Friday, June 30, 2006

I don't absolutely talk about boils

Have just finished Right ho, Jeeves, in which Bertram Wooster finds himself in tricky circs. as he struggles to help out his chums.

Newting teetotaller Gussie Fink-Nottle is too timid to chat up his beloved Madeline Basset; Tuppy Glossop has fallen out with his finance Angela after pooh-poohing her shark; Bertie’s Aunt Agatha has yet to come clean about all the cash she gambled away in Cannes; and Anatole, Aunt Agatha’s highly strung chef, is threatening to resign.

Worst of all, Jeeves seems to have lost his usually brilliant psychological insight. At least, that’s what Bertie’s insisting…

It’s probably little surprise that I pictured this all the way through starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, with ad breaks between every chapter. I’d watched their telly version avidly, but this is the first time I’ve tried one of the novels.

Had tried Wodehouse before but was irritated by the posh fripperies of life at Blandings and put off his golfing short stories by their being about golf. This, though, proved something else – funny, fizzy and delicious, and a right old pleasure to read. I’m told it’s one of the better ones, and it felt like sipping Champagne.

There’s some wonderful wordplay and turns of phrase, giddily narrated by Bertie, who only just follows what’s going on himself.

That said, the book was written in 1934 and I couldn’t help think of Roosevelt’s New Deal and what Mr Hitler was up to by that point, and of the ominous Things To Come.

(Oddly, no one seems to be selling the Region 2 DVD version of that which I've got.)

There’s just one aside about the real world:
“I was reading in the paper the other day bout those birds who are trying to split the atom, the nub being that they haven’t the foggiest as to what will happen if they do. It may be all right. On the other hand, it may not be all right. And pretty silly a chap would feel, no doubt, if having split the atom, he suddenly found the house going up in smoke and himself torn limb from limb.”

PG Wodehouse, Right ho, Jeeves, pp. 170-171.

This reminds me of Chaplin’s Great Dictator, in which there’s some silly mucking about in a concentration camp, an astonishingly misjudged laugh. Chaplin later said that he regretted these scenes, and would never have dreamt of doing them had he known what the camps really involved. Though there’s arguments about what people would and should have known at the time, it now plays as woefully crass.

Wodehouse is even more overshadowed by our knowledge of later events because of accusations that he collaborated with the Nazis. I’m aware it’s complicated, and McCrum’s Wodehouse biography awaits me next (the far side of some urgent writing of my own). Am very interested to see what he makes of that. Have an idea for a story…

Last year, before researching Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland, I listed what I thought I already knew. What follows is more of the same – me throwing down my current position to see how far it’s wrong.

Right ho, Jeeves gives an insight into a long-lost and idealised world of servants’ balls and school prize-givings, where English society revolved entirely round the authority of landed gentry. We watch the bored, silly lives of the rich with their expensive hobbies, vanity publishing and horrendous taste in fashion.

There are a few other historical observations, such as Agatha muttering about the poor quality of whisky since the (first world) war. We’re also treated to the kinds of car and hat and holiday destination thought topping at the time.

It’s an "idyllic world" says to Evelyn Waugh on the back cover, one that "will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own."

It’s written as if thus will it ever be, the young things trapped in one eternal summer. Bertie’s chums are always getting engaged and never married, and he himself ever evades ladies’ snares. It cannot last, surely – unless Bertie ends up as a lonely old bachelor shuffling alone round the Drones – but it’s a happy make-believe.

I can see that later books, written after the Second World War pulled the Empire apart, can be seen to hark back to a golden age of economic inequality. But you could argue, just, in this one that it subverts the class hierarchy of its time. Jeeves playing the toffs off against one another, and sending his master on an 18-mile goose chase, is of the same class of subversion as the Marriage of Figaro. That’s what makes it funny.

Does comedy have a duty to deal with contemporary issues? The appeal of Wooster is his refusal to take responsibility. His only desires are to eat, drink and be merry – and wear his ridiculous clothes. He’s not a mean person, though, forever causing trouble because he wants to help.

The problem is that ignoring the nasty realities seems less acceptable when the author then writes similarly witty accounts of having tea and cakes with Nazis.

I’m reminded of the end to Goggle-eyes by Anne Fine. One of the characters explains that life is difficult and stories can help. Some give you tips on how to cope with the difficulties, and others just give you a break from them. The best do both at the same time.

So a clever, witty and enjoyable book, but I’d have liked a bit more depth and texture Champagne, Bertie, is all very well but is better with Rich Tea biscuits.


Anonymous said...

"Wodehouse is even more overshadowed by our knowledge of later events because of accusations that he collaborated with the Nazis. I’m aware it’s complicated"...

Utter tosh, I'm afraid, old Bean. It's actually terribly simple. Here - I'll let Georgie explain:


Anonymous said...

Anyone in any doubt about Wodehouse's lack of fascist sympathies should read 'The Code of the Woosters', where the frightful ass Roderick Spode starts up his own fascist militia, the Blackshorts. Eulalie.