Summer Books: Wodehouse!

penguin service with a smileOur books today speak and breathe of summer, because June traditionally ushers in the long march of summer in Boston. The days are longer, and usually, at least in June, the evenings slowly glide into fragrant, cool relief from the day’s heat, and something ineluctable changes just a bit in the mental atmosphere. Though I’ve never quite been able to pinpoint the reason for it, I freely admit that it feels more natural somehow to read an 800-page study of English Civil War iconography in winter than in summer – and the converse is also true: summer seems to call for its own kinds of books, books that feel more like home rather than intellectual explorations.

I suppose everybody has their own lineup of such books and authors, and foremost among mine is P. G. Wodehouse and the incredible world he created over a long life of constant hack-writing. That world encompasses many worlds, from the glitter of Jazz Age New York City to the stately country houses of the English countryside, all existing in a perpetual height of summer in ways like hardly any other books I know (Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories come to mind, and of course Somerville & Ross’s “Adventures of an Irish R. M.” – and the trudging adventures of Rumpole of the Bailey). They burble along, these books the code of the woosters coverand stories, with an absolutely marvelous appearance of effortlessness; they read like they were written not only in summer but for summer.

Wodehouse churned out novels with a Trollopean speed, and although they can be a bit uneven (and they tend to deteriorate in quality the older Wodehouse got), there are more gems among them than virtually any other 20th century writer produced in any genre. They’re all thin; they’re all hammered together in the exact same way, along the exact same principles; they all delight in more or less the same ways: droll descriptions, wryly nonsensical dialogue, and precisely orchestrated climaxes. And the best of them happen in two strands: the Blandings Castle novels, and the much more famous Jeeves & Wooster novels.

Among the former, I’ve always been partial to the 1961 novel Service with a Smile, mainly because it’s so quintessential of the kind: here we have that amiable dottard Clarence, the ninth Earl of Emsworth, that splendid object of his adoration, the great pig Empress of Blandings, three-time silver medallist in the Fat Pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural Show, the scheming crackpot Duke of Dunstable, and of course cheerful busybody Uncle Fred, who galvanizes what little action these wondrously silly books ever have. Blandings Castle, as we’re told, “is no place for weaklings,” and in this novel it appears to be guarded by a formidable divine:

The Rev Cuthbert Bailey met with his instant approval. He liked his curates substantial, and Bill proved to be definitely the large economy size, the sort of curate whom one could picture giving the local backslider the choice between seeing the light or getting plugged in the eye … a captious critic might have felt on seeing the Rev Cuthbert that it would have been more suitable for one in holy orders to have looked a little less like the logical contender for the world’s heavyweight championship, but it was impossible to regard his rugged features and bulging shoulders without an immediate feeling of awe.

week-end wodehouse coverBut long before Service with a Smile, there was Jeeves, and my favorite of the Jeeves & Wooster novels is 1938′s The Code of the Woosters, which I always read in the old Vintage paperback with its crackerjack Introduction by Alexander Cockburn, who’s up-front about his idolatry:

Wodehouse’s status? It’s been vouched for by every major English writer of the twentieth century with a spark of insight or talent. He stands as father of the style of Evelyn Waugh, too acute ever to get lots in the prejudices that marred the latter’s delicacy of touch towards the end of his career. Wodehouse took a language forged out of second-rate fiction and narrative techniques from state farce and created a world as timeless and as true as that of Homer or Shakespeare. And despite his own self-deprecation, Wodehouse had his ambitions. Joy in the Morning, to be read immediately after The Code of the Woosters, deliberately invites comparison with Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, Wodehouse popped in enough allusions and quotations to bend the reader toward such parallel. And he survives it. The Wooster-Jeeves cycle is the central achievement of English fiction in the twentieth century; an achievement impossible to imitate, because – as E. M. Forster remarked of the poet Cavafy – the cycle stands at a slight angle to the universe, unreachable by almost anything but laughter itself.

(That Vintage paperback also has a perfectly-chosen but entirely uncredited cover illustration by J. C. Leyendecker)

The Code of the Woosters is pure Jeeves & Wooster froth, full of country house hijinks, terrifying little dogs, extremely assertive young women, the the most of pg wodehouselovelorn and newt-obsessed Gussie Fink-Nottle, the ominous Roderick Spode looming around every corner, and floating over everything the quiet, underspoken omniscience of Jeeves. I’ve read the book many, many times, but I’ll read it again this summer, and it’ll make me smile all over again, which is all it ever wants to do.

Even so, I’ve often thought there was just a bit of a spiritual opposition between Wodehouse and the full-length novel. He seems somehow made for excerpts, maybe because his fuzz seems antithetical to prolonged concentration, or maybe because even though Wodehouse was a boffo plot-deviser, he really excels at set-pieces, and set-pieces, unless you’re Tolstoy, tend to be short. Hence the appeal of Wodehouse collections, Wodehouse anthologies, Wodehouse omnibuses: they’re like summertime open-air buffets where you can amble through and pick the goodies you want. I turn to Wodehouse anthologies every summer, and although it’s not always the same one, it’s always one of these four:

the world of jeevesThere’s the earliest one, 1939′s Week-End Wodehouse, with its curiously sonorous Introduction by Hilaire Belloc:

Writing is a craft, like any other: playing the violin, skating, batting at cricket, billiards, wood-carving – anything you like; and mastership in any craft is attainment of the end to which the craft is devoted. A craftsman is excellent in his craft according to his degree of attainment towards its end, and his use of the means towards that end. Now the end of writing is the production in the reader’s mind of a certain image and a certain emotion. And the means towards that end are the use of words in any particular language; and the complete use of that medium is the choosing of the right words and putting them into the right order. It is this which Mr. Wodehouse does better, in the English language, than anyone else alive; or at any rate than anyone else whom I have read for many years.

Like all these anthologies, Week-End Wodehouse picks some of the choicest parts from all the novels (parts the Wodehouse reader will know even at a glance, like “Gussie and the Prizes”), and that same approach is taken by 1960′s The Most of P.G. Wodehouse, a great big anthology which dispenses with any kind of Introduction and gets straight to the banquet: The vintage wodehouseDrones Club, Mr. Mulliner, the underappreciated Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge stories, the Blandings Castle crowd, Wodehouse’s beloved golf stories, and, as the culmination, some Jeeves stories, including the classics “The Purity of the Turf” and “The Great Sermon Handicap.”

1967′s The World of Jeeves has a quick Introduction by Wodehouse himself, but it has no Mulliners, no Blandings, no Psmith – just Jeeves and his feckless master, Bertie Wooster. This is the pure stuff, and it’s the anthology I’ve turned to the lucy reading wodehouse - may 2014most times (I’ve had to re-buy my paperback three times, but summer 2014 will be different, since time around I’ll be re-reading it on a glowing flatscreen the way God intended); it has not only “The Purity of the Turf” and “The Great Sermon Handicap” but also such jewels as “Jeeves Makes an Omlette,” Fixing it for Freddie” and the hilarious “Comrade Bingo.”

And last there’s Richard Usborne’s 1977 collection Vintage Wodehouse, which pings around the whole of the Wodehouse body of work, taking a finished short story here or a vivacious excerpt there. Usborne gives a couple-sentence introduction to each separate selection, and these little bits are genuinely interesting in their own right, because he often points out the particular quality he wants to emphasize in each segment. The cumulative effect resembles something like a guided tour, and that can be quite charming.

There are a hundred Wodehouse novels other than the two I mention here, of course, and God knows how many Wodehouse anthologies have appeared and disappeared in the last 80 years. But these six volumes tend to be the ones I reach for, as essential a part of my summer as open windows or metal desk-fans or vociferous complaining on un-air conditioned subway cars. More to the point, Wodehouse is a fundamental book-part of my summer, and I’ll get to a few more of those book-parts as the week goes on. I just thought I’d start with the most summery!

 

 

 

 

2 Comments to Summer Books: Wodehouse!

  1. Robert's Gravatar Robert
    June 1, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I just read McCrum’s biography of Wodehouse, which primed me to revisit the stories.

    Have you noticed that Wodehouse is probably the best ever to read out loud? Something about his droll panache can provoke even the most stolid of readers to thespian energetics.

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