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Dave Astor

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Serious Novelists Are Sometimes Surprisingly Funny

Posted: 01/ 5/2012 3:57 pm

Some famous novelists are known for being both serious and funny. Examples include Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote, Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and Charles Dickens in David Copperfield. Mr. Micawber!

Then there are stellar novelists and novels with almost no reputation for humor. But some of them still offer a chuckle -- or three -- on occasion. This unexpected comic relief can be, well, a relief amid weightier material.

For instance, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is an epic tragedy that leaves readers shocked and awed. But, along the way, there are some delightfully funny interludes -- most notably the pre-voyage scene in which Ishmael and Queequeg end up in the same bedroom. (And it's kind of hilarious that the novel's Starbuck character inspired the name of a certain coffee chain that sells frothy beverages the rough Pequod crew might have scorned.)

The word "wit" isn't out of place in discussing Jane Austen novels, but she's not thought of as a laugh-out-loud writer like Erskine Caldwell, Colette, Terry McMillan, L.M. (Lucy Maud) Montgomery, Charles Portis, Philip Roth, and others can be in some of their famous books. Still, Pride and Prejudice's pompous clergyman William Collins cracks me up.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's excellent The House of the Seven Gables is a pretty sobering novel, though one has to chuckle at those scenes of the overeating "little Ned Wiggins" at Hepzibah Pyncheon's little store.

Erich Maria Remarque is often as grim as can be in his magnificent books. But his almost seriocomic The Black Obelisk has several funny scenes that offer comic relief in the otherwise haunting, ominous tale set in 1923 Germany. In one scene, Ludwig Bodmer talks in a God-like voice through a rain pipe to scare Sergeant-Major Knopf as the latter prepares to urinate again on the dark tombstone of the book's title.

Emile Zola is another famous author considered nearly humorless, but not totally so. For instance, L'Assommoir (The Drinking Den) features a wash-house brawl between Gervaise and Virginie with some slapstick moments -- including what might be literature's most memorable spanking.

John Steinbeck offers only a small number of laughs in classics such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent, but he can be extremely funny in books such as Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday. There are a couple of Tortilla Flat scenes with the Pirate and his five dogs that are comedy at its best.

What are your favorite novels (and who are your favorite novelists) with serious reputations but occasional funny moments?