Posts Tagged ‘P.G. Wodehouse’

Wodehouse: Cocktail Time

September 14, 2021

Cocktail Time
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2004) [1958]
244 p.

It all began with a Brazil nut aimed squarely at a top-hat at the Drones Club. In time the repercussions of this mischievous incident unfolded themselves and covered the earth, or at least that portion of it in and around the sprawling estate of Dovetail Hammer: books were written; authorship was disavowed, sold, and reclaimed; scandals erupted; imitation walnut cabinets became hot commodities; unsuspecting nephews were biffed on nappers with coshes; butlers locked their employers into cellars; and the world, to sum up, spun madly out of control.

Into this melee comes Lord Ickenham, aka Uncle Fred, who sets to work to bring order from chaos, sweetness and light from confusion and consternation, and harmony from discord — though not without causing a few problems of his own in the process. Wodehouse is in fine fettle once again, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. This is one of the few Uncle Fred books not intersecting with the Blandings Castle series, so we have an entirely new set of characters to get to know. Delightful.

Wodehouse: Service with a Smile

July 16, 2021

Service with a Smile
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2010) [1961]
256 p.

Every visit to Blandings Castle is a delight, but this is especially so when the Earl of Ickenham, known to his relations simply as Uncle Fred, is in the party. As usual, the extensive grounds of Blandings are fertile soil for young, tenacious romance, on the one hand, and pig purloining, on the other.

Difficulty and confusion are the order of the day. Poor Lord Emsworth is plagued by the stern attentions of his new secretary, Lavender Briggs; poor Bill Bailey finds his efforts to elope with an heiress millionaire thwarted by miscommunication; poor Lord Tilbury, magnate though he is, cannot find happiness until he possesses a pig capable, at least, of winning the silver medal at the Shropshire Agricultural Show; and poor Archie Gilpin has the misfortune to be engaged to two girls at once.

Into the fray, dauntless as always, ventures Uncle Fred, whose genial genius for hatching plots, setting traps, and lying through his teeth eventually, after much hilarity, brings about a happy resolution for all. But then we already knew that would happen.

Wodehouse is in good form. The Blandings novels are constructed from familiar elements — you would think that the Empress of Blandings would have a full-time security detail by now — but the light-hearted lack of stakes is part of the appeal of these effervescent performances. Wodehouse is a craftsman whose elegant creations are meant to charm the ear and delight the intellect, rather than wring the heart. Carefully constructed, yet unassuming, they are a literary equivalent of a Mozart divertimento or a particularly capering fugue by Bach. The only sadness, and it is a real one, is that this was the last of the novels about Uncle Fred, a character who was certainly, in my view, one of Wodehouse’s finest creations.

Wodehouse: Uncle Dynamite

January 16, 2021

Uncle Dynamite
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2006) [1948]
320 p.

There can be few less auspicious beginnings for an aspiring son-in-law than to inadvertently smash not just one, but two of the precious items in your intended father-in-law’s collection of curios, but this is just what happens to the hapless Pongo Twistleton upon his arrival at Ashenden Manor. Nor can it be particularly advantageous to find oneself overrun and overruled, in one’s own home, by a bombastic uncle, but this is just the position in which the long-suffering Bill Oakshott finds himself. Likewise, to be engaged to be married to a young man whom all the world sees is unsuitable, and who is persistently in love with another, could never be a recommended course for young and eligible women, but such is the quandary of the beautiful Hermione Bostock.

The resolution of these conundrums, and several others, becomes the project of Uncle Fred, whose boundless invention and shameless deceptions make him well-suited to the task. Adopting false identities, he makes a place for himself among the Ashendenizens, and gradually, by fits and starts, works his way through to triumph. It’s an inspired performance by Wodehouse; maybe not one of his very best, but a far sight better than you or I could do.

Wodehouse: Pigs Have Wings

October 13, 2020

Pigs Have Wings
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2000) [1952]
224 p.

To everything, the wise man said, there is a season, and at Blandings Castle it’s the season for stealing pigs. The county fair is fast approaching, and the contest for portliest pig is heating up: the Empress of Blandings, our heavyset heroine, is porking out in preparation, but on a neighbouring estate that notorious kill-joy, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, has been rearing a challenger, the majestically rotund Queen of Matchingham. Under the strain of competition, plans are hatched, and pigs, be they ever so corpulent, begin to disappear, and re-appear, and disappear again as a pig-pinching mania runs amok.

Meanwhile, back at the Castle, romance hangs in the air like the potent scent of a recently purloined pig. Old flames pop up under false identities, and penniless lovers circle round Lord Emsworth eyeing ways and means to solicit a few thousand pounds from him — even if, perhaps, it means removing a few thousand pounds from the pig sty…

As always with Wodehouse, the ingeniously contrived plot is a mere frame on which to hang his wonderfully ornamented prose. I have too infrequently included examples of this prose in these notes, so here is a sample. A few chapters in, Wodehouse circles back to take up the doings of George Cyril Wellbeloved, the pig-keeper in the employ of Parsloe-Parsloe, beginning in this way:

It is one of the chief drawbacks to the lot of the conscientious historian that in pursuance of his duties he is compelled to leave in obscurity many of those to whom he would greatly prefer to give star billing. His task being to present a panoramic picture of the actions of a number of protagonists, he is not at liberty to concentrate his attention on any one individual, however much the latter’s hard case may touch him personally. When Edward Gibbon, half-way through his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, complained to Doctor Johnson one night in a mood of discouragement that it – meaning the lot of the conscientious historian – shouldn’t happen to a dog, it was to this aspect of it that he was referring.

In this macedoine of tragic happenings in and around Blandings Castle, designed to purge the souls of a discriminating public with pity and terror, it has been necessary to devote so much space to Jerry Vail, Penny Donaldson, Lord Emsworth and the rest of them that George Cyril Wellbeloved, we are fully aware, has been neglected almost entirely. Except for one brief appearance early in the proceedings, he might as well, for all practical purposes, have been painted on the back drop.

It is with genuine satisfaction that the minstrel, tuning his harp, now prepares to sing of this stricken pig man.

That’s the pleasure of reading Wodehouse, in a nutshell.

Wodehouse: Full Moon

May 2, 2020

Full Moon
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2006) [1947]
272 p.

It was fitting that Wodehouse placed at least one of his Blandings novels under the patronage of Diana, for lunacy is Blandings Castle’s speciality.

And the presiding moon is appropriate in another way too, for moonlit nights are the special province of romance, and two are blooming at Blandings. The parents of the dim-witted beauty Veronica are hoping to marry her off to a wealthy American visitor, Tipton Plimsoll, and the mother of Prudence Garland is trying to thwart her daughter’s plans to marry Freddie’s old pal, Bill Lister (aka “Blister”).

What transpires is a diverting series of episodes in which suitors appear in disguise or are accosted by conscientious pig-men, diamond necklaces are misappropriated, and a diet of barley-water proves the only respite from visions of men resembling kindly gorillas. The Empress of Blandings, of course, content in her rotund excellence, makes a crucial intervention to bring about the happiness of all concerned.

Wodehouse is in fine mettle. The book is up to his usual high standards of craftsmanship, and offers pleasure on every page.

Wodehouse: Uncle Fred in the Springtime

January 21, 2020

Uncle Fred in the Springtime
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2004) [1939]
275 p. Second reading.

Europe stood poised on the brink of war when Wodehouse, with characteristic prescience, penned this discerning novel of false identities, high-stakes gambling, domestic strife, and oversized pigs in bathrooms.

Once again, Blandings Castle becomes Grand Central Station as a host of characters descend upon it seeking one thing or another: one wants money to pay off a debt, another needs funds to start an onion soup bar, another must charm a fiancée’s grouchy uncle, one is a hired spy, and Uncle Fred — well, Uncle Fred is just looking for a good time.

I defy anyone to summarize the plot, which is unusually complicated even by Wodehousian standards, with an impressive tangle of overlapping and intersecting machinations driving it forward. More than once, eggs are thrown at those who sing “Loch Lomond”. Serene above the fray is the majestic form of the Empress of Blandings, ingesting a bar of soap, a froth of bubbles ornamenting her snout.

The central character in the book is Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, 5th Earl of Ickenham — Uncle Fred to us. He had made one previous appearance in Wodehouse’s world, in a short story, but this was the first novel to feature him, and a fine creation he is: dauntless in difficult corners, a shameless and creative liar, and always eager for mischief.

I was cheered to find that several characters from the Jeeves novels made fleeting appearances in this one, most notably the eminent loony-doctor Sir Roderick Glossop, whom Uncle Fred spent much of the novel impersonating.

All in all, it’s a very entertaining book. I have a certain affection for it because it was one of the first, and may have been the actual first, Wodehouse novels I ever read. I don’t remember why I chose it at the time; probably I just happened to see this nice edition for sale and thought it would be as good a place to start as any, which was at least partly true: with Wodehouse, starting anywhere is better than not starting at all.

Favourites of 2019: Books

December 28, 2019

It is gratifying to arrive at year-end and discover that, against the odds, I have somehow managed to read quite a nice selection of books over the course of the past twelve months. Today I’d like to comment briefly on those I most appreciated.

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I have had three reading projects on the go this year: the first, a multi-year effort to read the complete surviving body of Old English poetry (in translation) I finished up in February. This was a very rewarding project that brought many delights and surprises with it, and I have written about it at some length in this space.

This was Year 3 in my on-going reading project in Roman history and literature. The entire year I passed in the company of the Augustan poets of the first century before Christ, reading the entire surviving poetic corpi of Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus. Of these, the work I enjoyed the most was probably Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but what most surprised me was the poetry of Propertius, a poet whom I’d heard little enough about but whose delightful, passionate, dramatic poetry strongly appealed to me. I am looking forward to continuing this project in 2020, when I plan to sojourn first with Seneca’s plays and letters before taking up the historical works of Tacitus.

A third reading project, launched in the latter part of the year, is focused on plays from the early modern period (roughly 1550-1800). I’ve started on the stage in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and, of the half-dozen or so plays I’ve got under my belt so far, the most impressive has been John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a masterful tragedy that I found totally convincing.

I suppose a fourth, less formal, reading project has been my tour through the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I began the year reading the annals of Psmith and close out the year mid-stream in the chronicles of Blandings Castle. But it seems churlish to deliberate about which of these choice morsels is most deserving of praise, so I’ll not try.

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I tackled two long novels this year, and mercifully they were both worth the effort. The Tale of Genji is an 11th century Japanese classic that inducts the reader into the hyper-refined world of the Heian court, where elaborate manners and self-control are the order of the day but, in subdued tones, all the passions and interests of human life are present under the surface. It’s a beautifully written (or beautifully translated) masterpiece that I found challenging but worthwhile.

The second was quite different: in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo I found a gripping tale of injustice provoking a long and patient revenge, and I relished every page. It’s a story that seems tailor-made for the big screen, and somebody should really make a film about it. Hey!

I also read — well, finished — for the first time this year C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, and, despite my mild allergy to science fiction, I found much to admire in it. Like the medieval authors whom Lewis so admired, he found a way to pack a good deal of “sound instruction” into his fiction, and I liked that these books grappled with weighty philosophical and theological themes.

The last fiction book I’ll highlight is Richard Adams’ Watership Down. This was a great favourite of my sister’s when I was growing up, but I, for whatever reason, never read it. I ought to have done so. The story is exciting, but Adams takes the time to develop his characters in rich detail, and I loved how he created for his rabbits an elaborate social and religous culture. The book is also a pretty thoughtful meditation on politics and the common good, for those — not me — with a talent for thinking about such things.

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I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to find the time and mental energy to engage with substantial non-fiction, but I did finish a few good books. Two were re-reads: Lewis’ The Abolition of Man is an evergreen meditation on the foundations of moral judgment and on the probable consequences of the modern habit of pouring acid on those foundations; Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture is an essential book that excavates an ancient account of what a well-lived human life looks like, and what practices sustain it. These are two books to read again and again.

I spent a lot of time this year on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility, a learned meditation on the nature and goals of education, especially as conceived prior to John Dewey; that was another country, and Hicks is an excellent guide. I also spent many a happy hour paging back and forth through Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God, a volume that I can confidently recommend to readers in search of an accessible and concise treatment of the basics of philosophical theology. Finally, I enjoyed reading Jacques Barzun’s analysis of Romanticism as a cultural and intellectual movement in European history, and in human society more generally, in his Classic, Romantic, and Modern.

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That’s the kind of year it’s been for me. As usual, I’ve made a histogram of the original years of publication of the books I read this year, and it looks like this:

Not a bad spread this year, helped, of course, by the Roman, medieval, and early modern reading projects. Interesting that the 18th century almost got missed entirely.

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Trivia:

Longest book: Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (1240 p.)

Oldest book: Horace, Satires (c.30 BC)

Newest book: Harts, The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla (Oct 2019)

Multiple books by same author: Thornton Burgess (11), Shakespeare (10), Wodehouse (6), Ovid (5), Horace (4), C.S. Lewis (4).

 

Wodehouse: Heavy Weather

October 30, 2019

Heavy Weather
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2002) [1933]
321 p.

Beginning a day or two after the events of Summer Lightning, this novel features most of the same characters and even a similar plot: Ronnie Fish and Sue Brown still want to marry over the objections of the family, Gally’s tell-all memoir is still attracting thieves of all descriptions, and the Empress of Blandings is still contentedly feeding on all that comes within reach of her terrific, plump snout.

The principal new characters are Ronnie’s mother, Lady Julia, who rushes back to Blandings Castle intent on quashing Ronnie’s engagement to Sue, and Lord Tilbury, a publishing magnate with the rights to Gally’s memoir and determined to make good on them.

Much of the comedy arises from the sheer number of people trying to lay hands on the memoir: some want it destroyed, some want it published, and some just want to sell it to the highest bidder. As the convoluted hunt proceeds, the manuscript itself is passed, like a covert hot potato, from person to person, each with his or her own motives for guarding it. It’s a triumph of character-driven circumstantial humour.

As always with Wodehouse, the plot has been conscientiously constructed, but the real joy of the book is in the writing, which bubbles with wit. It’s a splendid read.

Wodehouse: Summer Lightning

October 9, 2019

Summer Lightning
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2003) [1929]
320 p.

At the end of the previous Blandings Castle adventure, young Psmith had replaced Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s personal secretary, and a principal question on my mind was whether he would continue in the post long enough to play a role in this rollicking tale. Sadly, he did not. Baxter, in fact, was back, or coming back, in his own efficient manner.

The intertwining stories in this book require close attention to keep straight. There is, of course, the matter of the prize pig, Empress, whose gigantic, near-spherical form doesn’t prevent her going missing. Then there is the Hon. Galahad Threepwood’s project to write his tell-all youthful memoirs, an occasion of sure embarrassment for all the Shropshire nobility. Then there is young Ronnie, the nephew of Lord Emsworth, who has fallen for a London chorus-girl, and there is his cousin, Millicent, who, though intended for Ronnie, has eyes for a member of the domestic staff. And there is the private detective who lurks in bushes and climbs drain-spouts to no great effect. All pile in and are swirled around to create something delectable. Amazingly, Wodehouse hit upon a single brilliant stroke in the final chapter to resolve all of the competing interests. It could not have been more elegant.

Usually the American versions of Wodehouse’s books were given inferior titles, but in this case the American edition was called Fish Preferred, which is not half bad.

Wodehouse: Psmith III

June 18, 2019

Leave it to Psmith
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2003) [1923]
288 p.

Wodehousian comedy seems to take place in a world of its own, one sharing certain features with ours but more generously endowed with sunshine, pretty girls, and happy happenstance. It comes as something of a shock — shock before delight, you understand — to find that the walls of this world are permeable, and that if characters cannot actually wander out into our own world, they can at least wander from one story-world to another, and that is just what happens here: Leave it to Psmith narrates what transpired when Psmith walked out of his own sphere and into Blandings Castle.

It wasn’t quite so simple as that, of course, for the course of true fun never does run smooth, but, all the same, circumstance did so contrive that Psmith, having assumed the unlikely identity of a modern Canadian poet, entered Blandings Castle as a guest, intent on wooing the attractive young woman cataloguing the castle’s library, and perhaps — if possible — stealing a £20,000 necklace from the lady of the house.

The action of the story, in fact, centers on this diamond necklace, as the action of Macbeth turns on a handkerchief. We see it hung round Lady Constance’s neck, flung from a window, buried in a flower pot, and stuffed in a bird. Much of the joy of the story comes in the gradual discovery of just how many of the central characters are, for one reason or another, in surreptitious pursuit of that glittering garland.

Speaking of central characters, Wodehouse outdoes himself not only in the quality of his comic characters — Psmith, of course, is a comedic figure of the first rank, but the Hon. Freddy Threepwood is nearly as funny as his name, and even the efficient Rupert Baxter, all unwitting, has his moments of comic glory here, in lemon pyjamas — but also in the number of characters arcs he manages at once, each following their own motivations and intersecting in a variety of hilarious ways. It’s a virtuoso performance.

Leave it to Psmith was to be the last of the Psmith books — I think. So the rumours run. I am in some doubt of the matter, because at story’s end he comes on staff at Blandings Castle, which would seem to portend a return in the next Blandings book, Summer Lightning. However, if it should prove not so, and Psmith passes out of earshot for good, allow me to express my thanks for the happy hours spent in his company.