funny - like Down and Out in Paris and London - or have a peculiarly British blend of pathos and wit  - Lissa Evans' Crooked Heart and Nina Stibbe's Man at the Helm - have me at the opening page.  I like comedies of manners - Mitford and Pym and E.F Benson. I like my humour mordant too -  I love Muriel Spark no less for thinking she occasionally spills over into spite. I like the imaginative silliness of Terry Pratchett, the sharp satire of Waugh's Scoop and Decline and Fall, or Malcolm Bradbury's History Man, or Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey. And I adore the straightforward blissful good-natured funniness of P.G Wodehouse. Real Life can be such a trudge, if one's going to escape into a novel, it ought to make the effort to be cheering. 

But, reader, it seems The Modern Novel must be gritty to have critical attention lavished upon it. Books in which terrible things happen to perfectly good people become the critic's darlings as if there's a secret points system for gloom, the literary equivalent of being selected for a free coffee at Pret A Manger. Praise is not reserved for the most-recently published - doom-love is backdatable: Stoner, written in 1965, became 2013's  'best-book-you've-never-heard-of, its author John Williams unleashes a catalogue of minor and unremitting disappointments on its hero without a glimmer of redemption. (I'll confess, despite its lack of laughs, I loved Stoner, and today is the 50th anniversary of its first publication: if you haven't read it, do, and if you have, have a listen to this excellent podcast)

Anyway, fortunately for all fans of amusing books, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, now in its 15th year, is determined to reward authors for being a tonic, and to celebrate the great British tradition - epitomised by Wodehouse - of comic fiction. On Monday evening, I went to a lovely party at The Goring which marked the publication of the 99th and final book in the Everyman Collected Wodehouse series, and also allowed the great and the good to raise a glass to the shortlisted authors for this year's Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize.
Sir Edward Cazelet, Wodehouse's literary executor talking about the literary legacy of his step-grandfather, here with  Everyman's David Campbell
Lovely John Franklin, Communications Director for Bollinger, resplendent in blues and greens, giving a very elegant speech about Bollinger's support for the prize for comic fiction.
Bollinger, and Wodehouse (marvellous combination) and one of Andrzej Klimowski's illustrations: all 99 books in the collection have his marvellous pictures
The six shortlisted novels are Nina Stibbe’s Man at the HelmHelen Lederer’s Losing It,Alexander McCall Smith’s Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party, Irvine Welsh’s A Decent Ride, Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, and Caitlin Moran’s How To Build a Girl. I haven't read the Welsh, McCall Smith or O'Neill, and whilst I liked How To Build a Girl very much, I'm rooting for Nina Stibbe - Man at the Helm is as wickedly funny as the author herself, with brilliant moments of bathos, and, having met the utterly charming Helen Lederer at the party, I know Losing It is a treat in store. 
Nina Stibbe, shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Man at the Helm, and guest at The Books That Built Me last autumn and Rachel Johnson, whose latest novel, Fresh Hell, is published in June and who will be a guest at the Books That Built Me in the summer.
With Helen Lederer, possessor of the most exquisite turquoise eyes you've ever seen, and author of Losing It, which I'm dying to read

The winner will be announced at the Hay Literary Festival in May, and gets a lot of Bollinger and Everyman editions of Wodehouse and a Gloucester Old Spot named after them. I think it would be rather fun to host a literary salon about funny novels -perhaps in a similar format to The Books That Built Me, but with three authors of comic fiction, each talking about the book that makes them laugh the most.

 Let me know what you think of that idea, and in the meantime, there are just two tickets left for The Books That Built Me with Lissa Evans, herself shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Their Finest Hour and A Half and it won't be giving too much away to say that comic fiction will play its part in our discussion about her favourite books.  

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