"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 28, 2013

The humorous novels of P.G. Wodehouse (Book review)

The British humorist P.G. Wodehouse reached the ripe old age of 93 as a living proof that laughing is good for you. That also goes for a regular life and constant work - Wodehouse continued writing novels to his last gasp, to a grand total of 100 published books. He seems to have been happiest when he sat behind his typewriter, something which reminds me of his character Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, who also felt most blissful when he could potter among his flowers or feed his Prize Pig. Writer and character share a large and amiable degree of unworldliness.

There is a high level of Britishness in Wodehouse's books and it therefore at first sight seems strange that he spent most of his life outside his native country - mainly in the U.S. where he settled for good from the 1950s on, but also in France. But then, the England Wodehouse describes never existed - although containing elements from pre-WWI Britain, it really is a "never never land" where there is no death or illness, no pain or suffering, no violence or war, no anxiety and no angst. Wodehouse lived through two world wars and a cold war, but these political realities left no traces whatsoever in his books. The biggest problems he addresses are the theft of a silver cow creamer, or how Bertie Wooster can extract himself from the clutches of another marriage-obsessed female. Wodehouse's tales are completely cut loose from reality, which is probably only possible when as a writer you possess a great deal of naivete.

That unworldliness was sometimes also Wodehouse's problem. In the 1940s, while living in France, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis; after his release in 1941 he was persuaded to tell about his experiences in a series of radio programs broadcast from Berlin. Wodehouse apparently saw that as a chance to show his stiff upper lip to his guardians and encourage the home front, but what he didn't realize was that after the war he would be seen as a collaborator.... (although he was officially exculpated). A similar story happened when he worked as a scriptwriter in Hollywood in the 1920s. In a magazine interview he boasted that never in his life he had received such a huge salary for so little work (being often on standby); the next day he was fired by the studio. It could be from one of his stories...

Already in the 1930s Wodehouse was accused of always writing the same book with the same characters, and in the 1950s Kingsley Amis declared his books dead. Wrong: today, Wodehouse is alive and kicking. I think I understand why. In his best books, those written roughly from the 1920s through 1940s, Wodehouse reaches a level of absurdism and zaniness that can be found nowhere else. It doesn't matter that his plots are always the same, for the plot is irrelevant. Nobody cares that his characters do not develop, because who would want Jeeves to change? No, you read Wodehouse for the surreal language, the madcap dialogues. Never was absurdity expressed more beautifully. The Monty Python quality is very high.

What are the best books of Wodehouse? Among the hundred books, two series stand out: the "Jeeves novels," about the indolent aristocrat and inveterate bachelor Bertie Wooster and his personal valet, the ingenious gentleman butler Jeeves, and the "Blandings novels," about the absent-minded Ninth Earl of Emsworth, living at Blandings Castle, whose greatest enthusiasm in life is reserved for his flowers and his prize sow, the majestic Empress of Blandings.

One of the best "Jeeves novels" is Joy in the Morning. Trapped in the countryside, Bertie tries to help his friends and promote the course of true love, but ends up becoming the prey of all and sundry - as usual, only Jeeves can save him. A top "Blandings novel" is Summer Lightning, in which the prize-winning sow is stolen, causing uproar in the otherwise so peaceful castle where imposters gather. Here are my lists of best "Jeeves" books and best "Blandings" novels.

The best Jeeves books:
The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)
Very Good, Jeeves (1930)
Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)
Thank You, Jeeves (1934)
The Code of the Woosters (1937)
Joy in the Morning (1947)
The Mating Season (1949)

The best Blandings books:
Something Fresh (1915)
Leave it to Psmith (1923)
Summer Lightning (1929)
Heavy Weather (1933)
Uncle Fred in the Springtime (1939)
Full Moon (1947)
Pigs Have Wings (1952)

Others: Psmith in the City (1910), Piccadilly Jim (1915).