Eureka! I finally liked Wodehouse!
I’ve been trying to achieve this feat for years. Many people think it isn’t a feat at all. They find it completely normal to enjoy the antics of Bertie Wooster, as recounted by his affectionate inventor. I have repeatedly attempted to taste the pleasures, and failed. I found Wodehouse twee, or arch, or just annoying. Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster set my teeth on edge. Was I watching the wrong episodes of the BBC productions? Or is Wodehouse a pleasure I’ve grown into, like Proust?
I’m inclined to believe I must have been reading the wrong books. Or possibly there’s a pseudo-Wodehouse out there? A doppelganger who took over the production and didn’t quite hit the marks of hilarity achieved by the original author? A quick Wikipedia search shows an alarming level of productivity. Right Ho, Jeeves was published in 1934 along with Thank You, Jeeves; in both 1933 and 1935, Wodehouse published a novel and a book of short stories. Somewhere there must be a drop-off in quality, and maybe I sampled second-rate books. All I know is that frequently laughed out loud while reading Right Ho, Jeeves, and sometimes I was reduced to whimpering.
We all know that Bertie Wooster is a fatuous ass, but it’s not easy to write from Bertie’s point of view and still reveal his idiocy. Wodehouse does this with a kind of ingenuousness. “Jeeves, when I discussed the matter with him later, said it was something to do with inhibitions, if I caught the word correctly, and the suppression of, I think he said, the ego.” (It is pretty hard to read that sentence without hearing it in Hugh Laurie’s voice.) So that’s part of the gleeful humor. Then there are the ludicrous predicaments Bertie brings on himself, like engagement, in this book, to a girl he refers to as “the Bassett.” (It’s pretty hard not to add “… hound” to the name, right?) Comedy is always about pacing, and Wodehouse knows how to collapse and how to stretch time: the longest set-piece in this novel is the exquisite prize-giving at the Market Snodsbury grammar school, with a drunken Gussie Fink-Nottle as the star. It goes on forever. You want it to go on forever.
But of course it’s Wodehouse’s style that makes him immortal. And it’s not an austere thing. It’s a riotous, supremely playful accumulation of synonyms, metaphors, slang, Biblical tags, weird abbreviations, snippets of French or Latin. Here is Bertie trying to begin the narrative: “I suppose the affair may be said to have had its inception, if inception is the word I want, with that visit of mine to Cannes. If I hadn’t gone to Cannes, I shouldn’t have met the Bassett or bought that white mess jacket, and Angela wouldn’t have met her shark, and Aunt Dahlia wouldn’t have played baccarat.”
How can you not want more?