Comedy in a crisis

How good it was to be forced to read some funny novels in the early days of the virus crisis. A judge’s lot in the Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction - for which the shortlist was announced last week - is usually a happy one. True, it is also a reminder that humour on the page needs delicate handling, or it turns to dust, but after 20 years the prize has shown that there’s still a rich seam of comic writing in which any reader will be able to find something, somewhere that’s funny.

The difficulty, of course, is that we all laugh at different things. I’m aware, although I find it nearly inexplicable, that there are people who have never laughed at P.G. Wodehouse. Taste itself is a funny business. So each year, judges have irreconcilable differences about one book or another, asking each other: did you seriously laugh at this? It’s then the duty of the prize’s sponsor, Bollinger, to calm things down with a drop of something sparkling and ultimately calming.

Indeed, there was a year - 2018 - in which more drops than usual were required, because there simply didn’t seem to be a book that made everyone laugh. No prize was awarded, and a smell of sour grapes filled the air. But there was no such difficulty this year, and for those readers who are raking the shelves for lightness in the lockdown, our shortlist can be guaranteed to give comfort to anyone who has managed to preserve a sense of humour.

But, as always, they differ hugely. 46% Better Than Dave by Alastair Puddick and Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane are comic novels of an instantly-recognisable kind, romping along with glee. We know the characters, and laugh with them. House of Trelawney by Hannah Rothschild (joint winner of the prize in 2016) is a novel about old families and new money that helps to confirm her place as one of our funniest writers. On top, there is the first graphic novel to be shortlisted for the prize, Matthew Dooley’s Flake.

Perhaps it’s odd that given the arrival in the mainstream of the once-subterranean graphic novel, it’s taken so long for one to vie seriously for the prize, but Flake is a creation that will convince many remaining sceptics about how much you can do with the help of pictures, with aren’t add-ons but the soul of the wit. One of our judges, the comedian Sindhu Vee, describes it as ‘a rare joy’.

And if that weren’t enough there are two novels that are funny in quite different ways. Jenny Offil is an American writer with a vast following in the UK, and her book Weather shows how deftly she can probe the thin surface of our current difficulties - as our other comic judge (you see what I mean) Pippa Evans said, it plays beautifully with the contemporary paradoxes that seem to surround us all.

Nobber is a different kind of book, one which I suppose some will imagine wasn’t written to be funny - a dark story of death and destruction in fourteenth-century Ireland, the year the plague arrived. But Oisin Fagan’s enthralling first novel has black humour oozing from every pore.

They are, in other words, a mixed bag, from which something special will be pulled out on midsummer day, June 24th, though not as usual at the Hay Festival, this year parked online. Something will have to be done about the Gloucestershire Old Spots sow which, in honour of Wodehouse’s Empress of Blandings, usually romps in the straw with the winning author. Something appropriate will be arranged.

Certainly the prize is in robust health. When it was dreamed up two decades ago by Peter Florence, director of Hay, and David Campbell, publisher of Everyman’s Library (whose beautiful complete Wodehouse edition is given to each winner) no-one could be quite sure how it would fare. A few years of fun, then silence? But no. The only prize we have for comic writing has not only celebrated some of our wittiest authors - Howard Jacobson, Jonathan Coe and Alexander McCall Smith among them - but shone a light on a galère of new writers and authors, some of whom were surprised to discover how funny they were.

David remains the presiding judge, and exercises a benign authority. ‘That’s all very well,’ he’ll say with a sigh, ‘but did it make you laugh?’ Sometimes a judge will blush in response, and reach for the Bollinger.

Everyone knows that reading has been a solace in recent weeks. And it was energising for us all to remind ourselves in judging these books - and many more submitted by their publishers - that the stream of wit hasn’t dried up in this strangest of springs. One of my own pleasures at home was to pick up an battered old copy of Sabatini’s Scaramouche and read again one of my favourite opening lines, which I think speaks in perpetuity for the Everyman Wodehouse Prize and its authors, ‘He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.’