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Book Report

By Michael Dirada
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 1998; Page X15


Last Laughs

If reading used-book catalogues is your idea of a pretty good time – it is, alas, mine – then you've probably run across titles followed by the words "Not in – ," the blank being the standard bibliography of a particular author or subject. Such items, having escaped the gimlet-eye of a supposed expert in the field, tend to be especially desirable. I couldn't help but recall this bookman's phrase recently, since last month's column on 20th-century comic novels in English provoked dozens of letters, e-mail postings and phone calls. Nearly everybody, apparently, has at least one favorite humorous classic, and it was shocking, positively shocking, that I failed to include this or that darling among the chosen 100 on my list. Not in Dirda.

So here is a supplement to my August carnival of comic writing. Some of these books I love and simply forgot about, several are new to me, but all arrive with enthusiastic recommendations. Try a couple. As before, most are novels, though a few works of nonfiction sneak in.

Joe Keenan, Blue Heaven (highly Wodehousean). Noel Coward, Pomp and Circumstance. Robert Barnard, Death of an Old Goat. Honor Tracey, The Straight and Narrow Path. Donald Ogden Stewart, Mr. and Mrs. Haddock Abroad. Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon, No Bed for Bacon. Ludwig Bemelmans, Dirty Eddie. J.P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man. Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald. Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle. E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provinical Lady.

Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger (most Twain is 19th century, but this bitter novel came out in 1916). Virginia Woolf, Orlando. Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels. Don Marquis, archy and mehitabel. Nathanael West, Day of the Locust. Eudora Welty, short stories. William Browning Spencer, Resume with Monsters. Bradley Denton, Blackburn. H.G. Wells, Tono Bungay. Booth Tarkington, Penrod. Pamela Hansford Johnson, The Unspeakable Skipton (a fictional portrait of Baron Corvo). Sybille Bedford, A Legacy. James McCourt, Mawrdew Czgowchwz. Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven.

Stephen Potter, One-Upmanship. Woody Allen, Without Feathers. John Nichols, The Milagro Beanfield War. Mysteries by Colin Watson, Tim Heald, Simon Brett, Pamela Branch, Delano Ames and Lawrence Block. Redmond O'Hanlon, Into the Heart of Borneo. Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana. Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney, Bored of the Rings. Douglas Adams's The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy. John Fante, The Brotherhood of the Grape. Katherine Everard's A Star's Progress. Katharine Topkins, All the Tea in China.

John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor. William Kotzwinkle, Dr. Rat. Philip K. Dick, Clans of the Alphane Moon. Ernest Bramah, Kai Lung Unrolls his Mat. Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities. A.A. Gill, Sap Rising. William Boyd, A Good Man in Africa. James Wilcox, Modern Baptists. Roddy Doyle, The Commitments. Robert Ruark, Grenadine Etching. Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame. Something by Angela Thirkell, Carl Hiaasen, Betty McDonald, Finley Peter Dunne and Calvin Trillin.

Of all these "Not in Dirda" suggestions, I most regret overlooking the work of Peter De Vries (try The Mackerel Plaza) and Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, a comic epic of the Old West as well as a great American novel.

Three Classics

As fall approaches, a reader's fancy naturally turns to thoughts of mysteries, ghost stories, Victorian novels and other autumnal fare. This is the time when Miltonists put away "L'Allegro" and pick up "Il Penseroso." Yet before we all surrender to the louring melancholy of October, let us enjoy the best season of all, Indian summer.

During my holidays I read a good many comic novels, but none more outstanding than The Trials of Topsy, by A.P. Herbert, Augustus Carp, by Himself, and Mapp and Lucia, by E.F. Benson. I mentioned them briefly last month, but here I want to describe these books – all from the 1920s or early '30s – more precisely, and, better yet, transcribe some passages from all three to convey at least a smidgen of their style and tone. Let's start with Topsy.

A prolific contributor to Punch, A.P. Herbert is little read these days, but on the basis of this book and its companion, Topsy, M.P., he was obviously a man ahead of his time. For Topsy, a London debutante who writes breathless letters to her friend Trix, is nothing less than a Jazz Age Valley Girl. Imagine a blend of Lorelei Lee and the Alicia Silverstone of "Clueless":

"Because my dear as I've been trying to tell you all this time, two nights ago we went over to the Hunt Ball of the Yealm Vale and Fowkley, my dear pronounced Yaffle, Mr. Haddock and me and that rather antiseptic young Guardee I told you about, Terence Flydde by name, my dear too Etonian, my dear utterly clean-limbed, washes all over and flawlessly upholstered, but of course the cerebellum is a perfect vacuum, well, my dear, I've always fancied he was rather attracted and of course he's absolutely baneless but of course a girl would just as soon marry a pedigree St. Bernard dog, so I didn't exactly propose to dedicate the evening to him though I must say those red coats are rather decorative. . ."

In the course of her adventures, Topsy writes about country weekends, charity bazaars, art shows, Christmas, reducing, and even politics. While working on Mr. Haddock's Parliamentary campaign, our heroine prints up her own views on social issues and foreign affairs: "Of course don't think I don't adulate the poor because I simply do only the people I pity are the Middle Classes who of course pay for everything and get nothing and why they do it I simply can't imagine and my advice to them is to pay no Income-Tax until they've one foot in the jail." Elsewhere Topsy notes, with her usual impeccable logic, "Of course, I adore Peace and Disarmament and everything, but what I always say is well, what about pirates?" What indeed?

Augustus Carp, Esq. appeared in 1924 anonymously but is now known to be the work of a distinguished physician named Henry Howarth Bashford. Anthony Burgess considered it "one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century," as will anybody else who finds and reads the book. Like other classics of English humor (Vice Versa, The Diary of a Nobody), Augustus Carp is the tale of a father and son. The two Carps are models of unconscious hypocrisy; that is, each imagines he behaves as a perfect Xtian (always so spelled) even while exploiting loved ones, blackmailing teachers, bringing suit for minor infractions, and wrecking lives. In particular, young Augustus's narrative voice is a masterpiece of controlled irony. One revels in every word and turn of his elegant syntax:

"From the time of his marriage to the day of my birth, and as soon thereafter as the doctor had permitted her to rise, my father had been in the habit of enabling my mother to provide him with an early cup of tea. And this he had done by waking her regularly a few minutes before six o'clock. . ." Note that devastating use of "enabling" – sheer genius.

The Carps always find excuses. "But to become ordained presupposed an examination, and I had been seriously handicapped in this particular respect by a proven disability, probably hereditary in origin, to demonstrate my culture in so confined a form." After finagling his Xtian way into a job with a religious publisher – they distribute books with titles like "Gnashers of Teeth" and "Without Are Dogs" – Augustus comes to know the Stool family, fanatically devoted to stamping out drink, dancing and tobacco. Here is son Ezekiel:

"No taller than myself, and weighing considerably less, he had suffered all his life from an inherent dread of shaving, and the greater portion of his face was in consequence obliterated by a profuse but gentle growth of hair. His voice, too, owing to some developmental defect, had only partially broken; and indeed his father Abraham (afterwards removed to an asylum) had on more than one occasion attempted to sacrifice him, under the mistaken impression that he was some sort of animal that would be suitable as a burnt offering." Later, Augustus meets this father: "Mr. Abraham Stool, indeed, who had not then been segregated, but who was already under the impression that he was the Hebrew patriarch, several times insisted upon my approaching him and placing my hand under his left thigh, after which he would offer me, in addition to Mrs. Stool, a varying number of rams and goats."

Augustus Carp, Esq. should be returned to print immediately. I aim to buy every used paperback I come across. Gifts for my Xtian and non-Xtian friends.

All six books in E.F. Benson's cycle about Emmeline Lucas and Elizabeth Mapp are quite irresistible, but their humor -- subtle, malicious, ever-fresh -- emphasizes situation as much as language. In each novel (except Miss Mapp) Lucia finds her dictatorship of local society threatened, and she must out-maneuver adversaries on many flanks.

In Mapp and Lucia Benson brings his two greatest characters into direct conflict. After the death of her husband, Lucia decides to leave the village of Riseholme and move to Tilling, a port city rather like Rye (where Benson lived, eventually becoming mayor). Before long Tilling's resident queen, Elizabeth Mapp, is launching foul plots to prevent the dynamic Lucia from further captivating Major Benjy, the Padre (a clergyman who chatters away in a comic Scots dialect), and Quaint Irene (based on the famous lesbian Radclyffe Hall), among others. Inevitably, dinner parties, art competitions, bridge games and catty conversation drive the novel to its famous climax, in which the two rivals are swept out to sea while clinging to a kitchen table.

It's hard to quote from Mapp and Lucia, for so much of the book's tone depends on context. But here's Mapp, on her way to purloin the closely guarded recipe for the scrumptuous "Lobster a la Riseholme": She passes some servants on their way to a whist drive and "wished them a Merry Christmas and hoped they would all win. (Little kindly remarks like that always pleased servants, thought Elizabeth; they showed a human sympathy with their pleasures, and cost nothing; so much better than Christmas boxes)."

But really one needs to read all these novels, masterly send-ups of the syrupy civilities and hypocrisies of daily life. Who can forget Lucia's kitschy Shakespearean garden? Or how she pretends to take a lover so as to seem more attractive to London society? In Miss Mapp the huffing Navy man Captain Puffin suffers a seizure, falls forward into his soup – and drowns. And here, at the opening of Lucia in London, Benson describes Georgie Pillson – Lucia's epicene neighbor and ally – visiting his soul-mate after the death of her wealthy aunt:

"Georgie held her hand a moment longer than was usual, and gave it a little extra pressure for the conveyance of sympathy. Lucia, to acknowledge that, pressed a little more, and Georgie tightened his grip again to show that he understood, until their respective fingernails grew white with the conveyance and reception of sympathy. It was rather agonizing, because a bit of skin on his little finger had got caught between two of the rings on his third finger, and he was glad when they quite understood each other."

There are people who reread the Lucia books every year. Wise are they, and very happy.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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