Riffing Off Genius

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Sebastian Faulks’ homage to PG Wodehouse reveals why humour is serious business, easy to admire but hard to imitate

One of the most signal disservices to the craft of PG Wodehouse may have been done by PG Wodehouse himself. There are two ways to write novels, he famously said. One was to plunge like Tolstoy into the serious business of life; the other, his, was ‘making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether’. The contrast is vivid. It can suggest that Wodehouse simply tossed his novels off with minimal attention, relying on his genius to skip lightly from one book to the next. It doesn’t help matters that he is invariably categorised as a humorist, or that he wrote often to a formula, or that he cranked out nearly a hundred books over his lifetime. What a breeze this must all have been for him, a novitiate might conclude.

But this would be a grievous error.

Wodehouse’s best books—and many would qualify as such—will, after several careful readings, reveal plots wound firm and tight, without an ounce of flab to them. He laid down 20,000-word scenarios for 100,000-word novels; before he started a new book, he once told The Paris Review, he usually had 400 pages of notes. Wodehouse’s formula, such as it was, really resembled a theme in jazz, off which he could riff and to which he could return. The art is held within the variations: the assortment of dukes and butlers and aunts, the devices like the silver cow-creamer or the plush Mickey Mouse, the tangles of romance, the schemes for easy money, all delightful precisely because they’re familiar in notion but also fresh in detail. The balance is a hair-trigger one, and Wodehouse could never have sustained his trade without an iron discipline and a pitiless ability to edit himself.

For all its richness and virtuosity, Wodehouse’s language is similarly pared and lean, divested as far as possible of adverbs, powered by strong verbs and nouns, and with not a word wasted. ‘Every sentence has a job to do and—in spite of the air of lunatic irresponsibility which hangs around a Wodehouse novel—does it neatly and efficiently,’ the English historian Peter Quennell wrote in the 1940s.

Consider the dexterity of one of Wodehouse’s greatest hits—‘If he had a mind, there was something on it’—and the way in which it inverts a cliché, renders it funny, and still manages to tell us something of its subject’s muddle-headedness. Consider how plastic the English language is in Wodehouse’s deft hands: in his description of a silence as frappé; in Bertie Wooster’s once-over of a corn chandler ‘who was looking a bit fagged I thought, as if he had had a hard morning chandling the corn’; in the analysis of a grammar school’s assembly hall, where the air ‘was sort of heavy and languorous, if you know what I mean, with the scent of Young England and boiled beef and carrots.’ Or consider, finally, one of the most sublime sentences ever to open a novel, from The Luck of the Bodkins:

‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.’

Slice it which way you will, the sentence is unimprovable: in the precision of its information, in the austerity of its prose, and in the anticipation of high drama that dissolves into the bathos of the punchline. This is one of those Wodehouse constructions that appears as if it has been committed to the page, perfect and fully formed, by some benevolent divinity. Gratitude is not an uncommon reaction to Wodehouse’s ripest stuff.

My reactions to Sebastian Faulks’ Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, on the other hand, were decidedly mixed. Faulks is not to be blamed for wanting to have written this novel; for that, I think, we can reproach our collective greed as readers, for whom even a canon of a hundred books is proving insufficient. The Wodehouse Estate picked Faulks for his ability to send up the styles of other writers, as evidenced in his pastiche collection titled Pistache and in his James Bond revival Devil May Care. Faulks tackled the task manfully, acknowledging that Wodehouse was inimitable and that he could produce only a homage. Even this has proven a devilish challenge. Faulks is, as Wodehouse might have put it, more to be pitied than censured.

In its broadest strokes, Faulks’ plot motors into much-beloved terrain. With Jeeves in tow, Bertie hotfoots it out of a London infested with his Aunt Agatha and into a country manor named Melbury Hall, where a friend’s love life is in peril. An impersonation is required, although of a radical sort; it gives nothing away to say that Bertie acts as Jeeves’ valet, for this is how the novel begins. A cricket match is in the offing, as is a variety show in a village revel. A formidable quantity of money must be quickly raised through the usual Wodehouse methods: matrimony or an injudicious wager. So far, so familiar.

Under these placid waters, though, Faulks lets off a few depth charges.

These are considered decisions; rightly, Faulks has thought that an act of homage needs to be something more than plain mimicry, and he has deliberately broken a couple of Wodehouse’s strictest conventions.

For one, he punctures the hermetic atmosphere of Wodehouse’s idyllic universe, into which the real world never intruded to any noticeable extent. “His characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit,” Evelyn Waugh said of Wodehouse’s literature. “They are still in Eden.” Faulks, on the other hand, gives us a heroine whose parents died when a U-boat sank the RMS Lusitania in World War I. It is 1926, and people grumble about the general strike of that summer. A dinner party bickers for several pages over whether to give women the vote. In a moment of trepidation that he has lost the girl he loves, Bertie is revisited by a boyhood memory of his dog’s death. ‘I had confided more in this beast than any living creature thus far in my life, and my trust had been well founded,’ he mopes, sounding like a character out of Jack London.

Then there’s this question of Bertie’s love affair, a full-tilt devotion to a girl named Georgiana Meadowes and an honest desire for matrimony. It was a sine qua non of the Bertie Wooster novels that he remain a happy bachelor; early in the day, in fact, Jeeves even set this down as a pre-condition for his employment. And yet here is our narrator, only a few pages into the book, after a dinner with Georgiana goes well: ‘It was a pretty elated Bertram who, twenty minutes later, went for a stroll on the seafront, looking up at a bucketful of stars and hearing the natter of tree frogs in the pines.’ At a later point, Bertie tells Georgiana that hers is the face he wishes to see on the pillow every day. He may as well be writing vers libre.

If we cavil at Faulks’ departures from tradition, it is not because we abhor any tampering at all with Wodehouse, but because they gum up the aesthetics of a Wodehouse novel. His central characters—Bertie, or Lord Emsworth, or Ukridge—remain static, undeveloped nincompoops for the same reason that their world is set at a remove from ours. These tricks render the novels weightless and timeless, so that they can function in the realm of pure humour. Freed of the burden of Life, Wodehouse’s language and plot can mesh in smooth and fantastic ways. The sinking of the Lusitania or debate over women’s suffrage or prospect of genuine heartbreak can inject sour notes into a form that depends on sweetness for its levity.

In trying to match Wodehouse’s discipline and rigour, Faulks fares poorly on plot, and the story of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is stuffed with inefficiency. The descriptions of the cricket match and village fete drag their feet, their action confused and without rhythm. One resident at Melbury Hall, Dame Judith Puxley, performs no role at all. Little tendrils of narrative poke out of the main shoot, niggle at us as we read, but stay stunted till the end: the below-stairs machinations of a housekeeper; a footman given to drink; the threat of Aunt Agatha. Most unpardonably, Melbury Hall’s original pair of sundered hearts—belonging to Bertie’s friend Woody Beeching and his fiancée—is reunited not by one of Jeeves’ wheezes, but, rather tamely, by what looks like some earnest conversation and the passage of time. I couldn’t find a single comic moment that hovered between the surreal and the plausible, even though such moments were Wodehouse’s stock in trade.

In the aspect of language, however, Faulks displays a measure of inventiveness and an appreciation of Wodehouse’s methods, dropping only a few clunkers along the way. ‘If Hoad could best be described as inert, Beeching, P was about as ert as they come,’ he writes, winking at Wodehouse’s famous extraction of ‘gruntled’ from ‘disgruntled’. Faulks deploys the transferred epithet well: ‘I slid a cigarette from my case and sucked in a pensive lungful.’ He also gets off some fine gags of his own. ‘The Red Lion,’ he writes, ‘was a four-ale bar with a handful of low-browed sons of toil who looked as though they might be related to one another in ways frowned on by the Old Testament.’ Elsewhere, he describes a postal agent peering at Bertie ‘in a way I have grown used to over the years: as though I had been licensed for day release from some corrective institution, but only by a majority vote.’ The bite of that parting clause is satisfying, and it goes a little way towards making up for Faulks’ name for an Uttar Pradesh town where an old India hand is supposed to have served: ‘Chanamasala’.

So beguiling and wondrous is Wodehouse’s prose that it can often seem to be the sole ingredient in the magic of his books. Faulks’ novel shows how the language, even when done right, still requires a superstructure to support it.

Being funny is serious work. Wodehouse knew that; his greatest talent lay in masking his exertions, so that he could hand over to us only shining, seamless packages of joy.

Samanth Subramanian is the India correspondent for The National. He is working on a book on the Sri Lankan civil war