Monday, 20 February 2012

Right Ho, Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

My book group recently read Right Ho, Jeeves (1934) by P.G. Wodehouse.  I always like an excuse to read some Wodehouse.  A diet of nothing else would be like living on ice cream, but as an occasional snack, there is nothing better.  And it would be a mistake to think that, since PGW makes for such easy reading, that it is easy writing.  I think Wodehouse is one of the best wordsmiths (or should that be wordpsmiths?) I have read, and it is far more difficult to write a funny book than it is to write a poignant or melancholy book.

But perhaps there are people out there who have yet to read any Wodehouse?  Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the way he writes (since, let's face it, there is minimal variety within his output.)  In the typical Wodehouse novel you will have comic misunderstandings, elaborate disguises, accidental engagements, wrathful aunts, and everybody ending up happy in the end.  This formula is more certain than ever in a Jeeves and Wooster novel, where rich, foolish young Wooster gets himself entangled in a comedy of errors, and wise butler Jeeves demurely extracts him from them.

But the sheer joy, the genius, of Wodehouse is his wordplay.  It's the kind of thing which will either appeal or not, and is impossible to explain into funniness (which is true of all humour, probably) - Wodehouse uses language like an acrobat, dashing from hyperbole to understatement in a moment; finding the longest way to express the shortest phrase; finding the most unexpected metaphors and similes, and twisting them all together alongside absurd slang and abbreviation.  Who but Wodehouse could have written this line?
Girls are rummy.  Old Pop Kipling never said a truer word than when he made that crack about the f. of the s. being more d. than the m.
Or have conceived of this image, when serving an aunt with alcohol?
"Give me a drink, Bertie."

"What sort?"

"Any sort, so long as it's strong."

Approach Bertram Wooster along these lines, and you catch him at his best.  St. Bernard dogs doing the square thing by Alpine travellers could not have bustled about more assiduously.
Like Richmal Crompton's William Brown, Bertram 'Bertie' Wooster is nothing if not blessed with aunts - most of whom view him with an unwavering, and understandable, loathing and distrust.  But, like William Brown, Wooster is endlessly well-meaning.  This is what makes him such an attractive hero - more or less all the messes in which he finds himself are caused by trying to help others, often in the romantic department.  Although Wooster himself sees engagement as a misery beyond all others, he often attempts to help others reach this state (invariably finding himself engaged to the soppiest female present.)

But so far I have not been specific.  I should mention Right Ho, Jeeves.  Aunt Dahlia - the only aunt who can tolerate Wooster, although she demonstrates the sort of affection which is shown through terse telegrams and much use of the term 'fathead' - summons Wooster to her mansion in Market Snodsbury, Worcestershire.  (Not many novels feature Worcestershire, the county in which I was raised, so it's nice to see it get a mention - and Pershore, no less, which was the nearest town to my house.  If you're thinking the village name is ridiculous, I should mention that Upton Snodsbury is in the area, and presumably inspired Wodehouse.)  He is being summoned to distribute prizes at a school, a fate which Wooster would rather avoid, to put it mildly.  So he ropes in newt-fanatic Gussie Fink-Nottle, who had been looking for an excuse to go there.  For why, you ask?  Well, with the coincidental air which characterises so many of Wodehouse's convoluted plots, the girl with whom Fink-Nottle is besotted happens to be staying there.  She, 'the Bassett disaster' as Wooster terms her, comes across pretty clearly in his first description of her:
I don't want to wrong anybody, so I won't go so far as to say that she actually wrote poetry, but her conversation, to my mind, was of a nature calculated to excite the liveliest suspicions. Well, I mean to say, when a girl suddenly asks you out of a blue sky if you don't sometimes feel that the stars are God's daisy-chain, you begin to think a bit.
The romantic entanglements do not end there, of course.  Wooster's cousin Angela and her beau Tuppy also have something of a rollercoaster relationship, just to add to festivities.  Then there is Wooster's white jacket, which Jeeves is determined shall not be worn...

My favourite scene from this, and one which often appears in anthologies etc., is Gussie at the prize-giving.  All I'll say is that he's been drinking, for the first time in his life.  It's supposed to stiffen the sinews and summon the blood, but it's a little more chaotic than that.

This isn't my favourite Wodehouse novel.  I think I prefer the stand-alone books to the series, perhaps because they're all the more unexpected and strange.  But Wodehouse's exceptionally brilliant use of language is on fine form in Right Ho, Jeeves and I certainly loved reading this.  There are many imitators, but nobody can equal Wodehouse for his strand of comic writing - and a dose of it, in between other books, is always, always welcome.

36 comments:

  1. A lovely review, Simon, of the glory that is Wodehouse! I'm already confident that is he going to help me through my Century of Books (thank goodness for prolific authors). The plots of the Jeeves and Wooster novels all sort of blur together in my mind and I can never quite remember which title goes with which plot but, since the true joy comes from Wodehouse's marvellous dialogue and hilarious descriptions, that's never really been a problem!

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    1. Thanks, Claire!
      You could probably cover about 70 years just with Wodehouse, couldn't you? I might well resort to a diet of him come winter...

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  2. Simon, I am checking in from Virginia to see what the Sunday song might be and found your delightful thoughts on Wodehouse. I just discovered him last year when a friend recommended we read "Something New". It is rare that I find myself, in the solitude of my own home, laughing out loud so heartily that my dogs look at me askance. I adore Wodehouse and have several of his books loaded on my Kindle awaiting my proper mood (as you say "ice cream" and we mustn't overindulge). FYI, Amazon has several of his books available for download for FREE!!!!! This totally negates the "you get what you pay for" truism -- these little stories are comic gems.

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    1. I love the idea of your dogs being suspicious of your laughter at PGW! Lovely.
      If I had an ereader, I definitely be downloading the free copies... but I do have a backlog of his anyway. And, with 91 novels published, I'm not likely to run out!

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  3. Ice cream, homemade bread and butter, honey, potatoes. I'd say the man covers all my favorites. A few years back, I read and read, and never tired of the work. I'm so pleased you've drawn attention to his brilliance.

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    1. I do wonder how many I could read in a row without getting tired? I did have a spate of them in 2003 or thereabouts, but only three or four in a row.

      And he is oddly absent from the blogosphere, actually, isn't he? I sort of assume that everyone has read him, but perhaps a lot of people my age haven't.

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  4. Oh dear, I'm in a minority here... I have never, ever been able to get along with Wodehouse... he irritates me beyond measure. But I'm prepared to give him another go.

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    1. I will forgive you! Well, there is nothing to forgive - I can see how people would find him irritating, and I doubt you'll ever be persuaded otherwise. But do try, by all means - if you can crack him, you'll have a lifetime of laughter available!

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  5. I rarely read Wodehouse, but I agree wholeheartedly with your review! You mention his aunts, strong-minded women all and indeed in the Wooster world most of the women seem to have splendidly independent minds and great strength of character. There are, as you say, a few completely hopeless, soppy young women (some strong ones too of course) and those are the only characters I find myself, occasionally, feeling slightly irritated by. "Gods daisy chain" indeed! Overall a wonderful houmorist and I agree with your suggestion to read in small doses; but perhaps I've been too parsimonious in recent years.

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    1. Very good point - apart from the would-be poets, the women in PGW tend to be strong, independent people. Who knew - PGW a feminist! The soppy ones are irritating, but in a way I love - in this novel I especially loved the scenes where Bassett was besotted with Bertie, and he was trying to manfully reply. When she says she will spend the rest of her life devoted to his pleasure, he simply replies "A matey scheme!"

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  6. I love Wodehouse and found his books great to read when ill as they always cheer me up. The Blandings Castle ones I particularly like and the bit at the speech day in your book, too.

    One thing to add - Alan Titchmarsh is unexpectedly good, I think, at reading out his prose and also at being Lady Constance from Blandings Castle!

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    1. That is unexpected! I will have to keep an eye out for Alan as Lady C... or an ear out, I suppose.

      They really are wonderfully cheering - and undemanding - so I must get a stock in next time I'm ill.

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  7. "Who but Wodehouse could have written ...?" - indeed. Unique and wonderfully funny.

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    1. Amen! So few authors can truly be called unique, but I think PGW is one who can.

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  8. Gussie Fink-Nottle...I burst out laughing! I have yet to venture down the path of Wodehouse, partly due to my unread copy of The Complete Saki that I feel quite guilty about. But one of these days...

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    1. Wonderful, isn't it? I feel pretty sure you'd love Wodehouse. And Saki, but PGW is less biting in his humour, if that helps you decide at all!

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  9. Love to read them and love to listen to them--especially when read by Jonathan Cecil who sounds exactly like Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Although a bit dangerous to listen to Jeeves and Wooster while driving. Favorite line recently: "It's like Shakespeare, sounds well but doesn't mean anything." Said by Bertie, of course.

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    1. Brilliant!
      Yes, I can imagine that PGW in a car would cause a sharp increase in accidents... At his best, he really is a laugh-out-loud writer. I must refamiliarise myself with the TV series, which I haven't seen for years - and even then I only saw two or three.

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  10. I love Wodehouse. Like Claire, I find the plots blur together in my mind. Your phrase, "Wodehouse uses language like an acrobat" is well said. I completely agree. I have to admit I didn't know my Kipling well enough to get the "f of the s is more than the d of the m. In case anyone else didn't get it, I looked it up: "For the female of the species is more deadly than the male." Ha!

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    1. I must confess that my familiarity with the expression comes from a 1990s song by Space!

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    2. Oh dear...showing my age...never heard of the song. You must have been a wee bairn when it came out. I suppose you knew it would come in handy later in life.

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  11. Ice cream and master of language indeed - LOVE Wodehouse! I am actually just now reading Leave It to Psmith and he's such a joy. It's the language (including those funny abbreviations as you gave an example of) that does it - I mean, the plots are great comedy, but I think you've nailed it all around. Husband goes mad for the names. He's still not over What-Whatley (or however you spell it - heard that one on audio, and +1 to Kim on Jonathon Cecil. he's perfect).

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    1. I've not heard of What-Whatley - brilliant! His use of language really is second to none. Even the name 'Psmith' makes me laugh - I've only read one Psmith book (Psmith Journalist) but will, of course, read more.

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    2. I'm pretty sure What-Whatley was in Thank You, Jeeves. And yes, Psmith. In reading to myself, inside my head, I can't break the habit of thinking pea-smith.

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  12. I can't remember who said "The truly well-educated misquote the classics - only the poorly educated take the trouble to be accurate" (or some such similar wording). Wooster to a tee!

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    1. Sounds like it could well have been him!

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    2. Am I alone in suspecting that you do remember who said it, Mother, but wouldn't dream of admitting it?

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  13. I've only recently discovered the delights of Wodehouse since late last year, starting with Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (audiobook) followed by Something Fresh, and The Inimitable Jeeves (also audiobook). You're right, it is the same formula being recycled again and again in most of his stories, especially so in the Wooster and Jeeves series. But as you have also pointed out, the pleasure and beauty of Wodehouse lies in his fantastic wordplay. Definitely a welcomed source of comfort and delight every now and then!

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    1. Yes, one definitely wouldn't read these books to find out what happened! It's all about the wordplay. Aunts Aren't Gentlemen was my first Jeeves and Wooster - I love the title so much, and it's all great fun!

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  14. This has shamelessly reminded me that I have not read any P.G Wodehouse and you sent me two of them, shame, shame, shame. Shame on me.

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    1. Haha! - oh, yes, shame to be heaped upon your head forthwith.
      I am 110% (as they say on X Factor) confident that you'll love PGW when you get around to him - but no hurry. You'll just kick yourself at the time you wasted in not reading him ;)

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  15. There's nothing like Jeeves and Wooster to make you smile. And laugh. And sometimes roll about on the floor.

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  16. Right Ho, is always the first book I hand to my kids to introduce them to Wodehouse. My youngest just finished it and is racing for the bookshelf for more. Many times we've wished Jeeves lived at our house! :)

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  17. Jeeves has established his justifiable reputation as an invaluable solver of problems of all kinds. However, when Gussie Fink-Nottle follows Jeeve's advice to attend a fancy dressed party rigged out as Mephistopheles, he comes badly unstuck. Could it be that Jeeves has lost his grip? Bertie decides that Jeeves is not the only onion in the hash and he embarks on a plan that will, he believes, make Madeline become engaged to Gussie, that will re-unite cousin Angela with Tuppy and will make Uncle Tom cough up some cash for Aunt Dahlia. However, as you may expect, Bertie's schemes have a knack of going awry and, before long, everything and everyone is in a state of confusion.

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