27 June 2011

In a Word, Wodehouse

Imagine master and man—loveable goof and discreet, benevolent genius—the English Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (sort of)—at a 1930s weekend house-party, rife with deception, romance, petty crimes and other shenanigans. This set-up fuels 11 novels and dozens of short stories—starring, of course, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, and penned by P. G. Wodehouse.

After going on a bit too long last week about Saturday Evening Post serials, and resolving thereafter to limit my posts to 500 words, I knew I was in trouble when I saw this morning that one of the best novels serialized in the Post in the 1930s, The Code of the Woosters, and four other Jeeves volumes, were appearing today as ebooks from Norton, Wodehouse’s new U.S. paperback publisher.

Wodehouse has long been one of my favorites, one of the ‘26’. (He’s also the only purely comic writer on the list.) But,  except for public-domain works, there was no Wodehouse available in ebook format in the U.S. until today. I suspect that many readers under 35 don’t know much about Wodehouse, and I’m not sure how to appeal to older readers who know the name but have never been bitten by the bug. Besides, what can I say about such a monumental figure (author of almost a hundred books written over the course of 70+ years) in 500 words?

I’ve decided to duck my responsibilities a bit (if that sounds like Bertie, it’s intentional) and refer you to two authorities on Wodehouse: Richard Usborne (his Plum Sauce is a useful guide for committed fans; earlier versions with different titles will do almost as well) and Anthony Lane (whose 2004 article in The New Yorker is written from the viewpoint of an enthusiast but handles the thorniest issues with courage and intelligence).

What can I tell you, though, about Wodehouse, that almost no one else would?

First, no matter how much praise Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie deserve for their performances in Jeeves and Wooster on 1990s television, Wodehouse is best experienced on the printed—or virtual—page. If you know master and man only from TV (or audiobooks), there are greater pleasures in store when you read Wodehouse for yourself. Let’s just say there’s a layer of freshness and innocence, of Woosterian naiveté, in the mostly first-person narrative, that gets pulled away too quickly when someone else is interpreting it for you. (Furthermore, I'd recommend the Jeeves novels over the short stories: it's more amazing to watch Wodehouse juggle more balls for a longer time. After Code of the Woosters, try Joy in the Morning.)

Second, keep an eye on Bertie’s aunts. There’s a mystical secret about them, and, once you discover it for yourself, you’ll have yet another reason to read every last word of the series (ending with Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen) to confirm your hypothesis.

One last remark: when you’ve inhaled all of Jeeves and Wooster, there are arguably even greater Wodehouse comedies ahead. Keyword: Blandings.

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