In 'Love in a Cold Climate', Nancy Mitford's sharp, witty, glorious satire, Lady Montdore advises Fanny on her trousseau "The important thing, dear,' she said, 'is to have a really good fur coat, I mean a proper, dark one.' To Lady Montdore, fur meant mink; she could imaging no other kind except sable, but that would be specified. 'Not only will it make all the rest of your clothes look better than they are, but you really needn't bother much about anything else as you need never take it off. Above all, don't go wasting money on underclothes, there is nothing stupider - I always borrow Montdore's myself.'
Lady Montdore is one of the great comic creations - appallingly, horribly snobbish, monstrously self-obsessed, she never fails to make me roar with laughter. The character was apparently inspired by Violet Trefusis, about whom I really should know more, since I appropriated her name for this blog.
Anyway, I mention 'Love in a Cold Climate' because I've been trying to compile a list of the books that make me laugh in preparation for interviewing the wonderfully funny Helen Lederer at Chiswick Book Festival next Saturday, where we'll be talking about her career, her latest novel, and comic fiction. It's oddly more difficult than I thought it would be. I love Mitford, of course, and Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, and the acid satire of Waugh's Vile Bodies and Scoop. Martin Amis in Money is much funnier than Amis Senior's Old Devils. My taste for Terry Pratchett is validated by discovering my literary heroine, A.S.Byatt, is a fan. Diary of a Nobody is funny (and funnier now that I know it inspired another marvellously witty writer, Nina Stibbe - her Man at the Helm is a masterclass in tragicomedy), and Jilly Cooper and E.F Benson and Sue Townsend and Helen Fielding and Malcolm Bradbury and Molesworth (Geoffrey Searle?) and heaps more.
Comic writing seems to be too pleasurable to be garlanded with laurel wreaths, despite its consolations for a reader. Only two comic novels have won the Booker in forty-six years; Kingsley Amis for Old Devils, which I can only think was a kind of 'lifetime achievement award' - because Old Devils is by no means his funniest - and Howard Jacobson for The Finkler Question. There is a literary prize for comic fiction - The Bollinger Wodehouse Prize - but it's the only one of its kind: Howard Jacobson is clearly an incorrigible over-achiever in the comic category - he's added two Bollinger Wodehouse gongs to his Booker....
The Bollinger Wodehouse prize introduced me to Helen Lederer, shortlisted for this year's prize. I quickly cornered her at the shortlist party, buoyed up by a glass of Bollinger, and persuaded her to be my guest at The Books That Built Me, and in getting to know Helen better, I've learned that she's establishing her own prize celebrating women's comic writing; CWIP, or Comedy Women in Print. Having had a long and successful career in comedy herself, performing and writing (and her first novel, Losing It, is very funny indeed, Helen's mission is to showcase female writing talent, fiction and non-fiction, - think Bailey's Prize for comic writing - and to show how wonderfully life-affirming and confidence building and empowering comedy can be for women.
Anyway, we shall talk about all of that, about her novel (and the one she's writing now), about her forthcoming role in the film of Absolutely Fabulous, and much more at The Chiswick Book Festival next Saturday - tickets for the whole day only cost £10. - it would be wonderful to see you there
In the meantime, tell me which novels have made you chortle, or snigger, or split your sides, and why?