Monday, October 22, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #26: Louder and Funnier

A Wodehouse a Week banner

Week 26. With today's entry I'm now half a year into the Wodehouse a Week project, one-quarter or so of the way through the whole shebang, so let's have a little treat from the Bully Plum collection, shall we? This week's book is the essay collection Louder and Funnier (1932), an anthology of comic essays and observations originally written and published in Vanity Fair magazine. Yes, that's right—you could have read all these pieces as they came out, or you could simply wait for the trade.

A quick perusal of some of the essay titles—"An Outline of Shakespeare," "Fashionable Weddings and Smart Divorces," "On Ocean Liners," "The Decay of Falconry," "Thoughts on the Income Tax"— tells you we're not precisely in Jeeves and Wooster territory. Well, yes, there is a piece on "Butlers and the Buttled," but it's a caution that the butler you think you may get won't be the butler out of British lore:
But then, those were the days when butlers were butlers. You never met one under sixteen stone, and they all had pale, bulging eyes and tight-lipped mouths. They had never done anything but been butlers, if we except the years when they were training on as a second footmen. Since then there has been a war, and it has changed the whole situation. The door is not opened to you by a lissome man in the early thirties. He has sparkling, friendly eyes and an athlete's waist, and when not opening door he is off playing tennis somewhere. The old majesty which we used to find so oppressive between 1900 and 1910 has given way to a short of cheery briskness. Formality has disappeared. I know a man whose butler is his old soldier-servant, and his method of receiving the caller is to open the front door about eleven inches, poke his head through and, after surveying the visitor with some suspicion, say in broad Scotch, "Whit d'ye want?"
As I read Louder and Funnier, I reflected that butlers aren't the only thing that have changed dramatically, especially when I considered these pieces all originally appeared in Vanity Fair magazine. Wodehouse's light, dry, observational humors were a regular staple of VF during the late 20s and early 30s, which is hard to reconcile in your little stuffed head if all you know is the modern-day VF. The VF of Wodehouse's era ceased publication in 1936 (Wodehouse continued to write for The Saturday Evening Post and other periodicals) and was not revived as a magazine until the 1980s. By then magazines were in many ways different beasts, belching their litters of subscription cards as they padded boldly into a brave new world. Here's the Vanity Fair of Wodehouse's age:
Vanity Fair 1920s-30s


And here's the VF we know today:
Vanity Fair 1990s-2000s


Nothing wrong with a magazine that spotlights leggy supermodels and a naked Miss Keira Knightley, I always say, and in between its celebrity profiles, Vanity Fair still upholds a fine tradition of investigative journalism, political reportage, and Dominick Dunne's Hollywood courtroom shenanigans. (The closest thing we have today to Wodehouse's Vanity Fair is probably the still-literary New Yorker. I bet Wodehouse woulda liked the cartoons.) But the age of light humorous pieces with titles like "A Word About Amusement Parks" in Vanity Fair seem to have passed along with homburg hats and the pince-nez.

Which is a pity, because the world needs more magazine articles like this one on the British writers:
Everyone who is fond of authors—and, except for Pekingese, there are no domestic pets more affectionate and lovable—must have noticed how alarmingly scarce these little creatures have been getting of late. At one time London was full of time—too full, some people used to think. You would see them frisking in perfect masses in any editorial office you happened to enter. Their sharp, excited yapping was one of the features of the first- or second-act intermission of every new play that was produced. And in places like Chelsea and Bloomsbury you had to watch your step very carefully to avoid treading on them.
Where have all the authors gone? Why, they've migrated to Hollywood to write screenplays for the big studios:
Do you realize that all that year I was away from London, when everybody supposed that I was doing a short stretch at Dartmoor, I was actually in Hollywood?...Authors in Hollywood are kept in little hutches. In every studio there are rows and rows of these, each containing an author on a long contract at a weekly salary. You see their anxious little faces peering out through the bars. You hear them whining piteously to be taken for a walk. And does the heart bleed? You bet it bleeds. One has to be very callous not to be touched by such a spectacle....

I do not say that all these authors, or indeed, a majority of them, are actually badly treated. Indeed, in the best studios kindness is the rule. Often you will see Mr. Warner or Mr. Lasky stop and give one of them a lettuce. And the same may be said of the humaner type of director.
He devotes an entire article to the art of swatting flies, and a lovely alternate sea-side Wimbledon tennis tournament, tips for gambling and losing, and there's this wonderfully bold essay on music hall entertainment which proves he surely must have been being paid by the word and boldly flaunting that fact:
As a matter of fact, I don't think I ever saw Lottie Collins. But many is the morning when you could have heard me rendering her best-known number in a shrill treble in my bath. I suppose it is forgotten now, but here is how the refrain went. You start at the top and read straight down.

Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!

The author always considered that a pretty good lyric, and its popularity shows that the public endorsed his view.
There's a wonderful comic history of Shakespeare:
In his early youth he seems to have had the idea that there was a good living to be made out of stealing rabbits from the preserves of the local squires, and it was only when approaching years of discretion that it suddenly occurred to him that a man could do much better for himself by stealing plots. In the year 1591 he began to write plays, and from then onward anybody who had a good plot put it in a steel-bound box and sat on the lid when he saw Shakespeare coming....

'What on earth does "abroach" mean?' Burbage would ask, puzzled, halting the rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet.

'It's something girls wear,' Shakespeare would say. 'You know. Made of diamonds and fastened with a pin.'

'But you say "Who set this ancient quarrel new abroach?" and it doesn't seem to me to make sense.'

'Oh, it's all in the acting,' Shakespeare would say. 'You just speak the line quick and nobody'll notice anything.'

And that would be that, till they were rehearsing Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and someone had to say to somebody else, 'I'll fetch thee with a wanion.' Shakespeare would get round that by pretending that a wanion was a sort of cab, but this only gave him a brief respite, because the next moment they would be asking him was a 'geck' was, or a 'loggat,' or a 'cullion,' or an 'egma,' or a 'punto,' or a 'span-counter,' and wanting to know what he meant by saying a character had become 'frampold' because he was so 'rawly.' It was a wearing life, and though Shakespeare would try to pass it off jocularly by telling the boys at the Mermaid that it was all in a lifetime and the first hundred years were the hardest and all that sort of thing, there can be little doubt that he felt the strain.

So if he wanted to steal plots, good luck to him, say I for one.
Grand stuff, and a lot of fun. But is that in and of itself a good enough reason to choose Louder and Funnier as the quarter-mark celebration for "A Wodehouse a Week?" Answer: no! I chose it because while it's not my favorite Wodehouse writing, it is my favorite Wodehouse edition of any in my collection.



You can see it in this photo: a small hardcover published by Bernhard Tauchnitz (German publishers of much British literature, in English, on the continent). It's not in grand shape: it has a worn, stained, cracked binding, and the pages are brittle and I have to be careful turning them. (It's a bit difficult with hooves.) With a bit of rare precision my Wodehouse notebook tells me I purchased this at a antique shop in Oxford (England, not Mississippi) for £3.50 on November 11, 1992. My diary from that trip says:
Found a great antique shop in Oxford in which I could have spent several hours—I felt just like Lovejoy. Lots of cameras, jewelry, lanterns, china...and books! A tiny little bookshop in the corner in which I finally found a cloth PGW. It was a great little pocket copy of Louder and Funnier in which someone has used the endpapers as a sort of Wodehouse scrapbook, pasting in newspaper articles and press clippings about PGW. I imagine it drives down the value of the book...I got it for £3.50—but I think it's great to think that whoever owned this book loved PGW as much as I do.
My book: take a look:



(You can click on most of the photos and scans in this post to see larger close-ups on Flickr. Click on the "All Sizes" button once you get there to make the image much larger.)


It was given to someone on Christmas, 1932, and they pasted in clippings starting with ones dated 1935 and straight through 1952. There's Wodehouse's 1935 Who's Who entry...


A 1946 review from Time of last week's Wodehouse, Joy in the Morning, with which I could not disagree more when it says Wodehouse is "not absolutely in midseason form" and the novel "only has a trace of real mirth":


Short reviews from Truth magazine (not to be confused with the modern-day religious periodical). I can't find anything online about a British magazine called Truth but these short reviews remind me a bit of the "In Brief" reviews at the back of the New Yorker or even those in Publishers Weekly. The one in the middle refers to the furor over his controversial wartime broadcasts and cautions "If you ever liked Wodehouse, and his wartime career has not—as it may have—taken all charm from him, here is the mixture-as-before-the-war."


Pasted onto the back endpaper (now brittle enough to have fallen into two pieces and missing the final few column inches) is a longish piece from 1947 on the same controversy, written by Wodehouse's most vicious attacker in the press, the columnist "Cassandra".


This isn't the famous 1941 Cassandra attack on Wodehouse that painted him as "Quisling," "selling the country" and "worshipping the Führer," but Cassandra is still vicious and venomous and crowingly triumphant over influencing the British people to ban Wodehouse's works (there's a couple other clippings in this book about British town libraries banning the books) and call for his trial as a traitor. Cassandra is clearly an angry man and the acid of this piece is still tart and hateful sixty years after its publication. History has been kinder to Wodehouse, of course. But this pasted-in souvenir of a time when many people called for the head of my favorite writer can still put a chill up your spine. (Incidentally, Wodehouse never wrote the book "about the war" he refers to and Cassandra condemns in the piece.)

In addition to serving as a scrapbook of Wodehousiana, my Louder and Funnier has also been extensively annotated with marginalia, notes, and writing by its previous owner. He or she carefully corrects typographical errors in the Tauchnitz text:


...adds handwritten footnotes with the care of a Norton Critical Edition editor:



...wry observations on the "current" era of a decade past its original writing:



He or she occasionally underlines or circles jokes:


...and adds quotations and headnotes to illuminate the text:


I love...I absolutely love this edition. It's the only copy of Louder and Funnier I have in my collection, and really, with a jewel like this, who needs another one? Even if I search high and low I'm not going to find another copy as unique and loved as this one. You can buy a copy if you like by clicking on the Amazon link to the right, but note the price: it ain't gonna cost you a mere £3.50! (Oh, okay, here's a link to a more recent, cheaper British edition at Amazon.co.uk.)

Half a year ago I sat down and decided to read every single one of P. G. Wodehouse's books and write an online review of each. I thought it would be a wonderful way to leave a legacy to the world of my love for Plum, the Grand Master. Long after I am a shaggy-grey-furred bull out in the grand green pasture you'll be able to look these reviews up and see why Mister Wodehouse is just so darn fun to read. But in a way, the original owner of my edition of Louder and Funnier was the first, the pioneer, the Jonathan Archer to my Jean-Luc Picard. I'm glad the legacy of the scrapbook edition of Louder fell into my hooves, and I have a feeling the owner and annotator woulda been happy it went into the collection of someone who loves Wodehouse as much as he/she obviously did. I raise my glass of port and salute you, nameless fan, for your work ad perpetuam rei memoriam.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


11 comments:

Phillip said...

Best AWAW yet! Bravo, little stuffed bull. Bravo.

SallyP said...

Ta ra ra boom de ay INDEED! I must find this. I must find it now!

And I sure do wish that I had a butler. Oh, I've got teenagers, but somehow, it just isn't the same.

FoldedSoup said...

Personally, I love finding little scribbles and footnotes in old $1 bin comics from kids who really seemed to enjoy reading them in days gone by...

What an amazing find, Bully!

Anonymous said...

Wodehouse seems to have reused some of the butling (?) observations you've quoted in Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (which, coincidentally, I just read as Bertie Wooster Sees it Through last week)--you should look for it when you get there! :-)

Anonymous said...

Ok, that's the problem with reading several Wodehouses in a row with no break--the paraphrase occurs in Ring for Jeeves, which I read under it's American title, The Return of Jeeves. A shame I can't edit comments...but yes, look for it there in the chapter introducing Jill Wyvern's father.

Sorry, it's been that kind of day.

Anonymous said...

What a terrific find, worth far more than three and a half pounds! The only way your edition could be any better is if it had that awesome jacket in the title bar.

Anonymous said...

Say, did you ever get around to getting #20 posted? It doesn't show up under the tag, and it's been a while now...

Bully said...

Ulp! Ya caught me, Jeff. It's almost done (longest it's taken me to finish one, mainly because I keep pushing it aside to do the current week's.) I'll try to post it this weekend, and I'll put a new post up to direct you good folks too it. It's a Jeeves book!

Monty Ashley said...

I've never even *seen* a copy of Louder and Funnier. And I've been looking for awhile!

Unknown said...

Well done as usual, Bully, and I hope you keep that precious copy of 'Louder nd Funnier' safely secured under lock and key.

While all the essays in this book originally appeared in 'Vanity Fair', it's worth pointing out that almost all of them were substantially re-written for 'Louder and Funnier'.

As, for example, the bit you quoted about Burbage questioning Shakespeare about the meaning of 'abroach' and half a dozen other words.

In its original appearance in the April, 1910 'Vanity Fair', that entire passage consisted of:

--
It cannot be doubted that, when he was pushed for time, William Shakespeare just shoved down anything and trusted to the charity of the audience to pull him through.

As, for instance, in "Romeo and Juliet," Act One, Scene One. ""Who set this ancient quarrel abroach?" Of course he knew perfectly well that "abroach" meant nothing, but it sounded darned good, and Burbage was popping in and o,ut every two minutes, asking him when the deuce he was going to get the thing finished: so down it went.
---

Ian

Anonymous said...

This is the most gorgeous blog I've come across in a long time. I just discovered P.G. Wodehouse a few weeks ago, and "A Wodehouse a Week" has been an invaluable resource to me. As a book nerd, I appreciate this project immensely. Plus I'm a fan of the New Yorker and its cartoons, and I agree that Wodehouse would have liked them too.