The best funny international classics you (may) have never heard of

Why am I passionate about this?

Humor is based on surprise and the ‘foreign’ is often surprising. As I traveled all over the world for work, I searched out local authors and found myself laughing. It started with At Swim Two Birds and has never stopped.

I wrote...

Substantial Justice

By Daniel Ben-Horin,

Book cover of Substantial Justice

What is my book about?

Jane Austen meets Raymond Chandler in post-Vietnam America. Set in 1985, Substantial Justice is about a likable pair of off-and-on-again (after a ten-year hiatus) lovers, who try to sort out their relationship while engaging with white supremacists, political activists, lumber tycoons, motorcycle gangs, early online geeks, and law enforcement. (Presciently, the supremacists are motivated by the same texts that spurred the Jan. 6 2021 invasion of the U.S. Capitol.) The terrain is San Francisco, Mendocino County, New York City, and Arizona. Substantial Justice is a comic thriller and a surprising love story that delights in the vicissitudes of the era and has much to tell us about our own.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of At Swim-Two-Birds

Daniel Ben-Horin Why did I love this book?

In the summer of 1968, I was 20 and spent the summer pretty much banally in Israel and Europe. Around me, the world was on fire, but I was inside my own head.

Eventually, I washed up in Dublin, where I walked in a cold rain to Dorset Street, there to recreate Leopold Bloom’s pork kidney purchase from Dlugacz, the butcher. There was no Dlugacz on Dorset, but there was another butcher who stuffed into stiff pink butcher paper something that glistened and oozed. My plan was to fry it up, as Leopold had, on the hotplate in my rented room. It did not go well. I was felled intestinally in dramatic fashion; pity there was no one to observe. 

Somehow, in my travels, I had obtained a copy of At Swim Two-Birds, and now, my insides recreating The Troubles, I wanly reached for it and read the first paragraph: “…One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with…” WTF. At Swim Two Birds saw me through my pork kidney fiasco and, I believe, has had longer-term salubrious effects.

The book was published in 1939 which I can relate to, having published my own first novel in the teeth of covid. It sold 234 copies in six months and not many thereafter. Then, very slowly, people recognized it as one of the supreme examples of metafiction and an alternately hilarious, provocative, and oddly touching read. It sits at #64 on The Guardian’s list of hundred best novels in the English language. 

By Flann O'Brien,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked At Swim-Two-Birds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A wildly comic send-up of Irish literature and culture, At Swim-Two-Birds is the story of a young, lazy, and frequently drunk Irish college student who lives with his curmudgeonly uncle in Dublin. When not in bed (where he seems to spend most of his time) or reading he is composing a mischief-filled novel about Dermot Trellis, a second-rate author whose characters ultimately rebel against him and seek vengeance. From drugging him as he sleeps to dropping the ceiling on his head, these figures of Irish myth make Trellis pay dearly for his bad writing. Hilariously funny and inventive, At Swim-Two-Birds…

Book cover of The Long Ships

Daniel Ben-Horin Why did I love this book?

I remember buying The Long Ships about twenty years ago on Potrero Hill in San Francisco. Generally speaking, 1950s Swedish novels about Vikings are not my thing, but there was an absolutely over-the-top introduction from Michael Chabon.…'best novel ever’ kind of stuff…so I bought it.

Since then, I have recommended it to dozens of people, almost all of whom have, often to their surprise, loved it and recommended it to others. My favorite recommendation was to a pal whose daughter absconded with it and was reading it on a parapet in southern Spain when a guy came by and asked her what she was reading. She showed him the book, he perused it gravely, and then tore out the frontispiece and used it to roll a joint. This is a very satisfying book in every way.

Don’t get it confused with the derivative Norwegian comedy series, Norsemen. The Long Ships is a remarkable saga about trying to live a sentient life in non-sentient times. The central character, Orm the Red, is often no better than anyone else, but he has a clue about life beyond pillage and rapine and the book is basically about what he does with this clue over the course of time.

It’s also very funny.

By Frans G. Bengtsson, Michael Meyer,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Long Ships as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This saga brings alive the world of the 10th century AD when the Vikings raided the coasts of England.

Acclaimed as one of the best historical novels ever written, this engaging saga of Viking adventure in 10th century northern Europe has a very appealing young hero, Orm Tostesson, whose story we follow from inexperienced youth to adventurous old age, through slavery and adventure to a royal marriage and the search for great treasure. Viking expeditions take him to lands as far apart as England, Moorish Spain, Gaardarike (the country that was to become Russia), and the long road to Miklagard.…

Book cover of How's the Pain?

Daniel Ben-Horin Why did I love this book?

I like to read thrillers set in countries I'm visiting, and so I randomly picked up How's the Pain? billed as “French Noir”.  The title alone is almost worth the price of admission.

It is supposedly the standard greeting among some African tribesmen. Beats the existential pants off “How are you?”, don’t you think? The writing fulfills the title’s promise. It is tight and funny, brutal in parts, but doesn’t succumb to some noir’s tendency to gratuitously pile on the awfulness of it all. 

By Pascal Garnier, Emily Boyce (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How's the Pain? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How's the Pain? is an off-kilter, blackly comic novel about an unlikely duo of a soon-to-be-retired assassin and a deadbeat young man, from the 'slyly funny' [Sunday Times] Pascal Garnier.

'Deliciously dark ... painfully funny' New York Times

Death is Simon's business. And now the ageing vermin exterminator is preparing to die. But he still has one last job down on the coast, and he needs a driver.

Bernard is twenty-one. He can drive and he's never seen the sea. He can't pass up the chance to chauffeur for Simon, whatever his mother may say. As the unlikely pair set…

Book cover of Happiness is Possible

Daniel Ben-Horin Why did I love this book?

In the lineage of Goncharov’s Oblomov, with that very Russian mixture of humor and fatalism, this novel is a treat. In a sense, you know everything you need to know concerning the book’s content from the title.

The achievement is in making this somewhat kitschy, Hallmark card notion, come alive, entertain, and contain real meaning. Zaionchkovsky pulls it off like nobody’s business. Terrific job. Very funny and, also touching, without bathos.

By Oleg Zaionchkovsky, Andrew Bromfield (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Happiness is Possible as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

Book cover of Wittgenstein's Nephew

Daniel Ben-Horin Why did I love this book?

This short 1962 Austrian novel is a scream, literally and figuratively.

The Austrians don’t really know what to do with Bernhardt, who hated the country so trenchantly and yet is its finest twentieth-century writer. If you enjoy spending time in the S. Beckett’s zip code, you’ll love this book.

By Thomas Bernhard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wittgenstein's Nephew as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'If you haven't read Bernhard, you will not know of the most radical advance in fiction since Joyce ... My advice: dive in.' Lucy Ellmann

'I absolutely love Bernhard: he is one of the darkest and funniest writers ... A must read for everybody.' Karl Ove Knausgaard

It is 1967. Two men lie bedridden in separate wings of a Viennese hospital. The narrator, Thomas Bernhard, is stricken with a lung ailment; his friend Paul,…

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Book cover of Melody and the Pier to Forever: Parts Five and Six

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