Sunday, January 06, 2013

P.G. Wodehouse isn't just "literary comfort food"

I must very definitely disagree with what a fellow Wodehouse fan has written, in reviewing a recently published volume of Wodehouse letters.

Says Ed Park in a Bookforum post:

"It’s easy to think of Wodehouse (1881–1975) as the purveyor of literary comfort food. The flyleaves of Overlook Press’s Collector’s Wodehouse editions would make excellent wallpaper for a sanatorium, and simply seeing the spines on a shelf never fails to soothe me. A friend mentions that any random Wodehouse is his go-to subway reading—perfect for dipping into, no emotional commitment, it doesn’t matter if you don’t finish it. Indeed, you might have already finished it: The remarkable consistency and volume of his output means you can be pretty far into something before it dawns on you that you’ve read it before. Even his titles are designed to blur the lines. I couldn’t be trusted to tell you the difference between Mulliner Nights and Mr. Mulliner Speaking, Heavy Weather and Summer Lightning, Carry On, Jeeves and Very Good, Jeeves, though I’ve read them all. (I think.)"

To my mind, this is true of MOST of Wodehouse's work.  Indeed, recently, while on vacation and having run low on hard-copy books, I was (re-)reading a Wodehouse novel from the 1920s that I happened to have on my Kindle as a free download,.  I found it pleasant, forgettable, and wholly unnecessary to finish.  So I left it in the middle and went on to something else, once I had gotten my virtual hands on a more interesting Kindle download.

But this is not true of all of Wodehouse's work.  From the 1930s through the 1950s, he wrote a number of books - maybe one out of every three to five that he penned in that period - that went far beyond the admittedly formulaic norm.  Let's name a few: The Code of the Woosters, Jeeves in the Morning (known in the UK as Joy in the Morning), Thank You Jeeves, Right Ho Jeeves, Laughing Gas, probably Uncle Fred in the Springtime though I'd need to check.  These have a mad intensity, along with in some cases an inversion of classic formula (e.g., Bertie's goal is NOT to get married), that make them, dare I say, stunningly brilliant and memorable, wildly hilarious and NOT like the rest of his work that they in many ways formally resemble.  These few are really masterpieces.

So I don't consider Wodehouse at all a consistent writer.  His professionalism, skill, and sentence-by-sentence writing ability were extremely consistent.  Likewise his general approach and sensibility.  But he would nonetheless be forgettable and forgotten if not for the small number of his works that stand out as at a much higher level, and yet that also potentially can make you like the rest of his work more, as a roughly similar albeit far paler reflection of what you loved so much.

What is Wodehouse "about" in his best work?  Does he need to be "about" something (or must he in fact be "about" something, whether he knows it or not), given how great these works are?  I am not a writer about literature, so I am not the best person to analyze or describe what is there.  But part of it has to do with a kind of infantilism - rejection of responsibility and sobriety and seriousness and correctness in favor of not wanting to grow up.  There's obviously a sexual aspect to this.  (Though Wodehouse lived a normal married life, it's significant that Bertie's prime goal in many of the books is to avoid getting married.)

It resembles a bit the spirit behind Lewis Carroll's savage satires of sententious "improving" poetry (such as the original Father William verse) in the Alice books.  But beyond that I will leave it to others to say just what makes the best Wodehouse novels so extraordinary.

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