For a regular reader of books that tend to fall on the darker side of serious, it is difficult to think of too many books that have made me smile. Smiling here, for me, means a bit more than a simple smile that can have its roots in things other than humour, but something more akin to a laugh out loud.
Being, again, a person with a dark humour it would probably seem odd to most if I were to suggest Kafka as one of those few writers who have made me laugh out loud. The master of the absurd and all its harrowing implications is not the prime candidate when it comes to raising smiles, but his deadpan descriptions of the absurd predicaments K finds himself in throughout The Trial are definitely some of the funniest things I have ever read. However, the general feeling will, I accept, not be one of mirth when putting down his work.
Candide by Voltaire is another book I remember laughing out loud to, and so deserves a mention, as I’m sure do many other that I can’t recall right now, but my undoubted favourite book to make me smile is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
It is perhaps ironic that the book I have chosen as one to make me smile is one whose back story is a sad as they come. Toole never saw his work published and it was only after his mother persisted in hassling a college professor with her son’s manuscript after his suicide that this masterpiece ever got to see the light of day. That the book won the Pulitzer Prize only one year after being published makes the writer’s own early death seem even more of a tragic waste.
The story is set in New Orleans in the early 1960s with the central character being the larger than life Ignatius J. Reilly, a highly educated and intelligent but slothful 30-year-old man still living with his mother in the city’s Uptown neighbourhood. A hilarious first outing with his mother results in Ignatius being forced by his mother to go out into the streets of New Orleans to find work amongst the almost equally colourful characters of that city’s French Quarter.
Ignatius J. Reilly has been called a modern day Don Quijote and while his misadventures are certainly more exaggerated and extreme than most of those got into by the Spanish Knight Errant, there are certainly similarities between the two characters, especially the underlying nobility and good that defines them both.
Ignatius has no windmills to rail against but almost all and everything that he does come up against throughout the book results in some kind of laugh out loud hilarity. There are no jokes told here; the humour is found in the incongruity of a figure so unique as Ignatius looking to make his way in the world, and his insistence that it is in fact his way that is the right one.
The side characters, particularly his mother, Angelo, and Burma Jones are all comic gold in their own right and don’t even need Ignatius to be on the page for the laughs to keep coming. And while this book will certainly bring a smile to your face it is one that is written with such skill and tenderness for its characters that its greatness transcends the absurdity of its humour and really makes you believe in the people who are presented.
This truly is a great piece of fiction and the only sour note to wipe away the smile is to know that its author didn’t live long enough to see his work so loved and appreciated.
This article was contributed by lovereading.co.uk