Friday, July 17, 2009

The Inimitable Jeeves

The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse
1923, 224 pp.

P.G. Wodehouse was, as near as I can tell, the funniest man who has ever lived. Even the great Douglas Adams quailed at the 100-odd books in the Wodehouse’s oeuvre, all of them packed to bursting with jokes that absolutely leave you for dead. The “mentally negligible” Bertie Wooster and his all-knowing, indefatigable butler Jeeves are certainly Wodehouse’s most famous creations, thanks in no small part to the highly effective televised prostylizing of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, and here they are at their prime, delivering exactly what you want from P.G. Wodehouse.

Bertie Wooster is, like nearly all of Wodehouse’s protagonists, a member of the idle rich, lounging vaguely through life in a static world which strongly resembles inter-war London. Nothing ever changes in this world, no one ever suffers, and time never passes. Bertie is the first-person narrator of the Jeeves stories, which makes for an interesting verbal contrast. Most of the stories hinge on his absolute stupidity: he blunders into some mortifying social situation (generally he winds up engaged to someone, or several someones, or commits to going to a school play or something) and eventually Jeeves swoops in (generally demanding the destruction of some particularly atrocious article of Bertie's wardrobe) and solves everything with a single brilliant stroke. Bertie’s spoken dialogue consists mainly of imbecilic blurts like this: “What, ho? I say, I’m dashed, old cove!” or: “‘Hallo, hallo, hallo!’ I said, ‘What?’”

But for all that, his narration is ripe with the most startlingly hilarious similes in all of literature. Wodehouse chooses to write through Bertie’s eyes, so really the reader knows that it is Wodehouse who notices that someone “had a long face, like a sheep with a secret sorrow,” or that “aunt is calling to aunt like mastodons bellowing across a primeval swamps,” or that someone’s laugh sounds like “a cavalry charge across a metal bridge,” but since these words are given to Bertie’s narration, the reader gets a delightful sense that Bertie has a rich and beautiful inner life which he simply cannot express verbally. For all that, he has a terrific command of the definitive article. Everything is prefaced by “the,” so that his head is “the old bean,” or “the old cerebellum,” and when he has tea, it “lubricates the good old interior.” When he dances, he “shakes the old shoe,” and so forth. It’s funny as hell.

He has also conversations like this:

“This club,” I said, “is the limit.”
“It is the eel’s eyebrows,” agreed young Bingo. “I believe that old boy over by the window has been dead three days, but I don’t like to mention it to anyone.”
“I say, have you lunched yet?”

At any rate, The Inimitable Jeeves is something called a “semi-novel” collecting several Jeeves and Wooster stories into a vaguely chronological narrative. Generally, one chapter sets up a problem and ends on a cliffhanger, then the next chapter solves the problem and everything ends as it once was. The stories revolve around Bertie’s friend Bingo Little, who constantly and repeatedly falls in love with every woman he meets, each of them worse than the last. This of course gets him into awkward social situations, so he calls in his friend Bertie and the great polymath Jeeves to get him out. These are the sort of things which present major obstacles in Wodehouse’s universe: bets are taken on which local vicar will give the longest sermon, there are underhanded dealings regarding a three-legged race at the faire, a controversy over yellow shoes, a scandal involving pouring soda water on an Oxford tutor, and a scheme in which Bertie has to pose as a romantic novelist. To be pointlessly critical, the format is somewhat awkward, and does get repetative by about the eleventh story. Genuinely full-fleshed novels like The Code of the Woosters work better as a solid reading experience, but the semi-novel form lends more coherence than a simple collection of short stories. It also makes it easy to read a couple stories, then set the book down and wade through a history of modern Burma, then return without having to worry about what you'd forgotten.

If you insist, it is possible to drag some interesting observations out of Wodehouse’s stories. Despite being very much set in the world of the upper-class, imperial British age, his wealthy characters are by and large total idiots. Their servants are universally more interesting, more educated, and more competent, not to mention capable of interacting and forming friendships which are more genuine and less narcissistic and empty than those of their employers. Women tend to be stronger, more confident, and more ambitious than their indolent, waffling menfolk, and Wodehouse reserves a special scorn for fascists, who he ridicules at some length in The Code of the Woosters. But there is no reason to go dragging the mud of literary criticism through such a pristine construction. Wodehouse never fails to deliver. He is always entertaining, always funny, always good-natured, and is a reliable refreshment to energize the old brain and revitalize the old spirit to help the fatigued autodidact prepare for another round of stuffy lucubration. Wodehouse is always a more pleasant reading experience than anything else you could possibly be reading.

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