The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay
Macaulay’s masterpiece may be the most eccentric English novel of the 20th century. Its famous opening sentence sets the tone (“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that animal on her return from high Mass”). Things only get odder from there as the lovelorn narrator, her eccentric aunt and an upper-class priest embark on their mission to convert the tribes of Anatolia to high-church Anglicanism.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson
All Bryson’s books are magnificent, but this might be his best. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (named for the superhero Bryson imagined himself to be), an account of his childhood in the golden 1950s of the American Midwest, is laugh-out-loud hilarious, but fond and heartwarming too.
Take a Girl Like You, by Kingsley Amis
This novel is by no means the epitome of fashionable gender politics. Some readers will find the idea of Kingsley Amis attempting to tell a story from a female point of view hilarious in itself. But don’t be put off, this is a comical send-up of the absurdities and frustrations of life (and sex) in small-town provincial Britain.
Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett
All Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books will cheer you up, but read Thief of Time for the mad brilliance of its conceit. The History Monks are sort of fantasy Buddhists using prayer wheels to keep time in motion and paper over any alarming cracks. Unfortunately, their good work is threatened by the imminent invention of a perfect glass clock that may stop time itself. If you’ve ever read Pratchett you’ll know it’s much funnier than that summary makes it sound.
Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym
Possibly the apogee of Pym. Excellent Women concerns a shy, mousy spinster (of course it does) whose life is shaken up by the arrival of a glamorous anthropologist and her hunky naval officer husband in the flat downstairs. On top of that there’s trouble at her beloved Anglo-Catholic church as its long unmarried priest is threatening to marry a rather foxy clerical widow.
Unreliable Memoirs, by Clive James
If you haven’t read Clive James’s entertaining memoirs yet, chuck your newspaper in the bin and go and find yourself a copy. This first volume tells of his precocious childhood in the suburbs of Sydney in the 1950s and ends with James on a ship to Britain where (eventually) he is to find stardom.
The Diary of a Nobody, by George Grossmith and Weedon Grossmith
Perhaps the only genuine comedy classic to survive from the 19th century and a book that bequeathed the English language a new word (Pooterish). Mr Pooter is a self-important city bank clerk who is unthinkingly preoccupied with mundanities. None of the book’s readers will forget the episode in which Mr Pooter dyes himself red after experimenting with painting the bath.
Heartburn, by Nora Ephron
Ephron’s savagely funny novel about the breakdown of her marriage contains bitter truth in its humor: “It’s true that men who cry are sensitive and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive and in touch with are their own.”
What a Carve Up!, by Jonathan Coe
Coe’s satirical novel of Thatcher’s England boasts an ambitious cast of characters, from politicians and arms dealers to financial swindlers and media types. The collision of private and public life makes for brilliant comedy.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, by Sue Townsend
The diaries of Adrian Mole require almost no introduction, suffice to say that nearly 40 years later they’ve hardly aged. The book’s Thatcher-hating, Pandora-lusting, would-be teen-intellectual Adrian is as funny (and recognizable) as ever.
Razor Girl, by Carl Hiaasen
There’s a good case to be made that Carl Hiaasen is the funniest person currently writing in English. Set in Florida (like all his novels), Razor Girl has a characteristically fantastic plot. The eponymous heroine is the key figure in a criminal scam. She crashes deliberately into the backs of other drivers’ cars. When they appear at her window to complain they discover her shaving her bikini line. Overcome with lust and confusion they are easily picked off by the criminals who emerge to rob or kidnap them.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh
Few contemporary writers are stranger than Ottessa Moshfegh. My Year of Rest and Relaxation was a hit with millennials too cool or too weird for Sally Rooney. The novel concerns a young woman’s experiments with “narcotic hibernation”. Holed up in a fancy apartment in Upper East Side Manhattan (her enormous inheritance helps) she plans to spend a year almost permanently asleep. Drugs help with this.
The Pisces, by Melissa Broder
Speaking of weird. Melissa Broder’s novel The Pisces follows a disaffected millennial woman who, in the aftermath of a break-up, falls in love (well, maybe lust) with a merman.
Alan Partridge: Nomad, by Steve Coogan
It’s a tribute to Steve Coogan’s genius that this “memoir” is a fully realized minor masterpiece rather than a tired TV tie-in. You’ll read the whole thing in Partridge’s voice: “My feet pound the asphalt, really giving the popular road surface what for. Wham, wham, wham, wham. The cat’s eyes peer back at me, as if the frightened earth is peeping out at its punisher from beneath a tarmac duvet.”
Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen
Jane Austen is many kinds of genius, but she is of course a comic genius. Northanger Abbey is remarkable as a satire that has long outlasted the genre of gothic fiction it sent up. Naive Catherine Morland is one of literature’s greatest comic heroines.
Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu
Charles Yu’s novel finds humor in Asian stereotypes. Willis Wu is Generic Asian Man, working every day in the Golden Palace restaurant. His greatest dream is to become Kung Fu Guy — surely, he thinks, the most desirable Asian stereotype out there.
Paradise News, by David Lodge
Any Lodge novel would deserve a place on this list, but Paradise News is especially cheering for its Hawaiian setting. Bernard, an impotent, failed Catholic priest (what a thing to be) is in Hawaii to visit his dying aunt Ursula with his father, Jack. Plot twists, a sexual awakening and Catholic themes (obvs, it’s Lodge) ensue.
The Inimitable Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse
For all Wodehouse’s genius, too much of him can leave you feeling you’ve gobbled a bag of sweets. Too rich! If you feel that way, his stories are the answer. The Inimitable Jeeves is probably the best collection of them. And “The Great Sermon Handicap” may be the funniest thing he ever wrote.
Queen Lucia, by E. F. Benson
The first instalment of E. F. Benson’s much loved Mapp and Lucia series introduces Mrs Lucas (Lucia), who is battling to maintain her status as the queen of the Worcestershire village of Riseholme. The book is rich with peculiarly English and eccentric characters.
Towards the End of the Morning, by Michael Frayn
One of the funniest novels ever written about journalism (and there are some fine contenders for that title), Frayn’s story follows John Dyson’s attempts to transcend his job on his dreary newspaper’s nature notes and thought for the day column and make it on television.