Thursday, August 02, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #14: Pigs Have Wings

This week's Wodehouse is one of my favorite of all his books, not just because I'm a big fan of all things porcine (that's "piggy" to those of you who don't have the Word a Day Calendar), and not even because it's another one of the wonderful whimsical Blandings novels (catch me on alternate days and I'll swear the Blandings novels are finer than even the Jeeves stories...of course, I'll vice-versa this depending on which one I've just read). I've bought this novel several times, not necessarily to collect but when I'm away from my collection and simply want something wonderful to read: it is, to me, the equivalent of comfort food. This book is also the genesis for "A Wodehouse a Week," the seeds of which were planted just slightly over a year ago today.

Yes, it's true: one year, a week, and a day or two ago, the day I arrived in San Diego for my first Comic-Con, I stood in front of the bookshelves in the Bookstar bookstore in Point Loma, California—a chain store owned by Barnes & Noble, yes, but worthy of a visit because it's actually based in an old-style California movie theater. (They've done a nice restoration on the outside of the building, and if you walk around and look carefully you can see how the movie theater interior was set up. Worth a visit!) Hmmmm, said I, on the fateful day in July 2006 before I took my first steps into the larger world of Comic-Con. I would like a book to read tonight...what shall I buy? I checked my little Hello Kitty change purse and counted out my coins and pulled a P. G. Wodehouse paperback from the shelf: yes, you guessed it folks, it was a Penguin edition of Pigs Have Wings. I chose it not only because it's one of my favorites, because I could remember directly from the title it was a Blandings story, but also because it was the thickest of the paperbacks on the shelf. Even then I was thinking: this is the best value for money.

The value of sheer entertainment and more pages per penny are a wonderful draw, of course, but even more so was the idea that kept racing through my head that night as I read Pigs Have Wings with my fish taco dinner: "I really ought to re-read every single one of Wodehouse's books." It took a while for that idea to germinate into "A Wodehouse a Week" but the seeds were planted there: that I wanted to read 'em all and share why I love them so much. So, if you enjoy this every-seven-day feature on my blog and you happen to be in San Diego, stop on my the Point Loma Bookstar and give them a big wet kiss for me, won'tcha?

Pigs Have Wings (1952) isn't all that different in structure and storyline from the other Blandings books: a young couple who are thwarted in their attempts to get married (lovely Penny Donaldson and easy-on-the-eyes detective novelist Jerry Vail, not to be confused with this guy); various plots to steal Clarence, Earl of Emsworth's prize-winning pig The Empress of Blandings by his arch-rival on the agricultural market circuits, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe; Maudie, the chipper niece of Blandings butler Beach and owner of her own private detective agency being called in to thwart the thefts; many pairs of old lovers reunited; several bottles of Slimmo, the miracle patent medicine for melting off the pounds, precariously likely to be guzzled by one or another of the fat pigs (animal, not human); cheerfully outrageous Galahad Threepwood matching wits with sister Connie and Wellbeloved, Parsloe's duplicitous pig-keeper. Did I mention the Empress of Blandings, the finest pig in all literature (Sorry, Piglet! Apologies, Napoleon! Nothing personal, Wilbur!)? Did I mention the Empress of Blandings and her opposite number, Queen of Matchingham, being carted higgledy-piggedly back and forth in wheelbarrows from sty to various hiding places, including the kitchen of Jerry's country cottage?:
From time to time as he moved about his new home, Jerry had been aware of curious noises, evidently supernatural. If asked by the Committee of the Society of Psychical Research to describe these noises, he would have been rather at a loss. Well, sort of grunting noises, he would have told them.



When you say grunting, do you mean grunting?

That's right. It doesn't go on all the time, of course. But for a while there will be a kind of lull, as if the spectre were thinking things over and resting its vocal chords. Then, refreshed, off it goes again...grunting, if you see what I mean.

Upon which, the Committee of the Society of Psychical Research would have said 'Well, Lord-love-a-duck!' grunting ghosts being new in their experience.

It was in the living room that the sounds were most noticeable. Back there now, he was startled by a series of five or six almost at his elbow. The poltergeist, for such he assumed it to be, appeared to have holed up behind the door that led presumably to the kitchen, the only part of the house he had not yet inspected.

He opened the door.
And...scene. Wodehouse ends the chapter section precisely on that line, leaving us to guess and only later find out what it was that Jerry came face to snout with. But really, the book's called Pigs Have Wings...what did you expect him to have hidden in his kitchen?

I've mentioned before the concept of The Silver Cow Creamer (or, S.C.C. for short): an overall name I've given Wodehouse's version of Hitchcock's MacGuffin, a plot element of object that everyone in the story is chasing which is, in the end, only secondary to the main plot. Same's true here, even with two enormous gigantic porkers being the book's S.C.C.s...the real focus of the action is, you guessed it, love, love, love. Jerry and Penny want to get married but need a dowry of two thousand quid in order to afford to live. Of course there's also the matter of Penny's actual fiancé Orlo Vosper (and it's a safe rule of thumb that if a Wodehouse's characters Christian, not nick-, name ends in an "O," he's at worst a rotter and at best a weed). Orlo's smitten, however, with his ex-girlfriend Gloria Salt, a rabid health and fitness enthusiast? Still with me? Good, because it gets more complicated. Gloria's engaged to Lord Emsworth's bitter pig-rival Sir Gregory Parsloe. Parslow, aptly nicknamed "Tubby," loathes the enforced diet his fiancéle Gloria has put him on and dreams of roast potatoes and cream pies. When Beach the butler's niece Maudie arrives at the castle to scope out possible piggery-skull-duggery, Parsloe is astonished to find that she's his ex-fiancée (they both accidentally jilted each other at the altar) and is smitten with her all over again. What a tangled web! Wodehouse's usual tight circle of relationships and almost mysterious series of coincidences may strain your brain trying to keep track of who knows who, who knows what, what happened when and where the heck those pigs are at the moment, but relax and just read on. Go along for the ride, because Pigs Have Wings features quite possibly one of the most outrageous love-crushes in all of Wodehouse: the absent-minded, lovingly-addled Lord Emsworth trying to woo Maudie:
Once again it was Lord Emsworth who broke the spell. Hopeful by now that his brother Galahad might have removed himself, he came out of the drawing-room to have another try for that tête- à-tête, only to discover that though the terrace was free from Galahads, it had become all stocked up with Penny Donaldsons. He paused and said 'Er.'

There was another longish silence.

'The moon,' said Lord Emsworth, indicating it.

'Yes,' said Maudie.

'Bright,' said Lord Emsworth, paying it a well-deserved tribute.

'Yes,' said Maudie.

'Very bright,' said Lord Emsworth. 'Oh, very very bright,' and seemed for a moment about to converse with easy fluency. But inspiration failed him, and with a 'Quite, quite, Capital,' he disappeared again.
Your heart goes out to him, but shed no tears for Lord Emsworth; he's happy of course at the end with the only being who truly deserves his full love: Empress of Blandings. Clarence's late wife is seldom mentioned in the Blandings saga (she's briefly alluded to in Pigs Have Wings) but I like to picture her as having been a very kind and very patient woman.

All's well that (chime in along!) end's well, par for the course in Wodehouse, though obviously not without twists and turns and pig-swapping and butlers falling off bicycles. Lovers swap partners (in an utterly clean and wholesome way) and everybody winds up with whom they long for at the end; Wodehouse shines throughout. There's a lovely extended passage at the beginning that sums up the characters and the situations so far in this, the seventh Blandings novel, by using the literary device of having one character explain it to another. Hackneyed and unbelievable, you say? P'raps...but when the person who needs it explained to him is Lord Emsworth, it utterly fits, and we learn along with him The Story So Far. It's quite a clever Wodehousean trick to use an easily-pig-distracted man as the reader's surrogate to get us up to speed. Here's a conversation between shrewish sister Lady Constance and Lord Emsworth that gets the ball rolling on the second page of the story (and please forgive me: I could quote Lord Emsworth scenes all day):
'Oh Clarence,' she said, 'have you seen Penelope anywhere?'


'Penelope Donaldson.'

'Who,' asked Lord Emsworth courteously, 'is Penelope Donaldson?'

Last Constance sighed. Had she not been the daughter of a hundred Earls, she would have snorted. Her manner lost its amiability. She struck her forehead with a jewelled hand and rolled her eyes heavenward for a moment.

'Penelope Donaldson,' she said, speaking with the strained sweetness of a woman striving to be patient while conversing with one of the less intelligent of the Jukes family, 'is the younger daughter of the Mr Donaldson of Long Island City in the United States of America whose elder daughter is married to your son Frederick. Frederick married the elder Miss Donaldson. The younger Miss Donaldson—her name is Penelope—is staying with us now at Blandings Castle—this is Blandings Castleand what I am asking you is...Have you see her? And I do wish, Clarence, that you would not let your mouth hang open when I am talking to you. It makes you look like a goldfish.'
See? All up to speed, we are. And this is the important part...Lady Constance is none the wiser that we are. You don't want to get on Lady Constance's bad side, take it from me.

That's the beginning. Brilliant and subtle. But that's nothing to match the final short chapter of the book, which sums up "what happened after all," and not even in Wodehouse's usual sharp and flawless prose, but in several dozen lines of rhyming verse. Here's merely a very short section of the poetry that rings down the curtain on Pigs Have Wings:
It isn't often, goodness knows, that we are urged to quit the prose with which we earn our daily bread and take to poetry instead. But great events come now and then which call for the poetic pen. So you will pardon us, we know, if dealing with the Shropshire Show, we lisp in numbers to explain that Emp. of Blandings won again.
Sheer joy.

My predilection for pulling Pigs Have Wings off a bookstore shelf whenever I need a pick-me-up or raising of the spirits means I have multiple copies: a 1977 Ballantine Books mass market paperback, the hardcover Everyman Library uniform edition, and two Penguin paperbacks, including the one I'm reading from to all my piggy pals in the photo above, the one I bought last year in San Diego. You, the lucky reader, can buy that exact same edition by clicking on that link to the right. But whichever edition you buy, every one of them has a piggy-wiggy on the cover. Accept no substitutes.


SallyP said... of my favorites! I like Gally, I like Clarence, and Connie is indeed the personification of a Panther-woman, but you are correct in stating that the Empress of Blandings is a senSATional character.

Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Hey, we have a well-disguised Barnes-and-Noble bookstore built out of an old movie theater here in Houston as well! How many of them are there?

Bully said...

How many of them are there?

I know there's one outside Minneapolis as well...

Chance said...

I love Blandings, but only some kind of crazed, demented stuffed bull would think the Elmsworth stories were a patch on Jeeves.

Tom the Dog said...

Your habit of purchasing Pigs Have Wings reminds me of Mel Gibson's character in Conspiracy Theory, who was compelled to buy copies of Catcher in the Rye. Watch out, the Feds might be tracking you!

This was the first Blandings novel I ever read, and it's a pip, all right. I still have a couple unread Blandings to go. I should get on that.

Two of the books I mentioned on my Sidebar Update today reminded me of you and your project. The first, A Fate Worse Than Dragons, throws out a casual (but clearly intentional) reference to a Silver Cow Creamer. The second, Here's Luck, is one I think you would really enjoy -- it's like an Australian take on the typical Wodehouse novel. Check it out if you can.

Bully said...

Thanks, Tom! I'm not familiar with either book so I'll have to check 'em out, especially Here's Luck (going straight on my wish list!) is it by Hugh Wiley? I want to write about a handful of Wodehouse-influenced books as I get further into the project (Wake Up, Sir by Jonathan Ames, An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray) and this one sounds like a good addition. I'll won't be numbering them as part of the project, so every numbered entry will be a true Wodehouse book, but I want to fill it in with some other things as well. And I have a dandy treat planned for Halloween!