Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Wodehouse Itch



I go through kicks with things, as you well know. I get stuck on an actor, a director, or, most relevant to this post, an author.

I'm of the generation that obsessively steamrolls through whole series on Netflix. I perseverate. I devour.

And nothing, nothing is more addictive than when I get the P.G. Wodehouse Itch.

Remember in my last monster movie post when I expounded on the various TV/movie media that I frequently while away my blues with? Wodehouse is that in literary form. "From the very first sentence of my very first Wodehouse story," Jeeves & Wooster star Hugh Laurie says in his article Wodehouse Saved My Life, "life appeared to grow somehow larger. There had always been height, depth, width and time, and in these prosaic dimensions I had hitherto snarled, cursed, and not washed my hair. But now, suddenly, there was Wodehouse, and the discovery seemed to make me gentler every day."

Laurie started out with Blandings, but I began with Jeeves, the best of the best, and I've been always cautious to tread outside that comfortable little zone. Like Bertie Wooster, I'm helpless without that gentleman's personal gentleman whose head bulges in the back. Yet I finally decided it was time to stop fooling around and see what more there was to life. I took a plunge.

Well, my friend did. She purchased The Most of P.G. Wodehouse for me, essentially a sumptuous samples platter of Wodehouse's array of works.

I'd of course tried to read Wodehouse stories that weren't Jeeves-centric in the past, but maybe I wasn't ready for them yet. The Adventures of Sally was a little too cute. I never finished Damsel in Distress because it was a little too twee. Ukridge just plain didn't grip me. So I had shrugged in a grotesque nonchalant way and simply buried myself in the Jeeves Omnibus again.

But recently--before my friend's present--I picked up Wodehouse's biography Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum. I learned that although I could probably not agree less with the master on subjects of politics and taxation, he was a very amiable bird who stumbled almost Wooster-like into his WWII broadcasting downfall. Yet more importantly I learned that there was probably never an author whose life was so consumed by writing.

There was little else for him. His social life, his marriage, his continent hopping, his daily dozens, all of his life had to adjust to his writing schedule, which--each day--took up most hours. Get up at six, daily dozens. Write to lunch. Swim. Write. Walk dogs. Write. Dinner. Write. Bed. He wrote as a bank teller. He wrote in internment camps. He wrote in hospitals. He wrote, wrote, wrote.

And what makes this so absolutely amazing was that he wasn't set on fire by some fervent revolutionary cause, some vital social or political topic that he felt must be shot to the masses before it's too late.

He wrote farces about fops in late Edwardian English country houses and London clubs. The biggest conflicts never surmount escaping unwanted marriages or purloining cow creamers from the local magistrate. The only political figure of note is a caricature of British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, a character who secretly designs women's underclothing. The biggest menace is the specter of the disapproving and pushy aunt.

Yet these characters, this universe, consumed Wodehouse's thoughts, so much so that visitors often recalled that he was not truly present, but off inhabiting the next story hatching in his hare-brained brain. He wrote his characters in their late 1910s-roaring '20s setting until 1975, the year he died. The doctor found him hunched over his typewriter.

And so, of course, it's only appropriate McCrum includes hundreds of excerpts of these writings--the centers of Wodehouse's existence--throughout the biography. It was eye-opening for me to read samples from non-Jeeves stories, stories that made Wodehouse so much of what he is, and that I had hardly delved in.

So my friend was very, very kind in her gift.

I've barely made a dent in the book. It's huge. Wodehouse basically wrote non-stop once his career started, save for a dry spell in the early '50s as he was recovering from his war scandal and the shifting tastes in his post-war audience. As for myself, while I happily concede that Wodehouse's Jeeves stories really are the cream of the crop, I've finally come around to the fact that Wodehouse tales can exist without J&W, and be quite damn good at that.

He's been called the most asexual of writers, and while the down and dirty act is indeed hardly ever alluded to, that's not to say there is no romance. His stuff is chock-full of romantic love. I'd been so used to Bertie's devoted bachelordom in the Jeeves stories that I was a bit taken aback by the way Wodehouse's other Drones fall to pieces for their femmes.

True, Wodehouse romances are often fleeting and superficial, but sometimes the divine pash proves to be the real thing. The couples in question may be frivolous down to the bone, the situations they find themselves immersed in ludicrous, and their volcanic arguments about hat sizes hilarious, yet what really sells them is the loving, poetic touch Wodehouse lends these ridiculous scenarios.

For example, let me spoil "The Reverent Wooing of Archibald" for you. Archibald Mulliner, nephew to the eternal narrator Mr. Mulliner, is besotted at first sight by the regal, statuesque, and brilliantly dignified-looking Aurelia Cammarleigh. Yet what keeps Archibald from professing his admiration is the fact that, according to his loving uncle, "had [Archibald's] brain been constructed of silk, he would have been hard put to find sufficient material to make a canary a pair of cami-knickers." Like the majority of male Wodehouse protagonists, he's a thoughtless, amiable chump. Meanwhile, from his sight of her across the street, Mulliner believes Aurelia's haughty gaze and upright demeanor a sign she'd turn down the advances of a frivolous goof like him.

And so he endeavors to improve his image. He cozies up to her eccentric and studious aunt, engaging in complicated and dithering mathematical discussions about how Bacon really wrote Shakespeare's plays. Archibald pretends not to drink or smoke. He scoffs at the rumor (which is true) that he is the best imitator of a hen laying an egg in London.

Yet he's shocked by a revelation. He visits the aunt's country house, and at night as he eavesdrops on a conversation Aurelia has with her girlfriend, he learns his refined image is actually putting her off; even though she's "rather an outsize and modeled on the lines of Cleopatra" she's in reality the giddy flapper type whose ideal man is, ironically, someone who can do the best imitation of a hen laying an egg in London.

Archibald gets his chance to do what he will with this information when she sneaks onto his balcony to place her chronically snoring bulldog within his hearing, for a laugh.

And here is a golden example of not only a fine non-Jeeves work by Wodehouse, but a fine slice of writing no matter how you take it. Archibald knows how to woo his Black Bottom dancing Cleopatra.

Archibald's imitation of a hen laying an egg was conceived on broad and sympathetic lines. Less violent than Salvini's Othello, it had in it something of the poignant wistfulness of Mrs. Siddons in the sleep-walking scene of Macbeth. The rendition started quietly, almost inaudibly, with a sort of soft, liquid crooning--the joyful yet half-incredulous murmur of a mother who can scarcely believe as yet that her union has really been blessed, and that it is indeed she who is responsible for that oval mixture of chalk and albumen which she sees lying beside her in the straw.
Then, gradually, conviction comes.
"It looks like an egg," one seems to hear her say. "It feels like an egg. It's shaped like an egg. Damme, it is an egg!"
And at that, all doubting resolved, the crooning changes; takes on a firmer note; soars into the upper register; and finally swells into a maternal paean of joy--a "Charawk-chawk-chawk-chawk" of such a caliber that few had ever been able to listen to it dry-eyed. Following which, it was Archibald's custom to run round the room, flapping the sides of his coat, and then, leaping onto a sofa or some convenient chair, to stand there with his arms at right angles, crowing himself purple in the face.
All these things he had done many a time for the idle entertainment of fellow members in the smoking room of the Drones, but never with the gusto, the brio, with which he performed them now. Essentially a modest man, like all the Mulliners, he was compelled, nevertheless, to recognize that tonight he was surpassing himself. Every artist knows when the authentic divine fire is within him, and an inner voice told Archibald Mulliner that he was at the top of his form and giving the performance of a lifetime. Love thrilled through every "Brt-t't-t' t" that he uttered, animated each flap of his arms. Indeed, so deeply did Love drive in its spur that he tells me that, instead of the customary once, he actually made the circle of the room three times before coming to rest on top of the chest of drawers.
When at length he did so he glanced toward the window and saw that through the curtains the loveliest face in the world was peering. And in Aurelia Cammarleigh's glorious eyes there was a look he had never seen before, the sort of look Kreisler or somebody like that beholds in the eyes of the front row as he lowers his violin and brushes his forehead with the back of his hand. A look of worship.
There was a long silence. Then she spoke.

"Do it again!" she said.

2 comments:

  1. Great post!

    Have you read the Psmith books? They're great stuff!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Chris! Unfortunately, I haven't read any Psmith books yet, though I really want to. This volume doesn't have any Psmith stories, so I'm going to have to take a trip to the library.

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