Monday, April 30, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #1: The Inimitable Jeeves

"It is my practice, on retiring, to read a few pages of some instructive book."—Jeeves, in The Inimitable Jeeves
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Here's something new I've been wanting to do for a long time. This isn't comics (although it is comic), but, as Homer Simpson says, "Let's see where this goes.": I'm going to read and review every P. G. Wodehouse book, once a week, over the next couple years or so. (Don't forget to mock my ambition thoroughly around week six when I start forgetting or ignoring it!)

Wodehouse collectionTwo years, you say? Well, yeah, kinda. Wodehouse wrote around 93 books—that's not including the collections or anthologies made up of his stories or published posthumously in themed collections. As you can see from my PGW bookcase in the photo to the left, I've got most (not all) of them. Why do I love him so much to collect all these many books in various editions? Now, this is jus' a little stuffed bull's opinion, but I believe that Wodehouse was almost certainly the top humorists of all time—and not just in English, but around the world. I've said on occasion and I'll say it again that he's the finest writer of English light prose in the twentieth century. That might be a little bit of hyperbole but please excuse me when I state that, because I feel that no one can turn a phrase quite like Wodehouse; no one can bring such joy and light to a swiftly-turning page, and—and for me, this is a very important one—no one captures the lyricism of the English music hall in prose form like him. In fact, Wodehouse wrote the book and lyrics for many popular musical comedies and contributed to dozens of others including Show Boat and Anything Goes.

But it's in his books (mostly fiction, a handful of non-fiction memoirs and essays) that Wodehouse really shines. Even to kick off this supposedly weekly series, I'm not going to offer a massive biography of the man (isn't that what Wikipedia is for?), although I'll fill in a few blanks here and there along the way. No, this is strictly to capture the joy and the heart of his stories and characters, one week at a time. I will tell you a little about my Wodehouse collection and my experience with the various books as I go along—some personal Bully anecdotes about hunting down old ragged editions of my favorite novels and collections even though I might have a different version at home in the tall bookcase. Unlike my comics reviews there's no need to grade these week after week, because I have never read a P. G. Wodehouse book I have not thought was immense fun.

Reading The Inimitable JeevesFirst up: The Inimitable Jeeves, originally published in 1923, is a series of short stories by Wodehouse collected from their magazine publication (most of them first appeared in The Strand magazine), featuring Wodehouse's most famous creation: the ultimate gentleman's gentleman, Jeeves. Wodehouse wrote two main series of books, the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster adventures and the Blandings Castle sagas, plus dozens and dozens of other novels and short stories, most of them romantic comedies feature a hapless hero's love for his lady fair...or maybe for golf. If we want to apply comic book terminology to Wodehouse's work, when you read carefully you can see it all exists in one single universe (call it "Earth-PGW"). Characters cross over from one story to the next: a character in a Blandings novel may belong to the Drones Club, Bertie Wooster's haven; a background character in a romance might have a major role in a golf story, and many, many members of the Mulliner family cross over between stories and sagas with the ease of The Flash zooming over to Earth-2. In short, although he probably didn't intend it from the beginning in these early stories, Wodehouse was setting the stage for his vast and gleefully complicated world in The Inimitable Jeeves.

The Inimitable Jeeves consists of 18 chapters—it's not quite a novel and it's not quite short stories. "Whoa, there, Bully!" you declare, "Explain that!" And of course I shall! Modern day publishers might try to spin this as "a novel in stories," but I doubt Wodehouse was quite so modern-thinking. The origins of these stories as originally published in magazines, but even though they were published separately, one leads into the next with swift grace, a gradual increase in hilarity and an eventual pay-off of a marriage (not for our heroes!) in the final story. In my editions of this book, one printed in 1954 and one in 1980, most of the stories consist of a single short story spread out among two different chapters, which leads to the "novel" effect. (Later editions of The Inimitable Jeeves combines every two-part story into one section, rather arrogantly ignoring the careful pace Wodehouse set up to build to a tense upswing at the beginning of part one and a complicated but happy conclusion at the end of part two.) As such, you can dip into this book like a bowl of peanuts—flip open and sample one chapter for flavor, and then skip about: there's a building sense of continuity but it's less important than the internal structure of the stories themselves. To prove this point, at least one of these stories ("The Great Sermon Handicap") is often anthologized by itself and rightfully so; it's one of the finest comic short stories ever and a jewel in Wodehouse's already sparkling crown. But when you do read The Inimitable Jeeves from start to finish you begin to understand why even early Wodehouse is so compelling. Plots zip in and intertwine and build on one another from story to story. The first story introduces yet another love of Bingo Little, Bertie Wooster's close friend, and throughout the book we're introduced to a bewilderingly swift series of Bingo's love interests, each of which he intends to marry. It's only at the end in the pay-off to an earlier plot line comes around full circle. Bingo winds up marrying a romance novelist whom Bertie was earlier impersonating under a pen name in order to get Bingo's uncle to support the marriage financially. (Trust me, it makes more sense and for much more hilarity in the book itself.) Wodehouse has an impeccable sense of timing and rhythm and as subplots spiral in and out of Jeeves and Bertie's life it's like one wild music-hall juggling act, but by the end Wodehouse catches every ball.

And his writing! If you want to laugh out loud, well, dear reader, pick up a Wodehouse. I will probably wind up gushing far too much and quoting far too many excerpts through the months of the "Wodehouse a Week" project. It's true that comedy is often less funny taken out of context. But turns of phrases that might come out clunky and leaden from other writers positively soar from the typewriter of Wodehouse. He took great care in rewriting and revising his books (his final novel is reprinted in progress in Sunset at Blandings and gives an amazing look at how closely he worked in revisions and editing his original first versions, polishing plots and dialogue until they were pitch perfect.) Seriously, how can you not love Bertie Wooster when he opines about a reluctant breakfast:
A roll and butter and a small coffee seemed to be the only things on the list that hadn't been specially prepared by the nastier-minded members of the Borgia family for people they had a particular grudge against, so I chose them.
or, upon meeting Bingo's pudgy uncle:
The motto of the Little family was evidently 'variety.' Young Bingo is long and thin and hasn't had a superfluous ounce on him since we first met; but his uncle restored the average and a bit over. The hand which grasped mine wrapped it round and enfolded it till I began to wonder if I'd ever get it out without excavating machinery.
This is one of the first Jeeves and Bertie books, and I believe it may have been the first Wodehouse I ever read, which is why I chose it to kick off this series of posts (Future books may be chosen at similar purpose, or at random, or even just capricious whim). It's an ideal "starter" Wodehouse not merely because it features his two greatest characters in early, accessible stories, but because from page one he tells you everything you need to know about Bertie and Jeeves' relationship in a few short paras. Not merely everything you need to know for this book, but—as it would turn out, basically everything you need to know about their relationship for reading every future Bertie and Jeeves book:
'How's the weather, Jeeves?'

'Exceptionally clement, sir.'

'Anything in the papers?'

'Some slight friction threatening in the Balkans, sir. Otherwise, nothing.'

'I say, Jeeves, a man I met at the club last night told me to put my shirt on Privateer for the two o'clock race this afternoon. How about it?'

'I should not advocate it, sir. The stable is not sanguine.'

That was enough for me. Jeeves knows. How, I couldn't say, but he knows. There was a time when I would laugh lightly, and go ahead, and lose my little all against his advice, but not now.

'Talking of shirts,' I said, 'have those mauve ones I ordered arrived yet?'

'Yes sir. I sent them back.'

'Sent them back?'

'Yes, sir. They would not have become you.'

Well, I must say I'd thought fairly highly of those shirtings, but I bowed to superior knowledge. Weak? I don't know. Most fellows, no doubt, are all for having their valets confine their activities to creasing trousers and what not without trying to run the home; but it's different with Jeeves. right from the first day he came to me, I have looked upon him as a sort of guide, philosopher, and friend.
There you have it: Jeeves 101 in a dozen or so dialogue lines. Most everything you need to know to reach 1923's The Inimitable Jeeves. And, as it turns out, most everything you need to know to read every single Jeeves story from then until the final ones in the late 1970s: Jeeves is whip-smart, has impeccable taste, and intentions that his master display that taste as well. Many Bertie Wooster tales—including no fewer than three in this book—hinge on Jeeves withholding the solution to a particularly tangled mess of affairs until Bertie gets rid of a pair of outrageous purple socks, or colored spats, or a garish necktie. Boring? No. Consistent. Critics of Wodehouse declare he wrote the same story ninety-three times. I say, all the better for it. It's a very familiar and friendly world each book dips us into, like having a cup of tea every day. And to pointedly argue back, Wodehouse's structure and flow of action is generally repeated from novel to novel, but not his plots. Like a good Columbo episode, it's not finding out whodunit in the end: it's the joyride along the way.

Penguin edition of The Inimitable JeevesThis 1923 collection of Jeeves stories doesn't yet include one of Wodehouse's greatest creations, Bertie's boisterous Aunt Dahlia (the early Bertie stories usually faced him off against his Aunt Agatha, often described as eating broken glass for breakfast). It's got an unfortunate Stepin Fetchit moment when Bertie converses with a black lift operator (or, as Bertie refers to him, "the coloured chappie"), who speaks in a dialogue pattern that would even make Will Eisner's Ebony cringe. Some segments of stories drag slightly and the dénouement of others seem slightly rushed or repetitive (less a crime in their original magazine publication). But it's still vintage Wodehouse, and I'll forgive any minor clunkiness because, as mentioned above, it features one of the finest and funniest short comic stories in English, "The Great Sermon Handicap," in which Bertie and associates scheme to make a betting book on the Sunday sermon length of several rural hamlet's church pastors. Like the best Wodehouse stories, there's twists and turns and it spirals in on itself, and it all works out best for everyone in the end, even though they're all poorer in the pocket—except, of course, for Jeeves.

It all works out well in the end. That's the catchphrase for any Wodehouse story. He did not write on matters of seriousness or gloom, and no book ends on a down or sad note. One week ago today I was writing of Shakespearean tragedy and how you could point to a modern equivalent of it in a Doctor Doom comic book story. Well, every novel of Wodehouse's is a prime example of Shakespearean comedy, almost always quite literally as Shakespeare intended by ending with a wedding for the protagonist. (Or at least our hero and our heroine, arm in arm, swooning together). Bertie Wooster is the exception. Others may get married around him (Bingo takes the plunge, finally and deeply, at the end of this book), but thanks to the clever machinations of Jeeves, he remains in his happy single bachelorhood through every single story, despite being engaged more often than Elizabeth Taylor. It helps to maintain the timelessness of these stories that the basic universe is reset at the end of every book: Bertie and Jeeves together. The final chapter of The Inimitable Jeeves is titled "All's Well," in the grandest Shakespearean tradition. And it would remain well through every single Bertie and Jeeves story and novel from beginning to end, most of them finishing with Jeeves getting the last approving word of "Very good, sir."

Picturing Wodehouse: A brief aside on the cover of my 1980 edition, published by Penguin Books. For many, many years Wodehouse books in their familiar orange Penguin editions were published with cover illustrations by former Punch cartoonist Ionicus (Joshua Armitage). There have been many, many other illustrators of Wodehouse books both before and after Ionicus, but his work holds a special place in my little red satin heart as my first visual introduction to Wodehouse's world, especially Jeeves in his striped trousers. For a publisher, it can be risky to try and portray a beloved fictional character. Geoff Hunt, for example, has never painted Jack Aubrey—except maybe in tiny, tiny pinprick scale—on any of the covers of the Patrick O'Brian books. Many of us take our internal vision of Jack Aubrey as being that of Russell Crowe in the movie version of Master and Commander. (O'Brian purists will argue that you really shouldn't.) Likewise, you may very well have in your head a vision of Jeeves as Stephen Fry and Bertie as Hugh Laurie from the popular and very faithful Jeeves and Wooster BBC-TV series. I liked those a lot, but my favorite dramatic Jeeves and Bertie are merely voices: Michael Hordern and Richard Briers played Jeeves and Bertie on a series of BBC radio comedies in the 1980s and 1990. (You can order the tapes featuring the dramatizations of these stories using the Amazon link to the right.) Both actors have pitch-perfect voices and still allow me to picture the characters as designed by Ionicus, as in the cover of my copy of The Inimitable Jeeves:
The Inimitable Jeeves


This scene is from a story in which Bertie hosts a luncheon for Bingo's new circle of friends, a fervent club of Bolshevists (as usual, Bingo's only interested in the Communist movement because he's in love with the girl in blue at the far end of the table, the aptly named Charlotte Corday Rowbotham). There's Jeeves, of course, but I'm not entirely certain Bertie is in this cover at all: the only possible figure he might be is the monocled gentleman in the back. Ionicus often drew Bertie with a monocle, but usually with much darker hair and looking less severe and rather more...well, gormless, to put it kindly. But Bertie offstage or no, the characters, expressions, and poses are pitch perfect, even if Bingo Little comes off a wee bit like Jimmy Carter, Junior:
The Inimitable Jeeves


At the end of each of these reviews (many of which will be much, much, shorter than this one), I'll give you the usual Amazon link—ah, there it is right over on the side!—to pick up that book in case your interest is piqued and like Jeeves, you desire an instructive book before bedtime. But to be fair, many libraries carry a good selection of Wodehouse books, and while it'd be fun to have some of you read the one I'm discussing and add your own comments, really—pick a Wodehouse, pick any Wodehouse. They're all joyous and delightful. You may not want to read one every week for two years, but you'll want to read more. When all around you is grey and rainy and sad, I can think of no better pick-me-up than curling in a big soft armchair with a piled of buttered toast, a cup of hot tea, some Eric Coates on the wireless, and burying your nose in a book by P. G. Wodehouse.


25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love the Fry and Laurie material, thanks for letting me know about the BBC radio version. I'll seek it out as budget permits. This blog continues in its greatness. Thanks for the effort.

T. Hodler said...

If I wasn't married already, I'd propose to you, Bully.

Kevin Church said...

Oh, my.

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to this adventure, Mr. Bully.

Anonymous said...

I think my favourite may just be Leave It To Psmith, by a nose.

Now, by pure coincidence, off I go to finish up Piccadilly Jim.

Matthew E said...

It's not really an interesting story, but P.G. Wodehouse is how I met my wife.

And he's great, of course, so much so that when you say, "he's the finest writer of English light prose in the twentieth century," it's not really a strong enough statement.

But reviewing every Wodehouse book? Wow. Feel free to skip The Coming of Bill.

David C said...

What a wonderful idea, Bully! I can't think of anyone who better captures the "Comics should be FUN!" spirit (er, without being comics....)

I need to finish some of my own Wodehouses now....

SallyP said...

You can't go wrong with Wodehouse, Bully. His version, is still my version of how England should be. It isn't real, but it should be.

I started reading Wodehouse, because of Dorothy Sayers. She mentions him a number of times, and it it pretty obvious that Lord Peter Wimsey is modelled after Bertie Wooster, just a little brainier. And Bunter of course is Jeeves.

Matthew E said...

it's pretty obvious that Lord Peter Wimsey is modelled after Bertie Wooster, just a little brainier. And Bunter of course is Jeeves.

I wouldn't say that. English fiction at the time had a lot of what you could call the 'silly ass' protagonists. Not only Lord Peter Wimsey and the Wodehouse characters, but also a lot of Saki's characters, Bulldog Drummond, the Saint... they were all of a type, and I wouldn't want to claim that any one of them was a copy of any other of them.

Anonymous said...

So who are these writers of English light prose in the 19th, 18th, (and so on backwards, not to mention the nascent 21st) century who are better that Wodehouse?

(I can only think of one remote contender, and would argue that Mark Twain was not quite to the mark and was a writer of American light prose anyhow.)

Who exactly is it that stops us from saying 'of all time' anyhow?

Bully said...

Well, nothing usually keeps me from saying "of all time", but I usually wind up getting in an argument that I was prefrring to avoid this time around. So I hedged by decsription. I'm very pleased to see there's people who come squarely down on my side right here!

As for the late twentieth and early twenty-first, I'm putting Terry Pratchett in a very high if not the highest pantheon. I believe he gets ignored or despaired by critics and scholars because he does genre writing, but really, his writing is exquisitely sublime.

Kevin T. said...

This blog entry interests me strangely.....

Anonymous said...

Yay!

I'm going to read and review every P. G. Wodehouse book, once a week, over the next couple years or so.

Even Not George Washington?

Bully said...

Even Not George Washington?

I don't have it! But I'll try to pick up copies of books I'm missing during the project.

And yes, I'm even going to review Love Among the Chickens!

Anonymous said...

Bully dear, I've been lurking for awhile, but you've finally forced me to comment...actually, you've forced me to totally cyber-hug your little stuffed self. Do you know have any *idea* how long I've been waiting to find such affectionate, appreciative reviews of the Jeeves/Wooster canon on the Net?

Can't wait for 'Joy in the Morning' and 'Code of the Woosters' - the entire Gussie Fink-Nottle/Madeline Bassett arc, actually. When the prizes at Market Snodsbury Middle School come up, my life will be complete.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bully,
I've sampled Wodehouse here & there at the library but never got around to collecting. Based on your reviews & links provided, I'll now be ordering a Wodehouse every week from Amazon.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Earth-PGW is fun for its time-warping characteristics. Deep in its heart, E-PGW is forever in the pre-Great War period. Most of the slang (that Wodehouse didn't invent) was from that period. But...events intrude on the stories that show at least a passing awareness that the Edwardian era has passed. For example, the aforementioned Roderick Spode is a pitch-perfect product of the thirties.

Trying to assemble the images of the crazy-quilt world of Earth-PGW in my head was always a part of the fun.

That, and the Empress of Blandings, literature's greatest pig.

----------------

"Ralph Bingam and Arthur Jukes had never been friends -- their rivalry was too keen to admit of that -- but it was not till Amanda Trivett came to stay here that a smouldering distaste for each other burst out into the flames of actual enmity. It is ever so. One of the poets, whose name I cannot recall, has a passage, which I am unable at the moment to remember, in one of his works, which for the time being has slipped my mind, which hits off admirably this age-old situation. The gist of his remarks is that a lovely woman rarely fails to start something."
--P.G. Wodehouse

Martin Wisse said...

...On the occassions when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodonts bellowing across primeval swamps and Uncle James's letter about Cousin Mabel's peculiar behaviour is being shot round the family circle...

How can you not love Wodehouse, with sentences like that?

Tom the Dog said...

This is such an awesome, and do-able, and admirable idea, that I'm bitterly disappointed I didn't have it first. I'm currently on a Vonnegut kick (for obvious reasons), but ol' Pelham Grenville is never far from my heart, or my nightstand (I just finished The Adeventures of Sally last week, and a re-reading of Carry On, Jeeves is up next, after Vonnegut's Palm Sunday.)

Though I've only read a fraction of Wodehouse's work (merely two or three dozen, including all of Jeeves and Wooster, and most of the Blandings), I think I'd want to start from the beginning and go chronologically if I were doing this, but I can see where some of his earlier, less polished works might be less enticing for the Wodehouse novice reading your blog.

I'm absolutely with you on his being the greatest comic writer of all time, and the only other contenders would be two authors previously mentioned: Twain and Pratchett. Can we give Twain the title for the 19th century, Wodehouse the 20th, and Pratchett the 21st?

Two more notes: I do indeed generally picture Jeeves and Wooster as Fry and Laurie. Can't help it. And, if I had to pick my favorite of P.G.'s bibliography, I think I'd have to go with the wonderfully, brilliantly hilarious Code of the Woosters. Hope you get to that one soon.

Anonymous said...

You can thank Jan Tschichold for that wonderfully deigned book cover.

Anonymous said...

I'm very for Mr Wodeshouse, but I'm curious how we might rank writers like Kate Atkinson and Iain Banks who have written very funny books ("Emotionally Weird" and "Whit" present themselves) but are not known primarily as comic writers?

Unknown said...

What a fantastic project! I've been happily working my way through your archive for a few weeks now, and I do hope you will return to it. I'm particularly pleased to meet another fan of the Briers and Hordern BBC radio recordings! Listening to those is what got me started on the Wodehouse kick which I'm on presently; a friend found a torrent online, and that led me to seek out the printed versions. Alas, I've only been able to get my hands on five out of the nine series, with a sixth one available through Audible.com. Three of them, including the quite splendid version of The Mating Season, remain unavailable.

Unknown said...

Er, to clarify--I've only gotten my hands on legal copies of five out of the nine series, and I'm about ready to bite the bullet and buy the sixth from Audible. I don't like the proprietary format, but for Briers and Hordern I will make even that sacrifice.

I've just been looking at the list of books, noting those yet to be covered. Still a couple of the Jeeves series, and several Blandings books, not to mention Leave it to Psmith! I know the Ben Grimm project must be keeping you busy right now, but I do drool in anticipation of when you get back to Plum!

London Mabel said...

I'm rereading this one right now, which is how I came across this post. It was fun to read, and I like the Ionicus covers too. They're always really true to the book.

But you've got your cover characters wrong! :-) Bingo is must be the one in the beard, because he wears a fake beard throughout his Communist period. The Jimmy Carter guy I assumed was his rival, cause he fits the description in the book--sort of fishlike. The monocle guy has to be Bertie, there's no one else.

;-)

Bully said...

You know, I think you're right, Mabel. Well spotted!