Monday, May 21, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #4: Bachelors Anonymous

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Scoff all you like when a meteor lands a few feet away from Peter Parker in Central Parker Park, sparkering the beginning of action, adventure, thrills and merchandising that leads to the wacky, nutty adventures of Spider-Man 3. (What's this got to do with A Wodehouse a Week? Please stay patiently tuned, gentle reader.) It's both a massive coincidence and a plot device that you more or less must forgive or else the story doesn't really get going. Sure, we can all try for the No-Prize and justify it: maybe the symbiote was looking for and zeroed in on the most powerful human in the vicinity. Or maybe there were hundreds of meteors carrying symbiotes and this is the only one that made it to a strong host. Or maybe it purposefully came to New York City just because it likes chocolate cake and cold delicious milk. Take yer pick and it really doesn't matter which, does it? Because the story needs it to happen and you can shrug and forgive it because it's not too outrageous to have on coincidence like that in a story. Now, pile on six or seven coincidences, well, then maybe it might get a little outrageous...

Or maybe it might be a P. G. Wodehouse story, in which synchronicity and serendipity merrily rule, and coincidence is merely just another chance for a boy and a girl to come face to face and realize they love each other.

Speaking of coincidinks, the first paragraph that greets me when I peel open the cover of Bachelors Anonymous re-introduces me to Ivor Llewellyn, bombastic Welsh Hollywood magnate, one of the larger-than-life characters of two-weeks-ago's Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin. More to the point, this is more-or-less a direct sequel, let's momentary call it PGMB...because it follows directly on the heels of that novel and picks up Ivor Llewellyn a few months following his happy divorce from the shrew Grayce (the fifth Mrs. Llewellyn) in PGMB. Aside from Llewellyn, however, there's no recurring characters from the previous book, but it's a lovely little touch of consistency showing what we comics fanbulls would call Wodehouse's "universe." Bachelors Anonymous was actually even published directly after PGMB: in 1973, making it his second-to-last finished novel. That's completely coincidence in and of itself, by the way: I chose Bachelors Anonymous merely because it was a slim paperback and easier to carry on the subway. And yet I'm yet again at the tail end of Wodehouse's career here, flitting back and forth like Doctor Sam Beckett. Luckily it's quite a happy journey and despite Pearls being fresh in my mind it wasn't actually essential that I have read it two weeks before to enjoy and understand Bachelors Anonymous. Such is the skill of P. G. Wodehouse: even more than Chris Claremont, he's a master at making certain you're quickly up to snuff whatever book in the canon you crack open.

Ivor Llewellyn, as previously mentioned, is freshly divorced which should make him as happy as a clam, but instead he's stewing in his own oyster juices. He's attracted to handsome and harpyish actress Vera Dalrymple, and there lies his problem: he's terrified of getting re-married. And yet, he often can't help himself. He's a compulsive marrier. Enter the mysterious (and yet oddly practical) Bachelors Anonymous, an organization of confirmed bachelors who rely on the moral and mental support of each other to help their comrades avoid marriage at all costs, by hook, crook, or slipping a Mickey Finn. Capital idea, wot? Ephraim Trout, lifelong bachelor, steers Llewellyn in the direction of the London law firm of Nichols, Erridge, Trubshaw and Nichols (pay attention to those names, mind you!) to suggest he hire from them a personal bodyguard to keep him from proposing to Vera in moments of weakness. Joe Pickering, on the other hand, would like nothing more than to be married to a beautiful and bright Sally Fitch, journalist extraordinaire. Joe fell in love with Sally at first sight when she interviewed him during rehearsals for the play he wrote...a play which stars Vera Dalrymple and whose backstage has Ivor Llewellyn hanging about like a lovesick puppy. Also present behind the scenes of this doomed production: Sir Jaklyn Warner, a ne'r-do-well (delightfully, the closest the Wodehouse world ever comes to true villains are ne'r-do-wells) who borrows money from Joe. All clear so far? That's two balls in the air criss-crossing each other. Following the failure of his play, Joe can think of nothing else but Sally (whose last name he has forgotten, meaning he can't contact or find her), and goes to lunch with his friend, the lawyer Jerry Nichols (where have we heard that name before?). Jerry suggests a bit of buck-you-up by proposing a new job for Joe: some Hollywood bigwig chappie who hired his law firm is looking for a personal bodyguard to keep him from marrying an actress. Meanwhile, young Sally Fitch heads to an appointment at a solicitor after a mysterious letter hints at a situation of advantage to her. That solicitor? Oh, surely you have guessed that it's Nichols, Erridge, Trubshaw and Nichols. Much hilarity ensues, of course. Jerry and Sally are reunited and make a date to meet later, and Sally soon finds out she is due to inherit twenty five thousand pounds in the will of her old employer, but only if she can give up smoking for one year. (Still with me?) Overcome by the news, Sally misses her lunch date with Joe (now employed by Llewellyn), but meets her own personal bodyguard: Daphne Dolby, a detective hired by the law firm to ensure she keeps to the non-smoking clause of the will. Daphne is quite looking forward to living with Sally for a year, if only to keep her rather dodgy boyfriend Jaklyn Warner at bay. Oh, and for good measure, Warner is Sally's ex-boyfriend. But how will Sally find Joe again now? Well, she'll have to worry about that later, as she's off to interview Hollywood mogul Ivor Llewellyn...

Well, with coincidences like that, I've certainly lost count of the number of balls that Wodehouse has tossed up in the air, but they're all crossing paths so elegantly it might as well be a ballet...or as Wodehouse would put it, a musical comedy without the music and singing. What I've just described above (without the charm and the grace that Wodehouse gives it) is merely the set-up: the first fifty pages of an exceptionally fast-paced novel. It's short, yes: I read it in one day in one and a half trips between Brooklyn and Manhattan on the subway. Fair warning: if you're going to read Wodehouse in public be prepared for sideways glances when you laugh out loud. Bachelor's Anonymous is in some ways a quieter book humor-wise than some of Wodehouse's early work, and he does sometimes repeat jokes (the whimsical Barribault's earthquake metaphor he used a year ago in Pearls pops up again here, though delightfully rewritten). But then of course you have sequences of pure joy like these (brush up on your Shakespeare for maximum giggle-effect):
'Mr Pickering here tonight, Mac?'

To which Mac replied:

'He's round in front'—which would not have been a bad description of the visitor propped against the wall, who was noticeably stout. Julius Caesar would have liked him.
and less than the specific time he was in a chair at 8 Enniston Gardens, and Mr Llewellyn was saying 'Listen', prepatory to cleaning his stuffed bosom of the perilous stuff that weights upon the heart, as Shakespeare and the Welsh school marm would have phrased it, though Shakespeare ought to have known better than to put 'stuff' and 'stuffed' in the same sentence like that.
Lesser writers would be satisfied with a sentence like, say, 'He gave Joe a disdainful look.' Not Wodehouse. Oh no, no, no, no:
Even to an unobservant eye it would have been apparent that he was not one of Joe's admirers. In the look he gave him as he entered there was something of the open dislike a resident of India exhibits when he comes to take his morning bath and finds a cobra in the bath tub.
It's not one hundred percent prime Wodehouse, but there's a lot of gold here in this late novel of his career—you're along for the joyous ride and you either must forgive the coincidences or accept them as part and parcel of the Wodehousean World: that nothing happens in this universe that does not spiral around itself in an elaborate dance. Joe meets Sally and she spins away again, dinner dates are broken and chances are missed until the very last few pages. Thanks to Bachelors Anonymous, Joe is slipped a Mickey Finn by Ephraim Trout to help him avoid the terrible catastrophe of falling in love, but a few dozen pages from that Trout himself is falling in love with Sally's old nurse, Amelia Bingham. (Even Rosie M. Banks, romance authoress and wife of Bingo Little from the Jeeves stories, gets a name check and provides us with ammunition to continue to tie the Wodehouse Universe together into a cohesive whole.) Nearly everybody falls in love, Joe gets a lucrative Hollywood writing contract, Sally blows her chance at the twenty-five thousand pounds with a careless puff (but isn't love better than money?) and it of course all ends happily, especially for Llewellyn, who's the only one who actually gleefully escapes marriage to a nurse in the hospital who just happens to be Amelia Bingham (she of the betrothed-to-Ephraim Trout-fame). Oh, don't look so shocked and yell at me for not posting a spoiler warning. You don't need a spoiler warning in the world of Wodehouse, you know everyone will end in each other's arms as bluebirds tweet merrily outside of the drawing room.

Improbable coincidences? Sure. But I say, hoorah for them. Wodehouse always used coincidence as a weapon. But he used it deftly and accurately: a foil rather than a broadsword, and he always used his power for good.

Bachelors AnonymousI've got two copies of Bachelors Anonymous, a Penguin Books paperback with a lovely Ionicus watercolor on the cover (though one that really doesn't represent a scene from the book at all), and a Simon and Schuster US hardcover, one of my exceptionally few first edition/first printings in my Wodehouse collection. A listing on for this particular edition is asking $60.00 for it, which ain't bad, as I paid $8.50 for mine. But I'm in this to collect books, not bucks. Really, I collect 'em for the joy and the diversity, not for the investment, and later Wodehouse is easier to find than earlier, of course. But most of all I just like the Simon edition for its gleefully romantic cover by distinctive British cartoonist Osbert Lancaster. That's Ephraim Trout and Sally's nurse Amelia Bingham, on the cover, by the way. Doncha just love the expressions? I think I want to be in love now simply so I can have an expression like that.

Even if you don't want to spend sixty smackers, you can get your very own copy of Bachelors Anonymous using the link on the right. Although it's apparently out of print (really, what is wrong with you publishers? It's even out of print in the UK!), you can pick up an inexpensive paperback through one of Amazon's third-part Marketplace sellers. If you're the sort of person who falls in love at the drop of your trilby you'll emphasize with Joe and Sally. If you're the sort of person who says 'Bah, humbug!' to love, you'll emphasize with Ivor Llewellyn. And if you're the sort of person who enjoys reading about Mickey Finns and smoking you might enjoy the works of Raymond Chandler, but this ain't bad, either.


SallyP said...

Lovely, lovely. I must find this and read it.

Florence Craye said...

Hullo there Bully,

Lovely blog you've got here.I've taken the liberty to post a link to your Wodehouse a Week thread in the yahoogroup Blandings where Plum fans get together and make merry in the guise of a chosen character from the canon.

We'd like to invite you (and other Plum fans) to join us in the fun and laughter at Blandings ( I'm happy to report that some of our newcomers have been inspired by your project and have started ordering the books you've reviewed.

Hope to see you posting soon.

Pavi (aka Florence Craye)