Sunday, November 13, 2011

A lot of comedy and a little fiction

Present Laughter: An Anthology of Modern Comic Fiction, edited by well-known English author Malcolm Bradbury, in 1994, is a collection of 29 of the best comic short stories written by some of the world’s finest humourists and satirists. Most of the outstanding comic fiction, written in the late 20th century, represents “the cream of humour” – so you have “farce by Beryl Bainbridge, parody by Jorge Luis Borges, folk humour by Garrison Keillor, black humour by Margaret Atwood, gentle confusion from John Updike and strange fantasy from Angela Carter.”

I have not read all 29 stories, having acquired this wonderful anthology quite recently, but my own favourite is the sf-fantasy The Kugelmass Episode by Woody Allen who wrote it for The New Yorker in 1977. Since then, The Kugelmass Episode has attained a cult status of sorts.

 About the story The New Yorker says: “Kugelmass, a humanities professor at City College, was unhappily married for the second time and up to his neck in alimony to his first wife. He wants to have a discreet affair. Persky, a magician from Brooklyn, introduces Kugelmass to his magical cabinet. All Kugel mass has to do is choose a novel, climb into the cabinet, and he will be projected into the novel. He chooses "Madame Bovary," and in no time is having an affair with Emma. He reverses the procedure and brings Emma to New York, but has trouble when he tries to return her to France. Persky fixes the cabinet and Kugelmass swears he'll never cheat on his wife again. Three weeks later, he appears at Persky's. He wants to be projected into "Portnoy's Complaint," but instead, the cabinet explodes. Persky dies of a heart attack, and Kugelmass is projected into a Spanish grammar where he is pursued by the verb "to have.”

Here’s why Woody Allen is a sparkling writer as well as an exceptional filmmaker: To quote the last paragraph of his hugely funny story, “Kugelmass, unaware of this catastrophe, had his own problems. He had not been thrust into Portnoy’s Complaint, or into any other novel, for that matter. He had been projected into an old textbook, Remedial Spanish, and was running for his life over a barren, rocky terrain as the word tener (‘to have’) – a large and hairy irregular verb – raced after him on its spindly legs.”

The 29 delectable comic short stories in this anthology are:

  1. The Tillotson Banquet by Aldous Huxley
  2. The Waltz by Dorothy Parker
  3. Excursion in Reality by Evelyn Waugh
  4. Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote by Jorge Luis Borges
  5. The Assistant Producer by Vladimir Nabokov
  6. Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer
  7. The Wrong Set by Angus Wilson
  8. The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
  9. Interesting Things by Kingsley Amis
10. A Member of the Family by Muriel Spark
11. The Bulgarian Poetess by John Updike
12. My Vocation by Mary Lavin
13. To London and Rome by Donald Barthelme
14. Uncle Vlad by Clive Sinclair
15. Nobody Will Laugh by Milan Kundera
16. The Longstop by Beryl Bainbridge
17. American Dreams by Peter Carey
18. The Kitchen Child by Angela Carter
19. The Kugelmass Episode by Woody Allen
20. Lantern Lecture by Adam Mars-Jones
21. Lives of the Poets by Margaret Atwood
22. The Royal Family by Garrison Keillor
23. Modern Love by T. Coraghessan Boyle
24. The Stolen Child by Clare Boylan
25. The New Baboon by Andrew Davies
26. An Outer London Childhood by Suzannah Dunn
27. Schoom by Jonathan Wilson
28. Career Move by Martin Amis
29. A Short History of the English Novel by Will Self

“The fact remains that, both as a reader and as a writer, I have always taken comedy with a good deal of (ever delighted) seriousness. Indeed, it is hard to think about the art of fiction without thinking about the art of comedy, for the two have always gone together, hand in hand,” Bradbury says in the introduction to the anthology.

Present Laughter: An Anthology of Modern Comic Fiction delivers exactly what it claims to offer readers: “Wit, wildness and hours of escape from the solemn side of life.” 
Highly recommended.

Cover Jacket: © Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London


  1. Sounds good, Prashant. I'm intrigued by the story you outlined by Woody Allen. It sounds awfully like the kind of thing that goes on (more or less) in the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. I hope you'll take a look at those, if you haven't already.

  2. I have always liked Woody Allen's writing more than his films. THURSDAY NEXT by Jasper Fforde sounds equally interesting and I'll take a look at it.

  3. I remember reading that book. We need more comedy in these times.

  4. I ensure there's at least a little comedy in all that I read and see.

  5. mmm, Don't know if 'Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote' can be treated as parody, as it implicitly speaks more on the relationship between a text and it's reader, wherein any reader of a text becomes it's own author based on his interpretation of the text. If it's a parody its sure an extremely subtle one.

  6. Interesting view, WordsBeyondBorders. This is one of the stories I haven't read, yet, so I can't agree or disagree. Bradbury must have had his reasons for including this literary criticism in his anthology. Thanks for visiting.