Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #40: The Man with Two Left Feet

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A Month of Firsts concludes (boo hoo!) with The Man with Two Left Feet (1917), a collection of short stories published in various UK and US magazines: not merely the usual Strand and Saturday Evening Post but also long-gone periodicals of yore like McClure's, Ainsley's, Pearson's, Argosy, and Redbook. What's that? Redbook's still around?

Redbook Then and Now

Well. That's a magazine that probably wouldn't publish P. G. Wodehouse anymore.

So what's so "first" about The Man with Two Left Feet? Well, flip to the second story of 13, "Extricating Young Gussie" and begin to read:
She sprang it on me before breakfast. There in seven words you have a complete character sketch of my Aunt Agatha. I could go on indefinitely about brutality and lack of consideration. I merely say that she routed me out of bed to listen to her painful story somewhere in the small hours. It can't have been half past eleven when Jeeves, my man, woke me out of the dreamless and broke the news:

'Mrs Gregson to see you, sir.'
Yes, there it is, folks: the very first appearance in print of Jeeves, the ultimate gentleman's gentleman. (And this is our first look at Bertie, too.) I bet you're excited at the prospect of the earliest adventures of Jeeves, huh? Let's take a look at another one of Jeeves's immortal lines from that story:
Jeeves came in with the tea.

'Jeeves,' I said, 'we start for America on Saturday.'

'Very good, sir,' he said; 'which suit will you wear?'
Hah! Fantastic Jeeves quote, eh? And then there's...

...well, that's it, actually. Those two lines are Jeeves's only appearance in the story. Unlike the late clever puzzle-box stories, Jeeves doesn't solve the problem or avert the imminent disaster through his clever plans and unique brain. In fact, he plays no other part than to pass quickly through the tale and slide backstage again. From such tiny acorns are mighty oaks grown: by the time of the next Jeeves stories (collected in My Man Jeeves, 1919) Jeeves has taken shape as a mover and shaker of the plots that encircle his master Bertie, and by The Inimitable Jeeves (1923) he's fully formed and thinking the pants off (not literally) everyone around him. Wodehouse scholars sometimes even argue whether the Bertie in "Extricating Young Gussie" is actually Bertie Wooster—although he speaks and acts like the later Bertie and has the abrasive and demanding Aunt Agatha we know and love know from further Jeeves history, there's much discussion of Bertie's cousin being named "Mannering-Phipps," and although I got confused when I tried to draw out with my crayons the family tree according to this story, that might mean this is in fact not Bertie Wooster, but rather Bertie Mannering-Phipps. Which means that this story isn't part of the real Jeeves canon. Which means, for those comic book fans of you out there, that this story is actually taking place on Earth-2. So, fan fictionists, sharpen up your pencils and prepare to write the ultimate crossover in which Bertie Wooster of Earth-1 meets Bertie Mannering-Phipps of Earth-2 and...

...or, we could just continue reading The Man with Two Left Feet.

Despite the atypical Jeeves, "Extricating Young Gussie" is a hoot. If it's not as laugh-out-loud as the later Jeeves tales, it's still clever and sharp in its dialogue and plotting as Bertie tries to tug his restless cousin away from the delights of New York City. Unfortunately, young Gussie has fallen in love with chorus girl Ray and started a (hilariously bad) stage singing career. When Aunt Julia, Gussie's mother, arrives, it looks like the soup is spilled all over the stove for Bertie. But it's fate rather than Jeeves that saves the day: Aunt Julia is a former chorus girl herself and is lovingly reunited with Ray's father (her old beau). She too vows to return to her theatrical life and to marry her love. All's happy for everyone except, as usual, Bertie, who wrestles with telling Aunt Agatha that he's failed:
'Gussie, old top,' I said, 'leave me for a while. I would be alone. I think I've got brain fever or something.'

'Sorry, old man; perhaps New York doesn't agree with you. When do you expect to go back to England?'

I looked again at Aunt Agatha's cable.

'With luck,' I said, 'in about ten years.'

When he was gone I took up the cable and read it again.

'What is happening?' it read. 'Shall I come over?'

I sucked a pencil for a while, and then I wrote the reply.

It was not an easy cable to word, but I managed it.

'No,' I wrote, 'stay where you are. Profession overcrowded.'
The Man with Two Left Feet has a number of unusual stories. Two are narrated by a dog who, after a lowly birth, finds himself falling into fortune and companionship. The writing isn't up to Wodehouse's later skill, but there's good humor to be found in the dog's misunderstanding of the intentions of the humans around him, if not necessarily in the dog's name. Because he's a black dog, he's nicknamed the n-word...an unfortunately jarring moniker in this day and age but a relic of an older and different time—and I feel fairly certain that Wodehouse, judging from his writing and biographies, would have blanched if he'd realize the loaded bomb that word would become in later years. Skip over the name (it's only mentioned once) and they're actually quite funny and delightful stories about dog-makes-good:
Round the corner, as the boss was speaking, I saw the kennel-man coming with a plate in his hand. It smelt fine, and he was headed straight for me.

He put the plate down before me. It was liver, which I love.

'Yes,' went on the boss, 'if it hadn't been for him, Peter would have been kidnapped and scared half to death, and I should be poorer, I suppose, by whatever the scoundrels had chosen to hold me up for.'

I am an honest dog, and hate to obtain credit under false pretences, but-liver is liver. I let it go at that.
About halfway through the book the stories from the mid-to-late teens turn a bit more emotional and sentimental (without becoming maudlin or cloying). A girl is unable to marry her love because her guardian grandfather forbids it...and he thinks he's the King of England. It's a quietly touching eccentricity that's not played for giggles or laughs as later Wodehouses would be, and in lesser hands it would be a tearjerker. In fact, this story and many of the others in the collection remind me of the short stories of O. Henry: quiet and touching, with twist endings (either dramatic or soft) that resolve the tale on an ironic touch.

"At Geisenheimer's" is a very O. Henry-esque tale: it's narrated by a spunky, no-nonsense New York girl, a dancer at Geisenheimer's night club, with the clever and sharp observational attitude of a Bertie Wooster:
There still come days in the spring when the country seems to get a stranglehold on me and start in pulling. This particular day had been one of them. I got up in the morning and looked out of the window, and the breeze just wrapped me round and began whispering about pigs an chickens. And when I went out on Fifth Avenue there seemed to be flowers everywhere. I headed for the Park, and there was the grass all green, and the trees coming out, and a sort of something in the air—why, say, if there hadn't have been a big policeman keeping an eye on me, I'd have flung myself down and bitten chunks out of the turf.
Picture the entire story read aloud by Arleen Sorkin (in her "Harley Quinn" voice) and I think you've got Wodehouse's intent: a tough-as-nail New York gal with a soft heart and a desire to see right done for a country wife sadly ignored by her nightclubbing husband. Add an O. Henry twist with a callback to a much-discussed character earlier in the story and it's as neat and tight a little tale as those of Mister William Sydney Porter's.

There's a couple suicide attempts (one startling and sad, one kinda funny, both averted), false beards on private detectives (a frequent Wodehouse plot device making an early appearance), a clever crime-and-punishment story circling on the cast of characters' love of baseball, and the title story, which is as very nearly O. Henry-esque as to be "The Gift of the Magi" (except minus combs and watch-fob and plus dancing lessons). All in all, a pleasant, brisk collection of early work that's not essential but is certainly entertaining. In other words—come for the Jeeves, but don't get disappointed by his mere cameo appearance: there's plenty other gems here.

I bought my copy of The Man with Two Left Feet (a Penguin mass market paperback) on my very first trip to London (longer ago that a little stuffed bull would like to admit), and read it eagerly at the time. I'm not certain if I appreciated it as much then as I do now: I was disappointed that there weren't more Jeeves stories and frustrated at the one that's there. Now that I'm older and slightly fluffier these days, I can appreciate these early sweetly sentimental tales a lot more. Like the adventures of Jack Aubrey, I wouldn't recommend this first appearance as your first Jeeves (start with The Inimitable Jeeves for that, and H. M. S. Surprise for Aubrey), but if you're a Wodehouse fan, you'll want to pick it up, and not merely for completist's sake. You're in luck: it's in the public domain, which means it's back in print (click on the Amazon link on the above right to buy a copy), or, if the money's too tight to mention, here's a free e-text of the book. Unlike Redbook magazine, it may not have buxom Miss Ashley Judd on the cover, but then again, only some of the world's great literature does.
Where the Heart Is

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1 comment:

Phillip said...

But.. but you do have two left hooves!