Monday, April 07, 2008

Ten other things Doctor Doom would never say.

(Yes, I know: I'm not even supposed to be here today. But...)

Welcome to the workin' week/Oh, I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you

Hi hi hi everyone! And for a wee bit, bye bye bye, because I'm off to sales conference to take lots and lots of clever notes on all of the books Norton is publishing next season. So remember, this week while you're relaxing on the beach drinking mai tais and reading comics under a tropical sky, I'm slaving away over a hot book catalogue. Lucky you!

See you again this weekend! Be good to yourselves and others.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week #48: Lord Emsworth and Others

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Lord Emsworth and Others (1937) was published in the US under the title of its first story, The Crime Wave at Blandings. That's a decent and appropriate title (and we'll get to why when we discuss the story itself in a mom.), but I prefer the UK title: Lord Emsworth and Others sounds like a Saturday morning cartoon, doesn't it? Where Lord Emsworth fights crime alongside an adventure team of British heroes? Perhaps including his butler, Beach, a plucky young Cockney girl, and the Empress of Blandings, all riding around the UK in a roadster, solving mysteries? Why, I'd watch that in a heartbeat.

In the meantime, however, we can all enjoy Lord Emsworth and Others, the book, a collection of nine short stories (well, the Blandings one is practically a novella) set in and around some of the various worlds of Wodehouse: in addition to "The Crime Wave at Blandings," there's a Mr Mulliner story, a couple Oldest Member golf stories, three Ukridge adventures, and a Drones "Eggs Beans and Crumpets" tale. About all that's missing is Bertie and Jeeves to make it pretty much a grand slam of Wodehouse's greatest creations, but there's still plenty of life in this collection: while the non-Blandings stories may not be the top of their series, there's no real bottom-of-the-barrel tales here. Each one has your recommended daily requirements of lyrical laughs, and like a punch in the face from the action-universe version of Lord Emsworth, they're good for what ails ya. There's politics:
The situation in Germany had come up for discussion in the bar parlour of the Angler's Rest, and it was generally agreed that Hitler was standing at the crossroads and would soon be compelled to do something more definite. His present policy, said a Whisky and Splash, was mere shilly-shallying.

'He'll have to let it grow or shave it off,' said the Whisky and Splash. 'He can't go on sitting on the fence like this. Either a man has a mustache or he has not. There can be no middle course.'
and risqué humor...
'...I was strolling along and I had stopped to tie my shoelace, when suddenly something came whizzing along like a bullet and struck me.'

'Good heavens! Where?'

'Never mind,' said Clarice Fitch austerely.

'I mean,' I hastened to explain, 'where did this happen?'
...and violence:
Plainly, he was running over in his mind the recent series of events. He loved this girl and yearned for her to be his. And, in addition to singing 'Only God Can Make a Tree' in her presence, he had—in the course of some fifteen minures—biffed her with a golf-ball, cracked her over the shin with a putter and pasted her in the right eye with his fist. Not so good, he was evidently thinking. I saw him put a hand up to straighten his spectacles, only to lower it again on finding no spectacles there. The action was that of a man in a trance.
It goes without saying that in the last excerpt, the violence is all accidental—Ernest Plinlimmon is not a fisticuffs kind of man—but Wodehouse does interject the rather politically incorrect notion that such roughhousing at last attracts the woman of his dreams, she who had spurned him earlier for being too mousy. So the lesson of the story seems to be: if you want a woman to be your bride, paste her between the eyes with your niblick. Ouch. Not a very enlightened view, Plum. don't try this at home, young lovers!

It occurs to me that these stories, minus the main Blandings one, have one thing in common despite their diverse characters: they all celebrate the art and wonder of storytelling. Each short story consists of a story told by one character to others, usually to explain some odd behavior they've just observed:
'Well, stap my vitals,' said the first Bean. 'If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I wouldn't have believed it.'

'Nor me,' said the second Bean.

'Believed what?' asked a Crumpet, who had come up behind them.

The two Beans turned to him as one Bean and spoke in alternate lines, like a Greek chorus.

'Freddie Widgeon—'

'—was outside there a moment ago—'

'—and a chap came up and touched his hat—'

'—and then he touched Freddie.'

'And Freddie, though he was on the steps at the time—'

'—and so had only to leap backwards in order to win to safety—'

'—stood there and le the deal go through.'
This amazing occurrence (Freddie Widgeon lends someone money) spins off an explanation in the form of a story as told by the Crumpet, and we're off to the races in the next couple paragraphs. The Crumpet and Beans retreat to the back of the stage and don't appear again until the end of the story, 22 pages later, simply to nod knowingly about that's the way life goes. In fact, in each case, the teller is less important than the story. Sure, The Oldest Member and Mr Mulliner are important main Wodehouse characters, but we know much less—in fact, virtually nothing—about them, compared to the tales of golfers and relatives (and golfing relatives) that they spin. The framing sequence is multipurposed. First, it allows Wodehouse to tell stories within specific series— each Mulliner story, for example, bears no real connection to the others except by virtue of them being relatives of Mr Mulliner, telling the tales. Perhaps more practically, it serves as a twist or mini-mystery: we're given a teaser of a tale (Why did notoriously tight Freddie lend this man ready cash? What do the talking pictures have to do with Ukridge's recent success? How does a reference to a parlour rogue doing tricks with bits of string mean a love story is on its way?)—not quite a crime to be solved, but more of a "howdunit"—how will Wodehouse tie his snappy introduction together with the tale? And perhaps most important, it's the ultimate swift and gentle way to ease a reader into a story: the introduction and set-up are done by an "on-camera" narrator who explains the dramatis personae and the situation, and dives right into the action. Wodehouse does this so casually but skillfully that we're drawn into the story the instant it begins to be told:
'This is scarcely the tone I like to heat in an old friend, Corky. When I reach that point in my story, you will se that my pawning of Aunt Julia's brooch was a perfectly normal, straightforward matter of business. How else could I have bought half the dog?'

'Half what dog?'

'Didn't I tell you about the dog?'


'I must have done. It's the nub of the whole affair.'

'Well, you didn't.'

'I'm getting this story all wrong,' said Ukridge. 'I'm confusing you. Let me begin right at the beginning.'
And then off he goes, and by the end of the story we'll not only find out why he's in such a rare cheerful mood of triumph and success, but also how he could and would have bought half a dog. There's a handful of great storytellers in literature, not merely narrators of events but tellers of tales in which the telling itself is the main gist of the story: Scheherazade, Uncle Remus, the Ancient Mariner of the Rime of the same name. Add to that illustrious pantheon Mr Mulliner, and the Oldest Member, and the Crumpet, and that they are telling stories of love and golf and bisected dogs is secondary to the skill and talent they have at keeping their audience's attention—and ours.

And then, there's "The Crime Wave at Blandings." Remember what I said earlier about Emsworth and Company riding around dispensing justice? Well, it'd be frontier justice, because there's been a rash of mysterious rifle shootings at the idyllic Blandings Castle, and it'll take a rare wit to untangle the mystery...

Air riflesExcept don't worry, dear reader: it's no Day of the Jackal or The Bourne Ultimatum Wodehouse is writing here. (Tho' wouldn't he write the best Jason Bourne, ever?) The rifle in question is an air rifle confiscated from Lord Emsworth's trigger-happy grandson George and used for nefarious purposes to bean various denizens of Blandings Castle with steel pellets. Ouch! As Ralphie Parker's mom is often heard to opine, "You'll put your eye out with one of those things!" Just lucky, perhaps, that everybody at Blandings seems to be aiming not at the face (safety first, after all) but at the wiggling derriere of bending-over pesky nuisance The Efficient Baxter. Ping!

Add to the crossfire a love story subplot featuring Emsworth's niece Jane:
Lord Emsworth's niece was the third prettiest girl in Shropshire. In her general appearance she resembled a dewy rose, and it might have been thought that Lord Emsworth, who yielded to none in his appreciation of roses, would have felt his heart leap up at the sight of her.

This was not the case. His heart did leap, but not up. He was a man with certain definite views about roses. He preferred them without quite such tight lips and determined chins. And he did not like them to look at him as if he were something slimy and horrible which they had found under a flat stone.
Jane's in a rotten mood because Lady Constance, the ubiquitous bane of fun and relaxation at Blandings Castle, has banned the banns of Jane and her beau, and Jane wants Lord Emsworth to overturn Constance's veto on the marriage. Emsworth is, of course and as usual, cowed and bullied by Constance, and can't give Jane what she wants. Until, of course, Jane indulges in a bit of blackmail: she'll tell Lady Constance that it was indeed Lord Emsworth who beaned Baxter out of the window with the air rifle unless Emsworth stands up to Constance and insists the wedding go forward.

It's the proverbial rock and a hard place for a man who'd much rather relax in a soft armchair and read his pig manual, which he attempts to do several times throughout the novella, always getting violently interrupted the moment a peaceful silence falls over the room. Add to the catastrophic mix the re-hiring of the efficient but dreaded Baxter as his secretary, and Beach the faithful butler giving his two weeks notice of quitting—it's got every sign of being the worst day ever at Blandings, and is it any surprise even the most even-tempered man would snap and go on an (air-)shooting spree?:
The thing that poisons life for gunmen and sometimes makes them wonder moodily if it is worthwhile going on is this tendency of the outside public to butt in at inconvenient moments. Whenever you settle some business dispute with a commercial competitor by means of your sub-machine gun, it always urns out hat there was some officious witness passing at the time, and there you are, with a new problem confronting you.
I shan't spoil the surprise twists at the end for you here, but suffice it to say that the temptation of a full-loaded air rifle is a bit overwhelming for almost everyone, and as little steel pellets go whizzing back and forth through the air, love blooms and problems are solved at Blanding Castle. It's one of the tightest and loveliest Blandings stories, and certainly one of my favorite, with a gloriously British ending:
Lord Emsworth was still gazing out of the window, raptly, as if looking at the X which marked the spot. For a long moment Beach stood staring reverently at his turned back. Then, as if performing some symbolic rite in keeping with the dignity of the scene, he reach for his glass of port and raised it in a silent toast.

Peace reigned in the butler's pantry. The sweet air of the summer evening poured in through the open window. It was as if Nature had blown the All Clear.

Blandings Castle was itself again.
A Wodehouse a Week #49: Lord Emsworth and Others

I've got three copies of Lord Emsworth and Others—a well-yellow-edged Penguin paperback with an Ionicus cover that I picked up during my first trip to London, a more recent Penguin reissue (in a larger trade trim size and a different cover design), and the Everyman/Overlook Wodehouse library hardcover reissue. Every man jack of 'em (and add in the older edition cover I used in the post header above) features hot airgun action at its finest, with The Efficient Behind's Baxter The Efficient Baxter's behind neatly under attack as the target. It's a fine choice to portray the book on this scene: I'd easily rank "The Crime Wave at Blandings" as one of Wodehouse's finest pieces of fiction, and it's rightfully included in many Wodehouse anthologies and collections. You can get one for yourself and take target at Baxter's rump by clicking on the link to the above right. Remember, click on the behind, not the face. You'll put his eye out with that thing, and that's never what we want to do in the happy world of Blandings.

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