Monday, July 14, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #55: French Leave

A Wodehouse a Week

Bonjour, ma petit fromages! Je m'appelle Petit Taureau, et la boîte de crayon de ma tante est sous la table de mon cousin. Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé. Contre nous, de la tyrannie...well, you get the picture. Today is Bastille Day, and to celebrate the occasion in a way that won't have you losing your head, this week's Wodehouse is the aptly named French Leave (1956). To a Francophile little stuffed bull, that's nearly as good as French toast or French fries, and to heck with those who say this book should be titled Freedom Leave. As Wodehouse himself says in a witty introduction:
A word on the title. I have not actually come across them, but I assume that everybody who has written a novel with a French setting must have called it what I have called mine. I wonder my American publisher did not change it. Changing titles is an occupational disease with American publishers. As A. A. Milne said when they altered the title of his Autobiography from It's Too Late Now to What Luck, 'This is a habit of American publishers. I fancy that the Order of Installation—taken— (as I see it) in shirt sleeves, with blue pencil upheld in right hand, ends "And I do solemnly swear that whatsoever the author shall have called any novel submitted to me, and however suitable his title shall be, I will immediately alter it to one of my own choosing, thus asserting by a single stroke the dignity of my office and my own independence.
Wodehouse's jab is curious—not so much that he takes one at American publishers, who frequently changed his UK titles, sometimes somewhat charmlessly—but more curious is his reference to Milne. By the time this book and later introduction had been written, Milne was well-known as one of Wodehouse's most aggressive critics. He accused Wodehouse of being a traitor for Wodehouse's ill-advised broadcasts for the Germans during the time Wodehouse was a prisoner of war. Wodehouse got his own back by creating some fairly fanglike parodies of Milne's verse, but perhaps it's not all that surprising: despite their personal argument, both continued to enjoy and appreciate the work of the other. Milne passed his love of Wodehouse onto his children, which means that at some point we might picture Christopher Robin reading Wodehouse alongside Pooh. A stuffed animal reading Wodehouse? Inconceivable!


Wodehouse wraps up the introduction to French Leave with:
For some reason French Leave got by and joined all the other French Leaves. I can only hope it will be found worthy to be included in the list of the Best Hundred Books Entitled French Leave.
Oh, surely there can't be more than one or two...

Huh. Whoda thunkit.

The novel itself is a bit of an unusual departure for Wodehouse: rather than a young charming man as its protagonist, a pair of young charming women—the Trent sisters, Jo and Terry, accompanied by their older, slightly-sour sister Kate—take center stage. When les soeurs Trent come into some money (from the sale of their late father's play to a television producer), there's no way they'll take sensible Kate's suggestion to bank the green for a rainy day. Nope, the Trent girls are heading to the seaside resorts of France for an all-out holiday, and if they happen to fall in love and find themselves suitable husbands, all the better a vacation!

Complicating their love-pursuits (isn't that always the case!) are some of Wodehouse's most continental characters, a rarity for this very English of writers. Wodehouse has a wonderful teaser at the end of the first chapter, as the Trent girls prepare to leave their New York chicken farm for les plages de Français:
The new moon hung in the sky like a silver sickle, and Terry, as she stood in the little garden outside the kitchen door, bowed to it three times. She found herself a little breathless. She was wondering what the future had in store for her.

Among the things which the future had in store for her were that exuberant old gentleman, the Marquis de Maufringneuse, his son the Comte d'Escrignon, Mrs Winthrop Pegler of Park Avenue and Newport, Frederick ('Butch') Carpenter, majority stockholder in the well-known sparkling table-water, Fizzo, J. Russell Clutterbuck of the publishing house Winch and Clutterbuck, and last but not least—the bonne-bouche, as it were—Pierre Alexandre Boissonade, Commissaire of Police.
They're all wonderfully colorful characters, but focus for un moment upon Le Marquis de Maufringneuse, or, as he's known throughout the novel, Old Nick. A rogue, a little bit of a con man, perpetually down on his luck but never down in his spirits, Old Nick is the anti-Uncle Fred of French Leave—responsible for much of the chaos and consternation, not to mention hampering the romantic life of his son, Jeff (the Comte d'Escrignon). Jeff is (like so many Wodehouse heroes) an honest, likeable writer, typing away on the great American French novel, and just on the verge of hitting it big when publisher J. Russell Clutterbuck (please don't say it three times fast) falls in love with the novel as much as Jeff falls in love with Terry Trent—and she with him, although there's much plot in the way to untangle before they can clasp each other in their arms and murmur sweet French coos of love in each other's ears.

Much of the novel's humor comes from what seems like an unusual character for Wodehouse: the Commisonaire of Police Pierre Alexandre Boissonade, a Clouseau-esque character with an inflated sense of his own gallic importance and an mild streak of larceny. As one of Wodehouse's few pure-French characters, it might be easy to sneer and turn up one's nose at his poking fun at the French. But, let's face it: the British, and the Americans come in for just the same sort of good-natured parody in this novel (and other Wodehouses), and if you're offended, you're paying too much attention. This is a light and frothy romance set among the hotels, casinos, and beaches of Southern France. Add to the mix (and stir vigorously) the usual imposing matrons and befuddled millionaires, and garnish with a love story for the other Trent girls as well, and it's the perfect celebration of la vie en rose. You can almost see this as a light-hearted 1950s romantic comedy: Audrey Hepburn as Terry, Gregory Peck as Jeff, and maybe Maurice Chevalier as Old Nick...probably with a soundtrack by Henry Mancini, too, now that I think of it. I'd certainly see it, especially with slightly risqué scenes like this:
'Hoy!' said the voice.

Terry was a sweet-natured girl, but even sweet-natured girls can be ruffled. The shock had made her bite her tongue, and she spoke with a good deal of asperity.

'Who's that? You scared me stiff,' she said, thought fearing that the rebuke would be wasted on what was presumably an untutored Frenchman.

The voice uttered a whoop of joy.

'Gosh! For Pete's sake! Are you American?'

'I am.'

'Thank Go! I thought I should have to explain the situation in French, and I only know about two words of French.'

'What situation would that be?'

'I'm in a spot. It's like this...' A sudden alarm sized the voice. 'Hoy!' it said. It seemed to be his favourite word. 'You aren't coming any closer, are you?'

'Not if you don't want me to.'

'You see, I haven't any pants on.'

'Any what?'

'Pants, trousers.'

Terry was conscious of a quick thrill. She was a girl who liked things to be interesting, and she found this human drama into which she had stumbled fraught with interest.
Still, among the usual humorous dialogue and funny descriptions—and perhaps fitting for a country alive with the sound of the language of love—there's more than the usual romance, and romantic writing, in French Leave:
'Did you have a good swim?' asked Kate.

'Splendid," said Terry. 'And I've met the young man who looks like Gregory Peck. He's a Count.'

'He would be!'

'Well, he has to be, because his father's a Marquis.'

Kate sniffed. She had her own opinion of French Marquises.

'He seems quite nice,' said Terry, and went into her room to get ready for lunch, conscious of having abbreviated her story a little. She had not, for instance, mentioned what had occurred when Freddie, called away for a moment on one of those mysterious yacht-owners' errands, had left her alone with Jeff and she had seen that look in his eyes, had seen him coming slowly toward her, had found herself in his arms, kissing Jeff, being kissed by Jeff, a Jeff who had become very French and was murmuring things like "Je t'aime" and "Je t'adore"...

One didn't tell Kate everything.
Do you remain unmoved by that? Then you, monsieur, have truly a heart de stone. Can't you remember the first time you felt like Jeff did?:
But at heart he was a romantic, and he had always known the other half of himself that every romantic prays for, and in Terry, from the first meeting on the yacht, he was convinced that he had found her. 'I wandered through a world of women, seeking you,' said the poet, and Jeff felt how true that was. And there was another poet who said 'Once you're kissed by Amy, tear up the list, it's Amy,' and that was true, too. These poets hit the nail on the head.

A Wodehouse a Week #64: French Leave

J'ai seulement une copie de Les Français partent; mais quoiqu'il soit l'un des travaux relativement moins connus de P.G. Wodehouse, c'est amusement encore grand et une sorte merveilleuse de festin différent si vous voulez une brève coupure continentale de sa Londres et comédie-romances anglais de manoir de campagne. Dépensez quelques francs et sélectionnez-vous vers le haut d'une copie. Si vous absolument devez l'avoir dans le "Français original," la tête dessus plus d'à et à vous peut reprendre...bien, c'est l'édition en anglais, mais quel ho! Voulez écarter votre profit dégoûtant un peu plus près de maison? Cliquez sur dessus lient à la droite ci-dessus. Rappelez-vous juste: elle est française!

I have no idea what I just said.

C'est l'index à un Wodehouse chaque semaine.


Monty Ashley said...

I know Wodehouse was a big fan of Milne's novel "Two People" because I read it after reading him enthuse over it in Performing Flea.

I'm not sure, but I think French Leave was the Wodehouse book I didn't like. I know there's one.

Tony said...

"I have no idea what I just said."

I have and it was pretty good :)

And a nice way to learn french with Eddie Izzard here

CLM said...

Vive la France!

Novice said...

I am also surprised that you didn't know what you said. You did say it well. I am puzzled that I didn't know about this book sooner. As an American who is a Francophile, Anglophile, and Wodehousephile I should have had it in my collection long ago. Shame on me!