THE PENGUIN BOOK OF BRITISH COMIC STORIES. Patricia Craig, editor. Viking. 514 pages. $24.95.
MOST OF the giants of late 19th century and 20 century British literature are represented in this anthology of humorous stories. Kipling, Saki, Maugham, Dylan Thomas, Beckett, Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark -- they're all here. Arguably, of the luminaries of the period, only Aldous Huxley, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf are missing. A number of less familiar names, such as Richmal Compton, William Sansom, H.E. Bates and Michael Frayn, are also included in this collection of 42 stories by as many writers.
The common bond of these disparate tales is that they are usually successfully humorous, and they are, at least to this American reader, very British. In a few instances, their Britishness may interfere with their success. One is mindful of these words, attributed to both George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain: "England and America are two countries separated by the same language."
But "The Penguin Book of British Comic Stories" is a compendium of humor "peculiar to the British Isles," says editor Patricia Craig, not just to England. A few of the stories, especially some of the early ones, may just sound peculiar on this side of the ocean.
The stories are British in their common tone, whether it is the deadpan (and addled) good humor of P.G. Wodehouse in "Goodbye to All Cats," the (again) deadpan but grim irony of Muriel Spark in "The First Year of My Life," the arch, harrumph dialogue of Saki in "The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope," or the genteel but meddling anxiety that propels the action of Miss Lawless in J.I.M. Stewart's "Teddy Lester's Schooldays."
The British tone is even apparent, in rough and rural guise, in Stella Gibbons' "Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm;" her Howling Starkadders are a British answer to Faulkner's Snopes, and both are literary descendants of characters of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens.
The British tone is equally evident in stories by writers from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand. Welshman Gwyn Thomas, in "An Ample Wish," Scotsman George MacDonald Fraser in "Monsoon Selection Board" and New Zealander Katherine Mansfield ("Germans at Meat") all write with the same quintessential spirit and inflection as their English colleagues. Even Fraser's actual subject is stereotypically British.
Irishman William Trevor, in the dryly delightful "Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch," sounds terribly British as he presents an agonizing scene at a cocktail party, but some of the other Irish writers, such as Frank O'Connor in "The Drunkard" and Flann O'Brien in "The Martyr's Cross," have a distinct language and cadence that is Irish. Samuel Beckett, who was born in Dublin but who lived in France and wrote in French much of the time, sounds uniquely like Beckett in "Fingal" -- about as accessible as mercury.
It is worth noting that only one story, "Renee," by James Kelman, contains any obscenities, which validates another British quality of writing, that is, that British writers traditionally have a greater facility of language and a larger vocabulary -- though probably not gentler sensibilities -- than American counterparts.
Mistaken identity, ludicrous situations, surprise endings often involving someone's comeuppance, three kinds of irony -- gentle, icy and bleak -- describe the crux of many of the stories. For flat out funny, I'd pick the late Graham Greene's "A Shocking Accident," about a young man whose father was killed by a falling pig and who is then plagued by people's stifled laughter when presented with the news. It is ridiculous, ironic and surprisingly sweet.
As we say in America, it's the best.
Ann Egerton writes from Baltimore.