Friday, April 08, 2005

BOOKS: Curse That Blasted Spink-Bottle!

Awww... the Grumpy Old Bookman just posted this about P.G. Wodehouse:
I wonder if anyone reads P.G. Wodehouse any longer? Apart from weirdos like me, that is. And was he ever respectable, in academic terms? I rather doubt it.
I used to wonder the same thing. I discovered Wodehouse when I was a 20-year-old student of English literature. I'm not sure what exactly attracted me to him initially (though I suspect that I was probably just trying to cultivate some pretentious undergrad eccentricities, along with 90 percent of my classmates), but I was quickly and genuinely sucked into the Wodehouseian universe, as complete a literary universe as you'll find in any genre.

Fortunately, I lured my good friend Schimpky into this universe with me, so I had someone off of whom to bounce reference points. For example, if a classmate said something dippy during a seminar, I could mutter, "Don't you think that the stars are God's daisy chain?" or "Every time a wee fairy blows its nose, a baby is born," and Schimpky would chuckle appreciatively. (I never said I wasn't a snotty undergrad. So were you, so don't you judge me.)

I remember finding some incredibly convoluted way to mention Wodehouse to one of my most intimidating profs (who, by virtue of being intimidating, was therefore the most alluring and challenging bait to a professional suck-up like me) during a student/professor mixer. (In retrospect, I can only begin to imagine how much our professors must have dreaded these events.) After telling her that I'd spent the summer addicted to P.G. Wodehouse, she efficiently deflated me by replying, "But after you've read one of his books, haven't you read them all?"

To this day, I still have a lot of respect for that woman.

Notwithstanding the fact that P.G. Wodehouse novels are kind of the early 20th-century equivalent of Sweet Valley High books, I love them and continue to use them as comfort reading. I stopped adding new books to my collection (I have 20 or so of them, but Wodehouse wrote more than 90) when I was standing in a used book store leafing through one and realized that I couldn't even tell if I'd read it already.

But I still have my favourites. I love Bertie and Jeeves, of course, especially The Code of the Woosters (in my opinion, Wodehouse's crowning achievement, and possibly one of the finest comic novels of all time). And you can't go wrong with the Psmith novels (the "P" is silent, as in "ptarmigan" or "psychologist"), particularly Psmith, Journalist.

I think Wodehouse's timelessness can best be summed up with this quote by Evelyn Waugh, which appears on the back of most of Wodehouse's paperbacks:
Mr Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

I bet Waugh wasn't even trying to kiss a professor's ass when he wrote that.

(It's never too late to hop on the fan train. Get started with this Bloomsbury piece, which lists notable Wodehouse sites.)

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

When I think of Wodehouse, I don't really think of reading; I think of Fry and Laurie, and the marvelous radio adaptations of the mid-80s (?).

I will see your P.G. Wodehouse and raise you an E.F. Benson!

Becky said...

I stopped adding new books to my collection (I have 20 or so of them, but Wodehouse wrote more than 90) when I was standing in a used book store leafing through one and realized that I couldn't even tell if I'd read it already.

Hee, I hit that point after reading about four Wooster & Jeeves books. They're tons of fun, but I'll be damned if I can recall the plot a month later.

Doppelganger said...

I don't know anything about the radio adaptations, but I've seen a few of the BBC television episodes, and I was pleasantly surprised. (Are my low expectations of most TV networks showing?)

Heheh, Becky. What, you can't recall the classic Wodehouse plot? Bertie is summoned to do some kind of job for either Aunt Agatha or Aunt Dahlia. At the same time, he's approached by Gussie Fink-Nottle, who's worried about some incipient relationship problem with Madeline Bassett, which provokes Bertie's anxiety because, through a previous set of complicated misunderstandings, he's obligated to marry the Bassett if she's ever back on the market. He attempts to help his aunt whilst also helping Gussie and Madeline. A Three's Company-esque series of misunderstandings occur. Hilarious hijinx ensue. For a moment, all seems lost. Jeeves saves the day.

For any other Bertie and Jeeves novel, lather, rinse, repeat.

Heh. I hope I didn't ruin the books for anyone.

Allison said...

Ugh. I hated the TV adaptations, as much as I absolutely adore Fry and Laurie. I don't care if Wodehouse plots are formulaic, you can't beat himfor pure mastery of the language and of English comic timing. I think it's too easy to do that "read one, read them all" thing. The man wrote hundreds of stories; and while the plots of many of the Bertie/Jeeves stories are indeed interchangable, somehow it doesn't detract one iota from the absolute joy of reading them.

Though I am definitely a Jeeves/Wooster Wodehousian, there are a few outside stories that have mananged to delight me just as much -- "Uncle Fred Flits By" comes to mind.

Diablevert said...

Huh --- Your prof said that, and you weren't seized with a desire to tatto your initials on her chest with a meat-axe?

I have to chime in to agree with the above poster --- reading a Wodehouse novel the first time through is a necessary chore that must be dispensed with before you can read it over and over again with infinite pleasure; the books are at their best when you already know what's going to happen next and can sit back and watch a perfectly constructed farce unravel itself while immersed in Plum's erudite, giddy banter.

Did you catch Anthony Lane's article on his Wodehouse obsessed uncle in the New Yorker? It was a few months back, now; can't seem to find the title online, but very interesting...

Anonymous said...

I don't care if Wodehouse plots are formulaic, you can't beat himfor pure mastery of the language and of English comic timing.

Exactly. I don't read Wodehouse for the plots, I read them for the deliriously funny writing. Bizarrely enough, despite being a big Wodehouse fan since I was ten, I only read the Blandings novels for the first time last year (I think I'd tried them as a Bertie-obsessed child and not really liked them purely because Bertie and Jeeves weren't in them). It was like a present - lots of unread vintage Wodehouse! And they were all just incredibly funny. I particularly liked the Uncle Fred stories - and of course, Empress of Blandings herself.

And as I am a huge pedant, I feel the horrible urge to point out that the Fry and Laurie series wasn't actually made by the BBC - it was made by their rivals, ITV.

-Anna