Sunday, November 21, 2010

Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

“I was trying to think who you reminded me of. Somebody who went about strewing ruin and desolation and breaking up homes which, until he came along, had been happy and peaceful. Attila is the man. It’s amazing. . . . To look at you one would think you were just an ordinary sort of amiable idiot–certifiable, perhaps, but quite harmless. Yet, in reality, you are a worse scourge than the Black Death. I tell you, Bertie, when I contemplate you I seem to come up against all the underlying sorrow and horror of life with such a thud that I feel as if I had walked into a lamp post.”

An effective farce is often described as being like clockwork. That is, all the wheels and gears are set in motion, one at a time, working independently but also, at the same time, pushing the other parts of the clock to better things. All these disparate pieces—gears, springs, wires—working together cause something to happen—In the case of the clock, to turn the hands; in the case of the farce, to build to a comedic climax. If this is indeed the criteria, then P. G. Wodehouse is undoubtedly the master of the literary farce. Exercising a writing style that is uniquely British and not too far removed from more mannered writers like Jane Austen, Wodehouse moves his characters like chess pieces, timing their interactions so that they all work together to deliver an appropriate payoff.

The dual lynchpins of Wodehouse’s Jeeves series, of which Right Ho, Jeeves is the second, are the narrator, the somewhat dim Bertie Wooster, and his brilliant, unflappable butler, Jeeves. Wooster essentially serves to set the gears in motion, and Jeeves works as sort of a pendulum, to extend the metaphor, making sure that, ultimately, everything runs in proper time.

The setup of Right Ho, Jeeves is simple: Wooster’s demanding Aunt Dahlia demands that he act as presenter at an awards ceremony to be held on her estate, and, in the parallel plotline, Jeeves is acting as counselor to Gussie Fink-Nottle, a newt-obsessed man who, though lacking social skills, has fallen in love with the strange Madeline, and needs Jeeves help to get everything working smoothly. From there, it gets more complicated, as Wooster forcibly takes over Gussie’s counseling, and manages to mess up everything.

I confess, Right Ho, Jeeves took some time to win me over. By their very nature, farces start out mildly amusing and build; with this in mind, the slow beginning wasn’t bad—Wodehouse has a very pleasant, easy-reading style—but it wasn’t really making me laugh much either. However, the build was impeccable, and by the time an inebriated Gussie is decides to use the awards presentation as a platform to drunkenly attack everyone present, I was laughing out loud.

I wouldn’t say Wodehouse is great literature, but I suspect it’s better than I thought it was initially—after all, haven’t we heard that drama is easy, but comedy is hard? It takes a certain sort of skill to write a funny book, and Wodehouse has it.