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Thursday, January 4, 2007

Gorging on Plums

I was looking at a few of my favorite blogs yesterday and reading some of the comments when a comment that Stucco made on General Catz Blog hurtled me back 17 years to my teenage years and my bedroom. The name 'Jeeves & Wooster' was mentioned and I remember distinctively my sister howling with tears in her eyes reading the wonderful works of PG Wodehouse. When I asked her what was so funny she would try to utter the words through raspy breaths and splutters and in turn had both of us roaring- Not many writers can do that.. And in an attempt to analyse the works and the master himself I could not do 'plummy' (PG Wodehouse's nick name) justice. I will however hand you over the an architect of language and words, Stephen Fry and let him do the hard work for me (since I finally get my hum drum life back to normal tomorrow)
I have sought to "explain" Wodehouse, to psychoanalyse his world, to place his creations under the microscope of modern literary criticism. Such a project, as an article in Punch observed, is like "taking a spade to a souffle". His world of sniffily disapproving aunts, stern and gooseberry-eyed butlers, impatient uncles, sporty young girls, natty young men who throw bread rolls in club dining-rooms yet blush and stammer in the presence of the opposite sex – all may be taken as evidence of a man stuck in a permanently pre-pubescent childhood, were it not for the extraordinary, magical and blessed miracle of Wodehouse's prose, a prose that dispels doubt much as sunlight dispels shadows, a prose that renders any criticism, positive or negative, absolutely powerless and, frankly, silly.

When Hugh Laurie and I had the extreme honour and terrifying responsibility of being asked to play Bertie Wooster and Jeeves in a series of television adaptations, we were aware of one huge problem. Wodehouse's three great achievements are plot, character and language, and the greatest of these, by far, is language. If we were reasonably competent, then all of us concerned in the television version could go some way towards conveying a fair sense of the narrative of the stories and revealing, too, a good deal of the nature of their characters. The language, however, lives and breathes in its written, printed form. Let me use an example, taken at random. I flip open a book of stories and happen on Bertie and Jeeves discussing a young man called Cyril Bassington-Bassington.

"I've never heard of him. Have you ever heard of him, Jeeves?"

"I am familiar with the name Bassington-Bassington, sir. There are three branches of the Bassington-Bassington family – the Shropshire Bassington-Bassingtons, the Hampshire Bassington-Bassingtons, and the Kent Bassington-Bassingtons."

"England seems pretty well stostocked up with Bassington-Bassingtons."

"Tolerably so, sir."

"No chance of a sudden shortage, I mean, what?"

Well, try as hard as actors might, such an exchange will always work best on the page. It may still be amusing when delivered as dramatic dialogue, but no actors are as good as the actors we each of us carry in our head. And that is the point, really: one of the gorgeous privileges of reading Wodehouse is that he makes us feel better about ourselves because we derive a sense of personal satisfaction from the laughter mutually created. Every comma, every "sir", every "what?" is something we make work in the act of reading.

"The greatest living writer of prose", "the Master", "the head of my profession", "akin to Shakespeare", "a master of the language"... If you had never read Wodehouse and only knew about the world his books inhabit, you might be forgiven for blinking in bewilderment at the praise that has been lavished on a "mere" comic author by writers such as Compton Mackenzie, Evelyn Waugh, Hilaire Belloc, Bernard Levin and Susan Hill. But once you dive into the souffle, once you engage with all those miraculous verbal felicities, such adulation begins to make sense.

Example serves better than description. Let me throw up some more random nuggets. Particular to Wodehouse are the transferred epithets: "I lit a rather pleased cigarette", or, "I pronged a moody forkful of eggs and b". Characteristic, too, are the sublimely hyperbolic similes: "Roderick Spode. Big chap with a small moustache and the sort of eye that can open an oyster at sixty paces", or, "The stationmaster's whiskers are of a Victorian bushiness and give the impression of having been grown under glass". Here is an example that certainly vindicates my point about his prose working best on the page. Reading this aloud is not much use:

"Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?" said Wilfred.

"ffinch-ffarrowmere," corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.

Then there is a passage such as this, Lord Emsworth musing on his feckless younger son, Freddie Threepwood.

Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.

If you are immune to such writing, you are fit, to use one of Wodehouse's favourite Shakespearean quotations, only for treasons, stratagems and spoils. You don't analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour. Like Jeeves, Wodehouse stands alone, and analysis is useless.

I think I should end on a personal note. I have written it before and I am not ashamed to write it again. Without Wodehouse I am not sure that I would be a tenth of what I am today - whatever that may be. In my teenage years the writings of P.G. Wodehouse awoke me to the possibilities of language. His rhythms, tropes, tricks and mannerisms are deep within me. But more than that he taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind. He mocked himself sometimes because he knew that a great proportion of his readers came from prisons and hospitals. At the risk of being sententious, isn't it true that we are all of us, for a great part of our lives, sick or imprisoned, all of us in need of this remarkable healing spirit, this balm for hurt minds?
Some Wodehouse quotes

[The London tea-shops] have an atmosphere of their own. They rely for their effect on an insufficiency of light, an almost total lack of ventilation, a property chocolate cake which you are not supposed to cut, and the sad aloofness of their ministering angels. It is to be doubted whether there is anything in the world more damping to the spirit than a London tea-shop of this kind, unless it be another London tea-sop of the same kind.

Rodney Spelvin was in for another attack of poetry. He had once been a poet, and a very virulent one too; the sort of man who would produce a slim volume of verse bound in squashy mauve leather at the drop of a hat, mostly on the subject of sunsets and pixies

It was a confusion of ideas between him and one of the lions he was hunting in Kenya that had caused A. B. Spottsworth to make the obituary column. He thought the lion was dead, and the lion thought it wasn't

She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say "when."

The Duke of Dunstable had one-way pockets. He would walk ten miles in the snow to chisel an orphan out of tuppence.

The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun
It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them

As for Gussie Finknottle, many an experienced undertaker would have been deceived by his appearance and started embalming on sight

Marriage isn't a process of prolonging the life of love, but of mummifying the corpse Her face was shining like the seat of a bus-driver's trousers

A melancholy-looking man, he had the appearance of someone who had searched for the leak in life's gas pipe with a lighted candle

Few of them were to be trusted within reach of a trowel and a pile of bricks

I pressed down the mental accelerator, the old lemon throbbed fiercely. I got an idea

There is only one cure for grey hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine

He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more

She gave me the sort of look she would have given a leper she wasn't fond of

Wilfred Allsop was sitting up, his face pale, his eyes glassy, his hair disordered. He looked like the poet Shelley after a big night out with Lord Byron

She wrinkles her nose at me as if I were a drain that had got out of order

The Aberdeen terrier gave me an unpleasant look and said something under his breath in Gaelic

Her eye swivelling round stopped me like a bullet. The Wedding Guest, if you remember, had the same trouble with the Ancient Mariner

A man's subconscious self is not the ideal companion. It lurks for the greater part of his life in some dark den of its own, hidden away, and emerges only to taunt and deride and increase the misery of a miserable hour.

Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror.

Unseen, in the background, Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing glove.

Her voice trailed away in a sigh that was like the wind blowing through the cracks in a broken heart.

``I've always treated the man with unremitting kindness, and if he won't do a little thing like this for me, I'll kick his spine through his hat.''

``How much did gin did you put in the jug?''
``A liberal tumblerful, sir.''
``Would that be a normal dose for an adult defeatist, do you think?''

He blinked, like some knight of King Arthur's court, who, galloping to perform a deed of derring-do, has had the misfortune to collide with a tree.


Dan said...

Would you believe that I have never read anything by Wodehouse. But you have intrigued me! ;)

Crankster said...

I read a lot of Woodehouse on vacations; my grandfather had a lot of paperbacks in his house, and we'd read them at the beach. Thanks for the reminder!

You know, Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde had a similar touch, but Woodehouse was able to put his best stuff into stories. Too bad Parker couldn't!

Hammer said...

I'm going to have to look into this further :) Thanks!

Stucco said...

I want to ba an honorary memeber of the Drones club...

slaghammer said...

My favorite is “As for Gussie Finknottle, many an experienced undertaker would have been deceived by his appearance and started embalming on sight.”

General Catz said...

Fry & Laurie AND P.G. Wodehouse in the same blog? I'm in heaven! Thanks for writing this, it was wonderful.

M&Ms are on the way.

Judith said...

Dan, Hammer, Be sure to familiarize yourself with the English upper class twit mentality when reading Wodehouse for the first time and you cant go wrong!

Ahh Crankster & Catz They are indeed gems of the literary world

Stucco I can just picture you standing on a chair in a tux lobbing pork pies at chaps and then tipping a bobbys helmet before running off!

Isnt gussy finknottle the most splendid of names?
one of my favorite quotes ;Pongo had noticed on his uncle's face a lurking gleam such as one might discern in the eye of a small boy who has been left alone in the house and knows where the key of the jam cupboard is.