Monday, November 12, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #29: A Few Quick Ones

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'Gesundheit,' said a Draught Ale.

'I wasn't sneezing, I was snorting,' said the Whisky-and-Splash. Disgustedly, he added, 'Why do they publish these things?'

'What things would that be?'

'These stories, illustrated in glorious technicolor, where the fellow meets the girl on the beach, and they start kidding back and forth, and twenty minutes after they've seen each other for the first time, they're engaged to be married.'

Mr Mulliner took a sip from his Scotch and lemon.

'You find that unconvincing?'

'Yes, I do. I am a married man, and it took me two years and more boxes of chocolates than I care to think of to persuade the lady who is now my wife to sign on the dotted line. And though it is not for me to say so, I was a pretty fascinating chap in those days. Ask anybody.'

Mr Mulliner nodded.

'Your point is well taken. But you must make allowances for the editor of the Saturday Evening Post. He lives in a world of his own, and really does think that two complete strangers can meet in bathing suits on the beach and conclude their initial conversation by becoming betrothed....'

—from "The Right Approach" in A Few Quick Ones


Whitman's SampleEvery year on December 25th Father Christmas brings me all sorts of goodies, but one of the gifts I love best is the annual Whitman's Sampler box of chocolate. Last year I got the big Mega-Sampler with 365 pieces of chocolate, which I guess the idea of is to eat a piece of candy each and every day and by the time you get to the bottom of the you'll be unwrapping a new one under the festive tree. That's in theory. Of course, around about the afternoon of December 28th when I was sifting through the empty wrapped and upending the box with a frenzied shake to try and find one last piece, it doesn't always work that way. But I 'specially love the patented unique feature of the Whitman's Sampler: the candy-coded chart inside every box that tells you what you're biting into, whether it's a smooth silky Caramel Creme, a frosty Peppermint Patty, or a surprising Crunchy Frog.

Aside from the mention of boxes of chocolates in the excerpt above, what's all that got to do with P. G. Wodehouse, you ask? Well, it's because this week I'm reading A Few Quick Ones (1959), an omnibus of short stories featuring all his greatest characters. No, that's not "omnibus" as in a big red vehicle driven around by London Transport (altho' those are loads of fun, too) but an anthology collection of stories which, like a big box of lovely chockies, makes the perfect companion to snuggling up in your favorite armchair on a rainy afternoon. And there isn't a lemon crème among them.

Befitting the title, I'll make this review a quick one (as I'm on my way out the door heading for sales conference, where I will pay close attention and take lots of notes on exciting books) and basically give A Few Quick Ones two hooves up as one of the delightfully well-mixed authorized anthologies that were published during Wodehouse's lifetime, consisting of stories originally published in a wide variety of magazines in both the US and UK. How wide a variety? Well, The Saturday Evening Post (poking a bit of fun at himself and his stories in the excerpt above) and The Strand should come as no surprise—Wodehouse published regularly in both. A Jeeves and Wooster heist story originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. There's stories here from the famous Punch and Collier's and the wonderfully titled John Bull magazine. There's even a couple that originally appeared in Playboy, which is a magazine a little stuffed bull is not allowed to look at, even though from that name it must be full of all sorts of playground and outdoors fun and japes for the active boy.

Name a famous Wodehouse creation and he's probably in here: Bertie and Jeeves of course (Aunt Dahlia has Bertie steal a painting, chaos ensues), Bertie's pal Bingo Little (Bingo tries to make a bit of ready money without his wife finding out, chaos ensues), Drones member Oofy Prosser (Oofy indulges in get-rich-quick schemes, chaos ensues), The Oldest Member and Mr. Mulliner (tales are told about hapless golfers and Mulliner family members, chaos etc. etc.), and, depending on which edition of the book you have in your own hooves (because it isn't in some of the earlier US printings), Ukridge (oh, nothing ever goes right for him). Even Lord Emsworth pops up in one of his rare non-Blandings appearances, kind-heartedly selling richly-bound encyclopedias of sport and unknowingly blackmailing rogue George Spenlow into purchasing a gross of the things. As Emsworth's is the only story in this collection where the desired scheme comes off without a hitch (although not in precisely the way he intended), one might presume the moral of the story is "be vaguely unaware about what you're doing and you shall succeed."

Wodehouse, of course, is fully aware of what he's doing here: these nine short stories are tight and intricately plotted with hardly a misplaced word or description: this is the well-polished Wodehouse of the post-War period, and one of the things that impresses me when comparing short stories and full-length novels featuring the same characters is that Wodehouse doesn't simply compress a novel to make a short story (or vice-versa)—he has very different approaches and, I might imagine, even internal rules about which plots work as stories and which as novels. The Jeeves story comes closest to following the pattern of its big novel brothers: Bertie's invited to a country house and reluctantly persuaded by Aunt Dahlia to steal a hideous painting. Of course he accidentally steals the wrong one in the dead of night—and, at Dahlia's instructions, destroys it:
With the three of us sparing no effort, we soon completely the work in hand. I had scarcely got through my first whisky and s. and was beginning on another, when all that was left of the Venus, not counting the ashes, was the little bit at the south-east end which Jeeves was holding. He was regarding it with what seemed to me a rather thoughtful eye.

'Excuse me, madam,' he said. 'Did I understand you to say that Mr Fothergill senior's name was Edward?'

'That's right. Think of him as Eddie, if you wish. Why?'

'It is merely that the picture we have with us appears to be signed "Everard Fothergill", madam. I thought I should mention it.'

To say that aunt and nephew did not take this big would be paltering with the truth. We skipped like the high hills....

...'Bertie,' said Aunt Dahlia, speaking in a voice of the kind which I believe is usually called strangled and directing at me the sort of look which in the days when she used to hunt with the Quorn and occasionally the Pytchley she would have given a hound engaged in chasing a rabbit, 'Bertie, you cursed of the civilised world if you've burned the wrong picture...'
But he has and he did. In a Jeeves novel this would probably be a mid-point of the adventure«maybe about three-quarters of the way through, following an intricate ballet of all cast members roaming the manse at midnight. In a short story, however, Wodehouse paces this revelation a couple pages from the end, giving him time to throw in another twist (turns out everyone wanted the painting destroyed for one reason or another) and wrapping it up with a pithy word from Jeeves. The different between the short story and a similar novel is more than just compression or characters—both are perfectly paced for their length but the climaxes ride on different points of importance. (The painting revelation would have been one minor point in a novel rather than the turning point in the short story.) I'll leave it to more knowledgeable literary scholars to map out the exact rise and fall of plots and action and compare their sine waves to each other, but a short story for Wodehouse is more than simply a shorter roller-coaster ride: it's a whole other attraction but just as spellbinding.

The shortened length of a story, however, does not mean he doesn't get to display his usual wonderful turns of phrases and prose:
His gloom was not lightened by the sight of the cold collation which leered at him on his return to the house. There was the tray of which Freddie has spoken, and on it a plate which, like corpses after a battle, lay a slice of vermilion ham, a slice of sepia corned beef, a circle of mauve liverwurst and, of all revolting things, a large green pickle. It seemed to Lord Emsworth that Freddie's domestic staff was temperamentally incapable of distinguishing between the needs of an old gentleman who had to be careful of what he ate and those of a flock of buzzards taking pot luck in the Florida Everglades.
...or this lovely paragraph detailing the quick rise and fall from fortune of Mister Bingo Little:
Now, though at the moment when he made this fine gesture Bingo actually had ten quid in his possession, having touched Purkiss for an advance on his salary, one would have expected him, thinking things over in the cold grey light of the morning after, to kick himself soundly for having been such an ass as to utter those unguarded words, committing himself as they did to a course of conduct which would strip him of his last bean. But such was not the case. Still mellowed by a father's love, all he thought next day was that as a gift to a superchild like Algernon Aubrey a tenner was a bit on the cheese-paring side. Surely twenty would be far more suitable. And he could pick that up by slapping his ten on Hot Potato in the two-thirty at Haydock Park. At dinner the previous night he had burned his mouth by incautiously placing in it a fried spud about ninety degrees Fahrenheit warmer than he had supposed it to be, and he is always far too inclined to accept omens like this as stable information. He made the investment, accordingly, and at two-forty-five was informed by the club tape that he was now penniless.
...or, the courting ritual of two avid golfers:
'Old blighter,' he said tenderly, 'let's get married right away, before there can be any more misunderstandings and rifts and what not. How about Tuesday?'

'Can't Tuesday. Mixed foursomes.'

'Wednesday?'

'Can't Wednesday. Bogey competition.'

'And Thursday I'm playing in the invitation tournament at Squashy Heath,' said Sidney McMurdo. 'Oh, well, I daresay we shall manage to find a day when we're both free.'




So, in "short" (tee hee) A Few Quick Ones is a Whitman's Sampler with all the coconut pieces pre-removed. But It's not as easy to find as a Whitman's Sampler, I'm afraid: it's out of print in the US and UK (my own sole edition is a Coronet mass market paperback from the late 1980s). While I'm sure sooner or later Overlook will get around to publishing this great assortment chock-full-o-laffs in their Complete Wodehouse hardcover edition, for the moment you'll have to look for cheap used copies or haunt your local library. Just remember to lick your chocolately fingers clean before handling the pages.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


5 comments:

SallyP said...

Heehee! Lovely as usual.

km said...

I really like the Jeeves story in this one - yeah, it's formulaic, but this particular formula was flexible enough that it never seems mechanical. Besides, every time it threatens, Aunt Dahlia goes into Quorn-and-Pytchley mode and I'm ready to forgive anything.

Meg said...

I'm new to this blog, but I'm seriously considering becoming a regular reader ... you had me at "crunchy frog."

Ian said...

Be thankful it wasn't "lark's vomit."

Anonymous said...

Weren't a number of these reprinted in Plum Pie?