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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Much Obliged, Plum

What Was Literature? Dept.: Many a blog-post ago I noted that the photo I added for this piece (a piece that ran in the Albany Times Union) was taken for a different article. This is that article, which I wrote for Metroland Magazine at the outset of Overlook Press’s Wodehouse-reissue project – which is now up to 98 titles which, by my count, means they have four titles to go, two of which will be out next spring. [Update: they've worked in a few unexpected – to me – titles, so it may take a bit longer.]


HIS WORK WAS PROBABLY the most outdated of any 20th-century writer. Right off the bat, Pelham Grenville (but known to his friends as “Plum”) Wodehouse established a milieu of English country houses, doddering Earls and clever butlers – and some of the sappiest star-crossed lovers in literature. Others who mined this milieu – think Ben Travers, E.F. Benson – are deservedly obscure, but Wodehouse endures. In fact, thanks to the enthusiasts at Woodstock-based Overlook Press, his work triumphs, in a series of hardcover reissues that’s now 36 titles strong.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“We’re planning to reissue all of his titles,” says publisher Peter Mayer, even as he acknowledges the enormity of the task. There are close to a hundred volumes, turned out between 1902 and 1974 by a writer who lived to the age of 94.

To call each of the books a gem is to be only slightly overgenerous. It can be argued that he was treading water in the very last few books, and even some of the early titles – The Coming of Bill, for example – are kneecapped by leaden plots. Otherwise, his books remain the funniest writing of the past hundred years, the humor of which almost conceals the extraordinary craftsmanship.

There’s a story, and I hope it’s true, of T.S. Eliot trying to describe a particularly funny Laurel and Hardy gag, which resulted in a thwarted Eliot collapsing in laughter and insisting the words alone couldn’t capture the magic of the scene. Fortunately, Wodehouse left us words. What I can’t reproduce is the context, which makes them even funnier. Here’s one you’ll find in the quotations books:  “He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” (The Code of the Woosters.)

The speaker, and narrator of his sagas, is Bertie Wooster, who hired the most celebrated manservant in literature: Reginald Jeeves. Your AskJeeves internet search is thus an homage to Wodehouse.

It was Jeeves’s lot to extricate Bertie from a succession of scrapes – romantic, legal, social, what have you – often at the price of a recently acquired piece of haberdashery that Jeeves finds offensive. Then there are Bertie’s aunts.

Wodehouse was raised, in those pre-daycare days, by a succession of aunts who no doubt inspired those who peopled his books. And giving Bertie a ripe subject for description: “I turned to Aunt Agatha, whose demeanor was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back.” (The Inimitable Jeeves.)

Such gems abound in the four recent Overlook titles, which also provide a range of Wodehouse’s characters, some regular, some one-offs. Bertie and Jeeves return to the home of a favored aunt, Dahlia, in Much Obliged Jeeves, where Bertie also encounters not only his old nemesis Sir Roderick Glossop, a shrink who believes Bertie should be committed, but also his winsome ex-fiancĂ© Madeleine Bassett.

While Wodehouse recrafted a few of his plays into novels, the stage version of Ring for Jeeves was written by longtime collaborator Guy Bolton. It’s also unique in that it’s the only Wooster-free Jeeves novel in the series, but it makes up for it with a quota of young love, mistaken idea and eleventh-hour plot reversals. Still, this tale seems somewhat flat, perhaps because of the lack of Bertie’s narrative color.

Nevertheless, third-person Wodehouse can be hilarious, and Quick Service, which features none of the author’s recurring characters, reminds us again of his musical theater heritage (he collaborated on Broadway with Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Cole Porter, among others) with a classic three-act plot filled with amusing characters. J. B. Duff would have been played by Guy Kibbee, while Joss Weatherby is the classic Dick Powell type. And the manic action is sparked, appropriately, by a slice of ham. Here’s another classic Wodehouse description:

“The fact was that Mr Duff, a devil of a fellow among his own sex, was terrified of women. He avoided them if possible, and when cornered by one without hope of escape always adopted the shrewd tactics of the caterpillar of the puss moth –  which, we are told by an eminent authority, not satisfied with Nature's provisions for its safety, makes faces at young birds and alarms them considerably. That was why Mr Duff's features were working. Nature, making provision for his safety, had given him bushy eyebrows and piercing eyes, and he threw in the faces as an extra.”

If you backed up your query about my favorite Wodehouse book with the threat of grapeshot, I’d pick Uncle Fred in the Springtime. But it’s still like naming the favorite of your children. Here are so many of Wodehouse’s best characters: dotty Lord Emsworth and his prize pig, his imperious secretary Rupert Baxter, the threat of the aforementioned Glossop, and that most glorious of all Wodehouse creations, Lord Ickenham – Uncle Fred. Here’s a man who is never happier than when meddling in and muddling up people’s affairs, and this saga, a wild farce of impersonation, retribution and (what else!) sundered hearts, draws you completely into its most unbelievable little universe and doesn’t release you until you’ve paged to the end, red-faced with laughter.

“I’ve been publishing Wodehouse for I don’t know how many years,” says Mayer, who notes that he was responsible for the paperback Wodehouse series issued by Penguin for many years. “When I acquired the hardcover rights to these books, I thought that people who love Wodehouse might be at the stage where they’d prefer to collect hardcover editions. At first I didn’t think I’d issue more than six or eight – but they’ve been so successful that it’s become its own mini industry!”

Much Obliged Jeeves
Quick Service
Ring for Jeeves
Uncle Fred in the Springtime

by P.G. Wodehouse
Overlook Press, $17.95 each

Metroland Magazine, 14 October 2004

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