a weekly column by Robert Westbrook
WODEHOUSE: The Funniest Writer in the English Language?
Tired of the War on Terrorism? Perhaps you had your entire retirement fund invested in Enron stock? I know exactly what you need. You need a laugh.
In my opinion, the funniest writer in the English language may very possibly be Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, who is best known for his Jeeves novels -- Jeeves the butler, that is, the ever resourceful "gentleman's personal gentleman" who must forever guide his blundering young employer, the upper crusty Bertie Wooster, from one disaster to the next. I've read quite a number of Jeeves novels over the years -- all with extremely British names like Right Ho, Jeeves (ISBN: 0-14028409-5), Very Good, Jeeves (ISBN: 0-75407524-9), Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (ISBN: 0-74320360-7), and so on. All in all, P.G. Wodehouse produced nearly a hundred books, and a good number of them are still available in various Penguin editions, and will remain so probably forever. The man not only had a huge output, but he is reliable. Frankly, if you need cheering up, he's your guy.
The plots themselves are hair-brained situation comedies, not precisely what you'd call "realism" unless you happen to live in some drafty English country manner with your daffy butler and your main concerns are to discourage some maiden whom your Aunt Gertrude wants you to marry, but you most decidedly do not. Wodehouse once wrote that he thinks of his stories as musical comedies, but without the music -- which is a thin dime, admittedly. The plots are serviceable, but they are not what you remember about his books.
So what is so funny about P.G. Wodehouse? It's the language -- the beautiful, almost Shakespearian flow of extremely literate English that is tweaked in an almost superhuman fashion to make a person smile, titter . . . and, yes, laugh. No one alive today uses words like Wodehouse did.
Let me give you an example, fairly much at random, the opening paragraph of Right Ho, Jeeves:
"I don't know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I'm telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It's a thing you don't want to go wrong over, because one false step and you're sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you."
I know this paragraph well because I always read it to my students of fiction writing workshops that I teach from time to time -- starting a novel is a difficult business, and Wodehouse is giving excellent advice here. But the humor in this instance (and in nearly every paragraph he has ever written in all of his hundred books) is the tone. The poetry, if you will, of superbly silly speech. Always you have a sense of some daffy, over- cultured individual taking you aside in a most personal fashion and explaining the world in an easy fluency of British language that has rarely been equaled. Fantastically, Wodehouse hardly ever falters; he writes sentence after sentence like this of nearly giddy prose.
P.G. Wodehouse died in 1975 at the age of 93, but it is difficult to think of him as quite that modern. His is a gentle voice from a time of cultivation that is now long departed, when gentlemen were gentlemen, and ladies had little else to do but ensnare such gentlemen in their webs of matrimonial design, and only the butlers did any real work.
Yes, his books are short on realism; they are awfully silly, really, and not even slightly pertinent to our troubled times. But go ahead. Give yourself a treat. Escape the War on Terror, put Enron out of mind. To read P.G. Wodehouse is like stepping aboard a First Class ocean cruise in a time of innocence, without a single iceberg anywhere in sight.
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