Yesterday was the anniversary of P. G. Wodehouse’s birthday. I’ve tried, privately, to tell people what this man’s writing means to me, and the miracle is that some of them have gotten past the excited gibbering to actually give him a try. They are always well-rewarded.
It never ceases to amaze me that Wodehouse isn’t taught in schools. He never was and probably never will be. He’s subversive, you see. I would definitely send a son to a school where the headmaster announced in advance that only Wodehouse will be taught in English classes.
I wanted to be a serious writer when I was a young man. I wanted to sit in cafes with a marble notebook and a wooden pencil and a pen knife and an itchy woolen turtleneck and a martyr’s haircut and grind out carbon-hard stories about human sadness and the ravages of fate and all that nonsense. “Frightful bilge,” is what one of Wodehouse’s characters would have called it and he would have been right. These fiction johnnies in my pantheon didn’t laugh very much when they pushed their typewriters aside for the day and bit the top off a whiskey bottle.
So I read and I read and I read and I “honed my craft” and “worked my metier” and I “whittled my pencil” as the saying goes and a fat lot of good it did me. I did come to see words through a prism when in this trance-like state and could categorize them like grades of diamonds and if I was hard pressed could write like that again. But I don’t want to.
Because one hard summer, hard weather-wise, hard life-wise, hard everything-else-wise, I picked up one of Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” books and nothing has been the same since. During that summer - the kind of season I’ve seen buckle stronger men than myself - I skipped the weeks away laughing, reading almost all the “Jeeves” books in one go. I faced the days with a light heart.
People medicate themselves all the time. They take prescription drugs, they take non-prescription drugs, they drink, they get high. They over-do. The mood must be altered. I agree.
In reading these “Jeeves” books and, later, the “Blandings Castle” books, I placed my mood squarely in the care of Wodehouse, turned it over to him entirely, and his dosage was perfect. For in these books are savage aunts, prescient valets, lady novelists, inappropriate marriage material in the form of barmaids and chorus girls and women who want to “mold” men, country houses, milk trains, telegrams, rugby-playing vicars, cement-headed police constables, aggressive dogs, swans, fat pig competitions, silver collectors, French chefs, idle friends, and plots that read like double helixes and finish as neatly as stage musicals (something Wodehouse also wrote for).
The calendar is fixed in time, somewhere around 1907, and that means the mores, slang and codes of conduct are fixed too. It’s pre-World War I, A Time Before Sadness, when there were still feudal relationships between people and their servants, where golf was played, cars were a new development, and high tea was served on the lawn and cocktails were served in the drawing room before formal dinner. A forest primeval compared to the England we know today.
Okay, I hear you saying. So what? It’s got nothing to do with me. Well…as a lifelong student of comedy I can tell you the jokes haven’t aged a bit, regardless of the by-gone setting. The mix-ups are hilarious. The characters are bumptious, quick to heap abuse, and to become mistakenly affianced to the worst possible candidates. Schemes are constantly made to put hearts back together, to break them up, to steal priceless objects. None of them go as planned. Throughout are light-handed references to classical literature.
In every one of these books there’s someone who operates outside the scheme of things, a ringer, either morally, as in Uncle Fred (aka Uncle Dynamite) or Galahad (Gally) Threepwood, or because of a superior intelligence, a la Jeeves, Bertie Wooster’s valet. They push the plot along. They fix things and they break them. They make the books go.
I altered my mood that summer. Did I ever. I came through what might have been seen as an ordeal-filled time with a bright smile and laughter was heard in the house all the hot summer long. I had no need of a rope to be thrown over the rafters, nor a pill, nor a pipe nor a bottle. I was in a haze of continual delight, of thrilling to the language. I rely on these books, year in and year out, to ward off what pre-psychiatrists called “the black dog.” They really do work.
I’ve since decided that I’d like to write like that. And in the years after, I’ve abandoned the gravel-chewing writing of yore and really thrown myself into what I now feel is certainly its equal. P. G. Wodehouse didn’t win any Nobel Prizes, but in my opinion he should have won them all, for in making the world happier and more endurable, he was a true master.