After mainlining seven PG Wodehouse books in a fortnight, I’ve had to go cold turkey – this stuff is just too addictive. Wodehouse wrote over 90 books in a long, long career, and if I hadn’t tried to go clean now, I would simply have had to continue reading them until I’d completed the oeuvre. Gradually, I would have neglected health and hygiene. I would have become lost to friends and family. I would have started stealing to support my habit, and in the end I would have been found lean and shivering in the gutter, blissfully happy. Better to make the clean break now, and ease myself back into his work at a later date, under strictly supervised and controlled conditions.
I can’t think why it took me so long to get to Wodehouse. I’ve long been a fan of Christopher Hitchens, for example, who has extolled the man’s virtues in innumerable reviews and articles. Evelyn Waugh was a fan too – indeed, in many ways Waugh’s early style can be seen as an affectionate subversion of PGW’s. Regardless, it only took a quick fix of the first Jeeves and Wooster omnibus to get me on to the really hard stuff – the Blandings stories. Jeeves and Wooster are by far the most famous of Wodehouse’s creations, but I think the farces set around Blandings Castle and the Earl of Emsworth’s extended family is the real ageless stuff. The story ‘Company for Gertrude’ is without doubt the funniest thing I have ever read; the Rev. Rupert ‘Beefers’ Bingham’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the earl so he’ll allow his niece to marry him is an object lesson in precision comedy, where incident and language combine seamlessly to produce something truly sublime.
It’s at the level of language that Wodehouse transcends his billing as a mere ‘comic’ novelist. Few writers have taken such pains over the construction of an English sentence, and it has always fascinated me that real comedy comes from an exactness of style rather than from comic incident. What happens is of far less importance than the way it is written. If I was to say that, in the above-mentioned story, ‘Beefers’ Bingham thinks Lord Emsworth is drowning in the lake when he is actually just taking a swim, and that his ham-fisted attempt to rescue the earl provokes him to anger, you may raise a dry smile. If I was to quote the key passage though, I defy you not to laugh out loud:
“He raged with a sense of intolerable injury. Was it not enough that this porous plaster of a man should adhere to him on shore? Must he even pursue him out into the waste of waters and come fooling about and pawing at him when he was enjoying the best swim he had had that summer? In all their long and honourable history no member of his ancient family had ever so far forgotten the sacred obligations of hospitality as to plug a guest in the eye. But then they had never had guests like this.”
In fact, even just copying that out has nearly sent me back to the Amazon wish list. It vexes me that the phrase ‘style over substance’ is supposed to be a criticism. In Wodehouse, as in so many of our greatest writers, the style is the substance, and is not in the least to be scorned for that.