Search This Blog

Friday, May 18, 2012

Performing Flea

This tribute to the work of P. G. Wodehouse appeared five years ago in the Albany Times-Union, where a semi-literate sub-editor took umbrage at my knock at contemporary so-called humorists. This is the unfortunate consequence of knowing nothing of culture and society before your own birthdate. You, however, are far more hip, and will enjoy seeing this piece in its entirety. And Overlook Press's reissue series, described below, soldiers on.


Photo by B. A. Nilsson,
created for a different article,
but it makes the point.
TO SAY THAT P. G. Wodehouse's books are the funniest in the English language is only to reinforce an opinion offered repeatedly during the past several decades. George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh were among the cheering section; Sebastian Faulks and Douglas Adams added more recent voices to the choir.

Overlook Press is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to restore Wodehouse’s 95-some titles to hardcover (how you count his books depends on how you count titles that were slightly revised and renamed by the author), and four recent issues offer a fascinating look at the contrasts of the writer’s career.

The Little Nugget (1913) and The Coming of Bill (1920) bookend the period of Wodehouse’s greatest creative development. He entered the ’teens as a writer who had shifted from juvenile pieces to novels very much of their time (strong, silent heroes rescuing ditzy ingenues); by the end of the decade he had turned such conventions on their ears and, not incidentally, created his most enduring character: Jeeves the butler.

Very Good, Jeeves! was published in 1930, but collected eleven of the all-time best of the Jeeves short stories that appeared the decade before in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. And Do Butlers Burgle Banks?, which appeared in 1968, is definitely a twilight effort (Wodehouse died in 1975), but PGW in his dotage still wrote more compelling prose than those around him.

Born in England in 1881, he began his professional career at a Hong Kong bank, writing and selling stories on the side. He was soon able to chuck banking and crank out a successful series of “school” stories – tales of boys ducking classes and competing at cricket (and very much the precursor, in spirit, of the Harry Potter books).

The first of Wodehouse’s distinctive, audience-grabbing characters was Stanley Featherstoneaugh Ukridge, who figured in a series of short stories and a rather desultory book (the much-revised Love among the Chickens); more popular still was Psmith (“The P is silent, as in ptarmigan”) who, like Ukridge and the soon-to-appear Uncle Fred, was an impulsive iconoclast with a witty way of speaking.

Enter Jeeves

P. G. Wodehouse
Had he contented himself with characters like these, he undoubtedly would have been a terrific success. But he hit one out of the park when Jeeves shimmered onto the scene, and continued his homers with a string of Jeeves-based stories and novels until Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (U.S. title: The Catnappers) in 1974.

Jeeves is the personal gentleman of Bertie Wooster, the best of the many addle-pated English lordlings who people Wodehouse’s books. The stories are narrated by Bertie, in a cheery, quote-laden voice, as when he describes the obesity of his Uncle George:
I mean to say, for years, right back to the time when I first went to school, this bulging relative had been one of the recognized eyesores of London. He was fat then, and day by day in every way had been getting fatter ever since, till now tailors measure him just for the sake of exercise.
Like so many Wodehouse characters, Bertie draws sufficient income to allow him to avoid employment; his conflicts involve inadvertently getting engaged to domineering women and restoring missing snuffboxes. Yet you’re in immediate sympathy with Bertie, and there’s nothing remote or dated about his – and your – reactions to those dilemmas.

Wodehouse never insults his reader’s intelligence. He preys upon it, offering “a-ha!” moments that assume, among other things, that you know the famous quotations of poetry, prose, and plays woven into his text and dialogue. Part the game of reading Wodehouse is to recognize those references, which also serve as character reinforcements. Fastidious Jeeves gets his quotations right; Bertie's trail off into rhythmic “tum-te-tums.”


Surrounding the noteworthy characters are stock-company players, whizzing through charmingly absurd comedies as anachronistic as spats. So what keeps Wodehouse popular?

Craftsmanship, of course. Behind the farcical plots is a technique that allows his sentences, to paraphrase PGW, “to jump through hoops and snap sugar cubes off your nose.” The comedy in Wodehouse works because his prose style is so transparent, calling attention to itself only when a deft turn of phrase makes its surprising leap from the page.

Clever plot twists have fascinated us since the time of Plautus, and the misadventures of couples in love never lose their luster. Reading Wodehouse, we may be in a world of two-seaters and telegrams, but the follies of the human condition endure.

The classical education given a British schoolkid in the 1890s was similar to what a British – and American – child would get through the middle of the 20th century. By the 1960s, Latin and Greek were gone and nobody was asked to memorize “Excelsior!” Today’s schoolkids, deprived of all but the most basic information, mask ignorance with disinterest.

But a classical education is the foundation upon which one learns truly to appreciate the arts, and therefore to interpret one’s place in society. Intellectually informed humor by the likes of Wodehouse – and Perelman, and Benchley, and Dorothy Parker, and Stephen Leacock – was powerful stuff in the context of its time.

To an audience today, numbed by decades of witless TV, such humor may be too brain-taxing for comfort. In its place, we have the humor of cruelty (Henry Alford, Merrill Markoe), crudity (Jonathan Ames), and say-do-you-remember-when inconsequence (Garrison Keillor). Some of it is accomplished stuff; occasionally it’s terrifically funny. But none of it requires the reader to be intellectually involved.

By the time of his death, at the age of 93 in 1975, he had long been an anachronism, his stories set (despite the later appearance of modern appliances) in a pre-World War One neverland. His fan base – broadly international – didn’t care. To the literate reader, Wodehouse’s sentences dance and his humor is timeless.

Wodehouse the Lyrist

Wodehouse the apprentice peeks through the early pages of The Complete Lyrics of P.G. Wodehouse, a project that had been been bumping along for a while until finished by editor Barry Day (who shepherded a similar collection of Noël Coward lyrics into print).

Beginning in 1904 and reaching his peak in the late ’teens, Wodehouse provided lyrics for hundreds of songs for shows on Broadway and on London’s West End. His best and most frequent collaborations were with Jerome Kern.

“Is there likely to be a major revival of general interest in Wodehouse lyrics?” asks editor Day, who answers himself: “Probably not, since most of them were expressly designed to ... fit the characters of particular long-ago shows ... ”

Not to mention long-ago tunes, which, in their absence, leave the rhythm of the lyrics
somewhat mysterious. Except for the patter songs, at which Wodehouse showed his debt to Gilbert. From “Sitting Pretty”:
“I’ve met with girls in millions,
Mabels and Kates and Lillians,
Helped them to dance cotillions,
Given’ ’em tea –
None of the whole collection
Showed me the least affection
After a brief inspection,
Goodbye to me!”
In fact, argues Day, it was as a bridge from Gilbert and Sullivan to the modern musical that Wodehouse’s lyrics are most notable. “What Wodehouse achieved ... was to move from the ‘poeticism’ of his predecessor to the colloquialism of the modern song lyric.”

No PGW credit!
Hammerstein made sure that
it was added later.
A good example of that colloquialism – and a clear foreshadowing of Ira Gershwin’s witty technique – comes from a 1918 show called “See You Later,”
“How nice ‘twould be to go and dwell
In some far state, say, Nev. and Del.
I’ve heard folks say, who ought to know,
It’s jolly in the state of Mo.”
Because songs and lyrics were shuffled from one show to another, editor Day had the challenge not only of collecting but also ordering the texts. Each show is introduced with a cast list and synopsis; an informative essay concludes each chapter. Although no doubt targeted for the Wodehouse enthusiast, the book is easy to enjoy.

Dropped from the score of 1918's “Oh, Lady, Lady!!” is a lyric that begins, “I used to dream that I would discover/The perfect lover/Some day ... ” The song was subsequently dropped from the show “Sally” and found a home only after the Wodehouse-Kern collaboration ended. Titled “Bill,” it was sung by Helen Morgan and remains Wodehouse’s most enduring song. That alone is enough to give him a good seat among the pantheon of superior lyricists; with his legacy of extraordinary fiction, he remains one of the great writers of our time.

The Little Nugget
The Coming of Bill
Very Good, Jeeves!
Do Butlers Burgle Banks?

by P.G. Wodehouse | Overlook Press

The Complete Lyrics of P.G. Wodehouse | Scarecrow Press

– Albany Times-Union, Feb. 11, 2007

No comments: